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OPINION: Southwest Virginia is perfectly primed for new data centers

OPINION: Southwest Virginia is perfectly primed for new data centers

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There’s some potentially good news on the job front for Southwest Virginia as a new study shows the region has exactly what it takes to attract data centers that could provide well-paying positions.

As the mountain areas struggle to replace jobs lost to the declining coal industry, economic development specialists have been touting two potentially large new job sources: tourism and data centers.

Tourism is, of course, a no-brainer, as our Southwest Virginia topography, including our beautiful mountains and clean, scenic rivers, are natural draws for visitors from outside the area — providing that we develop the resources to accommodate them.

Data centers should also be seen as a good fit for the region, and the new study — conducted on behalf of GO Virginia Region One and funded by its InvestSWVA public-private marketing initiative — validates that idea.

Will Payne, managing partner of Coalfield Strategies and project lead for InvestSWVA, said the study shows the region is a “prime location” for data centers.

Data centers could be especially attractive, as the study’s analysis suggests that even just one large center could bring nearly 100 permanent jobs and more than $50 million in annual economic benefit, according to a recent story in the Washington County News.

There also is the potential of up to 2,000 temporary jobs during construction of each center, bringing about $233 million into the local economy, the study said.

Southwest Virginia has a number of specific assets that could prove valuable in recruiting data centers to the area, the study found.

It concluded that our region could “become a location of choice for data centers based on power and broadband infrastructure and the availability of geothermal cooling technology with the billions of gallons of water collected in underground mines as an energy and cost-savings tool,” according to a written statement.

Availability of land and a ready workforce also were identified as key assets.

Surprisingly, some of the region’s abandoned mine sites could provide some of the necessary resources to accommodate the operations of large data centers, the study said.

“Reinventing our economy can include reusing our existing infrastructure,” U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th, said in the statement.

“The water pooled in abandoned mine sites could serve industrial operations requiring substantial water use, such as data centers,” he said. “This innovation would be a way to draw economic opportunities to Southwest Virginia.”

The study also identified six potential sites for larger data centers.

They include the Oak Park Center in Washington County; Lonesome Pine Regional Business and Technology Park in Wise County; Progress Park in Wythe County; Red Onion industrial site in Dickenson County; the Sunbright mine site in Scott County; and Wildwood Commerce Park in Carroll County, the story said.

In addition, four other locations were mentioned as possibilities for smaller centers, including the Bluestone Regional Business and Technology Center in Tazewell; Southern Gap Business Park in Buchanan County; Project Intersection in Norton; and a Tennessee Valley Authority-certified site in Scott County.

“Local, state and federal leaders have been working tirelessly to attract economic development to Southwest Virginia, and data centers are a hot topic as we look to bring more jobs here,” state Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, said in the story.

“Data centers provide a unique opportunity to modernize our economy, bring 21st-century jobs to our region and leverage some of our strongest assets, including land and sustainability,” he added.

Now that these assets have been identified and verified, it’s up to our regional governments and economic development leaders to move forward in sharing what Southwest Virginia has to offer with those who can make these data centers happen.

The time is ripe, and the need is real.

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