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  • Stephen Jordan

Developing a Distributed Economy for Virginia

Originally published as an opinion piece in the "Cardinal News" by ISD CEO, Stephen Jordan

Interstate 81 near the Botetourt-Roanoke county line. Photo by Dwayne Yancey

In his column “Four questions for the next governor”, Dwayne Yancey says his goal is to close the income disparities between the urban crescent and the rest of the state. I would submit a friendly amendment and suggest that the goal should be how to develop a broad-based economy so that no matter where you are you can enjoy a good quality of life and a decent income.

This used to be known as the “German model” and Dwight Eisenhower instigated the Interstate Highway system precisely for this reason. Nothing against the wealth and power of Chicago and New York, rather it was focused on making sure you could make a good life in the rest of the states too.

So the first step has to be to strengthen the connectivity of Southside and Southwest Virginia to key markets. U.S. 58 needs to be upgraded and “smartened.” I-81 needs to be “smartened” and expanded or other transportation and logistics options need to be explored to take the pressure off of it. Some diplomacy needs to be put in place to better connect to Nashville, Memphis, Louisville, Cincinnati and Chicago on the one hand, and Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Birmingham on the other.

If you did this, with all of the coal equipment manufacturing knowledge base, the Virginia Tech engineering campus as a hub, and the ability to ship to both continental markets and down to the Gulf on the one hand, and ship out to the Atlantic and global markets on the other, why wouldn’t you want to site somewhere between Bristol, Blacksburg and Danville?

Just as you have to strengthen logistics connectivity to markets, you also have to strengthen rural broadband and general “smartness” – embracing technology and developing tech solutions to address connectivity challenges up and down the Appalachian spine.

Third, we need to reconceptualize the southern Virginia economy and get away from seeing it as extractive first. The British saw Virginia as a source for resources – coal, tobacco, agriculture products, and for too long many parts of the state saw themselves in the same way. We exported raw materials to other places to add value to them. What we really need to figure out is how to reconfigure our economy so that we take advantage of our port, our mountains, our knowledge base, and our people’s abilities so that the south and southwest flourish in relationship to Hampton Roads (and Memphis) in the same way that the south and southwest of England (the richest part) have flourished in relationship to London.

Then, instead of having to tax the urban crescent and put them down, they will want to invest in the U.S. 58 and I-81 corridor and lift it up.

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