By JOHNNY BUCK - Bulletin Staff Writer
Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling attended the Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday in part to market the region for economic development.
“We’ve got a group of, I guess, eight or nine site-selection consultants from all over the country in to help educate them a little bit about what Southern Virginia has to offer in terms of economic development and job opportunities,” said Bolling from the infield of the speedway before the start of the TUMS Fast Relief 500. “... This is the second year that we’ve done this type of economic-development retreat, and I think it’s been a great weekend.”
The weekend, which included a stay at Primland in Patrick County, was the latest of several trips Bolling has made to the area in his role as chief jobs creation officer.
Roughly two years ago, Gov. Bob McDonnell pledged that either he or Bolling would visit the Southside area at least once every 30 days in an effort to spur job growth. On Sunday, Bolling said they continue to honor that pledge, though he couldn’t immediately recall the last time he visited the region.
“I think we’ve proven true to the promise of putting a lot of attention and a lot of focus on Southern Virginia and on rural economic development. And I’m pleased with the progress that we’ve made,” he said.
He cited the creation of the Southern Virginia Regional Alliance, a marketing partnership between Henry, Patrick, Pittsylvania and Halifax counties and the cities of Martinsville and Danville. The alliance “is going to well-position this region for future economic growth,” Bolling said.
Although he didn’t name specifics, Bolling said, “We’ve got a number of good projects in the pipeline that I think you’ll be hearing about over the next several months. We’re going to have a very aggressive legislative agenda again this year to help advance some of the rural economic development strategies that we have.”
Bolling also expressed satisfaction with Virginia’s overall economic progress since McDonnell’s term began in January 2010.
“According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, we’ve created about 34,000 net new jobs in Virginia in the last two years. We’ve brought our (statewide) unemployment rate down from 7.2 percent to 6.5 percent. We’re doing much better than almost any other state in the country right now,” he said. “But unemployment’s an absolute thing. If you’re out there looking for a job and you can’t find one, your unemployment rate’s 100 percent. So we’re not going to quit working until we get to where we want to be.”
Bolling pointed to a pair of recent accolades for the commonwealth. About six months ago, CNBC named Virginia the “top state in America for business,” he said. Roughly three months later, Helena Commercial Real Estate declared Virginia the most “pro-business state in America,” he said.
“We’ve invested over a $100 million in proven economic development and job creation programs in the last two years alone. So I think the effort that we’re making is paying off, and I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made, but we all realize that we have a lot of work left to be done,” he said.
Unemployment rates in Southside are higher than the state average, with Martinsville’s rate in August 19.4 percent.
Bolling said he believes the governor will protect economic development initiatives even if he is forced to make cuts to balance the state budget. McDonnell has directed many state agencies to submit budget reduction proposals in the amounts of 2, 4 and 6 percent.
“What I suspect will happen is that, you know, budgets are always about priorities, so what I suspect will happen is that we will choose to invest more in some areas, like economic development,” Bolling said. “That may mean that we have less to spend in other areas, so we’re going to have to make some difficult choices. But at this point, the 2-, 4- and 6-percent budget reduction plans we’ve asked for are precautionary, and we’ll know better as we approach the release of the budget in December whether or not those plans will have to be implemented, and if so, to what degree they’re going to have to be implemented and what agencies they might impact,” he said.