Piedmont Horizons: ‘I love what is possible’

The 2013 Class of LEAD VIRGINIA toured Southern Virginia in May. The area known as “South Side” is being rebranded. This part of the Commonwealth was once a rich economic powerhouse in Virginia, when the tobacco and textile industries were in full swing. In fact Danville was known as having the most millionaires per capita in the USA at one time. South Side Virginia was rich in jobs and prosperity, however, there was an underlying vulnerability.
In the last decade the area has lost approximately 40,000 jobs. Between the social/legal shifts in tobacco issues and the export of textile jobs to low wage foreign countries, the area was left with overwhelming challenges. In the wake of the economic blows, weak underpinnings of the economy became more clear.

One of the challenges to surface was the culture of lower learning. Considering much of the workforce held jobs in factories and fields, the educational level required was not more than a high school education. Many families encouraged their children to quit high school for the alluring wage of the factories. In fact, most employers did not support the pursuit of higher education. The result was a workforce less prepared to adapt in shifting to the higher skilled jobs of today.
Given the challenges of jobs and workforce education, it would appear that South Side would be known for high unemployment and a rural environment with unfavorable economic prospects.
Why would LEAD VIRGINIA invest two and a half days touring this area?

New and emerging
The Honorable Senator Ruff, Virginia Senate – 15th District put it well in our opening session – paraphrased – The South Side that was, is being transformed, and South Side is a new and emerging economy in Virginia. We are now referred to it as the new “Southern Virginia.”
As we toured the area, the preconceived notions of South Side were truly transformed into an envy and admiration for the strides made in the last decade. The economy in Southern Virginia is poised to “Leap Frog” out of the past into the lead as a sustainable economic powerhouse. How could this happen? As Laurie Moran of the Danville Chamber of Commerce put it, “We want a sustainable economy, and we are going to build it.” The leadership of the area is well coordinated and passionate. What have they done to advance this vision? Our tour would reveal the answers.
First, we visited the renovated Berry Hill Resort and Conference Center whose roots go back to the land grants of the early colonists in Virginia. While there, we learned of the challenges of the tobacco industry and the emerging opportunities in agriculture in the region. We were also treated to a concert by Wayne Henderson and Jeff Little, who played the rich music born of the Southern Virginia Appalachias. Look them up, there is nothing quite like it.
The next day, we visited the Prizery in South Boston. An Arts and Cultural Center, built in a remodeled warehouse, bringing world class shows to inspire the region. The facility hosts a variety of educational partnerships with local schools to allow students of all ages to see and experience the arts first hand.

New networks, new connections
We then traveled to the Riverstone Technology Park , located in Halifax County, the park is part of a long term plan to diversify the economy. It is a 165 acre park focused on IT, biotechnology, telecommunications, and technical manufacturing. The presentation included comments from the Industrial Development Authority Executive Director, Matt Leonard. Most impressive were the comments by Tad Deriso, President & CEO, Mid Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation, known as MBC. The company was set up as a non-profit organization funded to bring high speed internet to Southern Virginia. Ironically, the dark fiber out of Loudoun County, fed through Culpeper, supplies the primary backbone for the new broadband lines. The prolific network diagram resembles the wiring of a brain across Southern Virginia. Perhaps a metaphor for what is to come.
We were then offered a tour of the Virginia International Raceway. Having lived in Virginia all of my life, this was new to me. Where have I been? This is the playground for the rich and famous in the world of racing. The day that we were there was Porsche day. The course winds through the hills of Alton, VA on the border of North Carolina. We toured the only car manufacturer in Virginia at the raceway. They build the Ariel Atom which is able to achieve 0 to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds. On my bucket list is a $525 Ariel Atom driving experience at the VIR.
We went on to Danville to hear presentations by leaders in the community on workforce, economic development, and health care. We met at the The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, focusing on finding marketable innovation, preparing tomorrow’s workforce, and helping entrepreneurs, growers and educators become better-connected and more effective. We had two presentations on innovation, one on biology and one on energy. Both very impressive. I noted one farm from Culpeper was involved in some of the research. We finished the day with a reception at the home of the Averett University President for dinner and networking.

The revelation of the new Southern Virginia continued with an early trip to the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center. Having been completely impressed, so far, I was thinking that this would be similar to some of the other locations on the trip. However, stadium seating, state of the art equipment, and one of the most impressive educational facilities for workforce training left me asking, how?
I want this for Culpeper. We were privileged to meet with the executive director to learn about the facility and the community leadership that put it together.
Needless to say, my view of Southern Virginia is transformed. As I spoke to the director of a foundation supporting projects in Southern Virginia, I asked why he does what he does so passionately. His answer, because “I love what is possible.” The leadership in Southern Virginia is an example of “What is possible” ― a lesson in leadership for the Commonwealth.
President and CEO of the Culpeper Chamber of Commerce Jim Charapich is one of 51 invited to participate in this unique statewide program, LEAD Virginia. Contact Jim at jimc@culpeperchamber.com