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Saving Southside

In “No Salvaging The Mill Towns,” James Bacon, proprietor of Bacon’s Rebellion, writes cheerily of the path ahead for the Virginia Tobacco Commission. And a good day to you, too!

 

As a citizen of Bacon’s forsaken — my hometown is South Boston, pop. 8,115 (est.) — I speak with some confidence that his message is about as welcome hereabouts as week-old road kill in the driveway.

 

Seriously: what elected official or ordinary citizen for that matter in Southside or Southwest Virginia is just going to throw up his hands, admit all is lost, and leave the place for dead? No one, of course. Certainly no one sitting on a $1 billion kitty that was set aside to restore the two regions to economic health, as the politicians and their politically connected friends who sit on the Virginia Tobacco Commission are charged with doing.

 

But Bacon has touched on something important here. While no one is willing to concede defeat in any one of the 41 towns, counties and cities served by the Commission, no one has really figured out how to revitalize these communities, either. If you look at the Tobacco Commission’s 10-year history, you’ll find one unadulterated success story – Danville’s comeback after the loss of Dan River Fabrics – and even then, it’s an open question how much the Commission should be credited for sparking the turnaround.

 

In sticking up for the mill towns I can’t speak for Southwest Virginia; I can’t speak for Southside Virginia, either, although I will say there’s a pervasive sense in my home region that whatever the Tobacco Commission is doing, it isn’t nearly enough. It’s certainly easier than ever to obtain a degree certificate from one of the local community colleges or higher education centers that the Tobacco Commission supports. But where are the jobs?

 

This Virginia Business magazine article from four years ago offers a telling anecdote: a Southwest Virginia woman, hoping for something more than a life on the farm, earned her master’s degree in education at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center. Sheepskin in hand, she stepped out into the world looking for work commensurate with her newly acquired skills. Her search lasted a long, long time. A position finally opened up at the same higher education center where the woman got her degree, and she ended up administering the same scholarship program that allowed her to attend in the first place, in what proved to be a happy ending for all.

 

But how many more such upbeat stories can possibly exist?

 

Bacon argued last month that the Tobacco Commission must recognize and plan for the effects of high energy prices on traditional settlement patterns and rural economic development. He may well be right about the pervasiveness of the energy question – I have no idea – but I would argue the main challenge facing the Tobacco Commission is somewhat different.

 

Brilliant strategies and focused investments are all well and fine as long as you’ve got the requisite assets to work with, but Southside and Southwest lack the most important ingredient for successful economic development: well-educated, forward-looking communities, with all that implies.

 

In this you can put me squarely in the camp of the Blue Ribbon Review Commission, which recently weighed in with an assessment of the Tobacco Commission that, to put it charitably, was not glowing.

 

“[E]ducation from preschool to high school and beyond high school is the future of Southside and Southwest Virginia. No miles of highways constructed, no tens of thousands of feet of water or sewer lines laid, nor any number of industrial park buildings erected can change this,” the panel argued. Amen.

 

Yes, I’ve heard the rejoinder: all you do when you improve your schools is give your kids a better shot at getting a college education – and a one way ticket out of town. And the alternative is?

 

Halifax County, where I live, has a serious problem in the demography-is-destiny department: Fewer than one in ten adults has a four-year college degree, while more than one in three hasn’t finished high school.

 

When the mill towns were humming with activity this state of affairs might have been tolerable, but obviously this is no longer true. In talking about mill towns we sometimes fail to appreciate everything that was lost when the jobs dried up and the factories packed up for overseas. Apart from the obvious impact on household budgets and bank accounts, the sheer fact that people no longer reported to work each day eroded lots of things: community ties, friendships, a sense of self-reliance, hope itself.

 

I walk around my little town seeing homes that are no longer kept up and streets that are dead except at night. Things have been hollowed out from within. And the workforce? Let’s just say it can be hard to maintain a work ethic when there’s no actual work to be found.

 

The Tobacco Commission’s response to this state of affairs has been three-fold: (1) entice new companies to set up shop in Southside and Southwest by offering a variety of incentives and upgrading local infrastructure, (2) import a highly-educated class by creating a research presence in the region, and (3) boost job training and adult education opportunities. Of course, there’s always (4), throwing away money on pork, junk and pet projects that only a politician could love, but we won’t dwell on that one for now.

 

The first two strategies — which, in crass terms, equate to corporate welfare and diploma trolling — have yielded some successes, but it’s generally been hit or miss stuff, and costly, too. The Tobacco Commission just voted to spend nearly $37 million on six energy-related research and development projects, with lots more spending on many of these same R&D initiatives to come. (It’ll be interesting to see how the state of Virginia fares picking up the operating expenses of some of these Tobacco Commission research initiatives; the commission does bricks and mortars, not payroll and support).

 

Missing in this orgy of spending was a thorough prior review of what the Commission has gotten so far for its dime; members like to talk about how bad off Southside and Southwest would be without their intervention, but they’re more reticent when someone suggests a performance audit of their work.

 

Of course, by its very nature the Tobacco Commission is a top-down organization, with a top-down strategy for economic development, and if the results haven’t reached the bottom-up segment of the population, well, what’s to be done about that?

 

In fairness, the Tobacco Commission has funded some excellent scholarship and adult education programs, thus addressing some of the educational deficits that plague Southside and Southwest. It’s just not been nearly enough.

 

The Blue Ribbon Review Panel, headed by former Gov. Gerald Baliles, lays out the argument for Tobacco Commission spending on education in exhaustive detail (the report is available online), so I won’t repeat its work here. Suffice it to say that this recommendation stands in opposition to the main focus of the Tobacco Commission since its founding.

 

Interestingly, the Blue Ribbon panel not only pleads with the Tobacco Commission to make targeted investments in education from pre-K to graduate school, it also identifies health care as an area where Southside and Southwest are sorely in need in help.

 

One can argue whether the Commission is truly equipped to take on this massive stab at social rehabilitation, but in taking stock of our swath of rural Virginia the Baliles panel seems to grasp the needs of the people a lot better than the regions’ elected and appointed representatives on the Tobacco Commission.

 

How can Southside and Southwest be revived? Lots of things potentially could work. The trick always is knowing which ones. Commission members find a rigorous audit threatening because it likely will point out the folly of relying on best laid plans in an economic world that is changing all the time.

 

But some constants remain: People have got to get an education to get a decent job, communities must provide strong schools to support a workable economic development strategy, and entire generations of workers and their families can’t be written off or gentrified out of existence.

 

If nothing else, spending a substantial portion of the Tobacco Commission’s resources on education and health care would improve the lot of thousands of Southside and Southwest families, now and into the future. Will many of the Tobacco Commission’s current spending priorities accomplish the same?

 

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