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OPINION: What would Southwest Virginia get out of Growth4VA?

OPINION: What would Southwest Virginia get out of Growth4VA?

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Southwest Virginia has legitimate reason to look askance at initiatives that claim to benefit the entire state — as, in practice, “the entire state” often turns out to actually mean Northern Virginia.

Going back decades, politicians in both parties have made clear — and occasionally stated explicitly — that they see the urban crescent of Northern Virginia as the cash cow and Southwest and Southside Virginia as the cash-strapped ne’er-do-wells that always need handouts.

There’s an argument to be made that the Democrat Party doubled down on this maxim at the state level to the point that it cost them the governor’s mansion this month. Conservative voters in rural Southwest and Southside turned out in record numbers that helped tip the neck-and-neck race to Glenn Youngkin.

One of the many what-ifs that will never be answered: Suppose the Democrat-controlled General Assembly had demonstrated any interest at all in fixing up deteriorating school systems in rural counties?

Though the Virginia Senate passed Republican-sponsored, bipartisan-supported measures in 2021 that could have in theory, after many steps, unlocked $3 billion in funds to save schools that are falling apart in rural and even in inner city communities, the House of Delegates, led by a phalanx of Northern Virginia Democrats, killed these proposals in committee.

Had they gone forward, could these measures have provided some counterweight to the perception, fair or not, that when it comes to schools, Democrats only cared about making curricula more “woke”?

A what-next question that will get an answer soon is whether Northern Virginia denizen Youngkin will remember the debt he owes this region for his victory.

All of these factors will be simmering in the stew when the General Assembly meets in January. Youngkin and the Republican-controlled House, if they’re as concerned about K-12 education as they claim, need to drop any nonsense about the supposed teaching of “critical race theory” and put the repairing and improving of school facilities in rural counties back on the table.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle also need to take a clear-eyed look at the Growth4VA initiative, developed by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, aimed at creating an unprecedented level of vital statewide collaboration between higher education and business.

(Had Terry McAuliffe won reelection as governor and Democrats kept control of the House, we’d be advocating for these same basic things.)

We’ve discussed before what the backers of Growth4VA aim to accomplish. They want to set up college programs across the state called “talent pathways” tailored to directly meet what Virginia industries need most in their employees. Through these programs, they want every Virginia college student to have an opportunity for a paid internship that could lead to a job in-state. They also want to make college more affordable for Virginia’s lower- and middle-income families.

Let’s circle back to the issue we raised at the start. Will Growth4VA directly benefit Southwest Virginia?

“One of the reasons I get involved in things like this is to remind everyone west of Richmond, ‘The state’s a lot bigger than you think,’” said Nancy Agee, VBHEC vice chair and chief executive officer of Roanoke-headquartered Carilion Clinic, the largest private employer in western Virginia. “We actually have more colleges and universities in our region than any other part of the state.”

Agee serves as chair of the Virginia Growth and Opportunity Board that oversees the business-led initiative GO Virginia, which compiles data on regional business needs that would drive the development of Growth4VA talent pathways.

“Southside and the Southwest, and actually the Northern Neck, if you really look at the demography of the state in terms of economic development, those three areas really are not where they need to be economically,” said VBHEC President Don Finley. “This particular plan means more to those areas, has more promise for them, than anything that has come to the attention of the state leaders before.”

Finley noted that the Virginia Chamber of Commerce is also a partner in the Growth4VA campaign, which means that local chambers and business leaders in every region get to have a say in how their parts of the Growth4VA program work. “Leaders across the state and every part of the state can make this happen and regionalize it and make it do something for every region.”

The campaign’s ambition to make higher education more affordable and accessible also directly benefits Southwest Virginia and other rural regions. “Obviously you need higher education to be affordable if it’s going to produce the talent that’s needed,” Finley said.

The $880 million proposal would designate $300 million to support degrees in career fields like health care that urgently need more workers — Carilion, for example, needs nurses, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, radiology techs and more — and $580 million for financial aid for students and institutions.

“What areas of the state have the least local affluence to pay a high tuition? Southwest, Southside, Northern Neck,” Finley said. “This is going to give the kind of promise and the delivery to those areas that has been lacking.”

The organizers of Growth4VA stress a need to raise state support of college education from the 50% it is now to the 67% percent called for in the Top Jobs Act of 2011.

Virginia’s $2.6 million budget surplus combined with millions in federal COVID-19 relief aid make this the perfect time for Virginia to act.

“We’re recommending, let’s take that big giant step and truly invest in education for marketable jobs and credentials,” Agee said.

There’s a chance here to lay foundations for economic good fortune throughout Virginia’s rural regions, something any reasonable politician should want, regardless of whether they’re striped red or blue.

“This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue,” Agee said. “This is an opportunity.”

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