Ag, Broadband, I-81, Workforce Discussed
By IAN MUNRO
Daily News-Record 8/9/19
WEYERS CAVE — Local business owners, regional elected officials, and Valley economic development professionals gathered for the seventh annual Valley Business Summit on Thursday at the Robert E. Plecker Workforce Center at Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave.
Bettina Ring, the secretary of agriculture and forestry for Virginia, gave the keynote presentation during the event’s opening ceremony, touching on subjects such as agriculture and broadband.
“We know we can grow agriculture by 18% in the state if we have [broadband] in the places across the state,” Ring said in an interview after the address.
The internet is a major economic driver that affects education and high-tech agriculture processes in rural communities, she said. Broadband, the transmission of information using frequencies, can bring that service to communities that otherwise would not have access to the internet, Ring said.
Taking care of the dairy community is also a major concern for the state government, Ring said.
“There has been discussion about tax credits and how those can be used or triggered,” she said. “We’re having discussions around how do we best support that.”
The state government is continuing to work with local governments and federal bodies such as the Department of Agriculture, Ring said.
Rockingham County is the largest producer of milk in the state, making 543.2 million pounds in 2016, according to data from the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association. Franklin County, the second largest milk producer in the state, lagged far behind, making 194.5 million pounds in 2016.
A sector of the rural economy is returning to the state as live thoroughbred horse racing commences at Colonial Downs in New Kent, Ring said.
“Now people are wanting to breed their horses here,” she said. “So it keeps area farms intact and there is a lot of history with horses [in Virginia].”
The track had its first thoroughbred horse race in six years on Thursday, according to the Colonial Downs website.
Ring, who was appointed to the position in 2017 by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, thanked the local Republican elected officials for inviting her to speak.
Dels. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, Ronnie Campbell, R-Bath, and Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, answered guests’ questions about pressing issues in the Commonwealth during another section of the day’s events.
Del. Richard “Dickie” Bell, R- Staunton, could not attend the summit.
Some of these topics included Interstate 81, workforce concerns, and forthcoming legislation.
The delegates all agreed something had to be done about I-81.
“We have a plan. It may not be the best plan in the world, but at least we have a plan and we can move forward with I-81,” Campbell said.
Landes initially introduced the legislation with Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, to fund the I-81 improvements through tolls.
“I thought the original plan was better from my estimation, but I’m glad we got something done,” Landes said. “In the final result, something had to be done.”
Wilt and Obenshain will be on the newly created I-81 committee, which meets next week in Lexington.
On workforce solutions, Landes spoke about increased initiatives in high school to get young people toward working in high-demand fields and Wilt talked about increasing the supply of work visas for foreign workers.
Campbell said he would reintroduce legislation to stop nonpayment of wages after hearing stories of employees not being paid for a week of work.
In the 2019 session, he introduced this in the form of HB 2524, which was left in the Courts of Justice on Feb. 5.
“This bill did real good in committee and subcommittee, but when it hit the House floor it was like someone throwed a bomb,” Campbell said.
Wilt also said he would also bring back a piece of legislation, HB 2443 — which would allow groups such as Realtors to group together to buy insurance.
HB 2443 was vetoed by Northam on May 2 after being passed by the House of Delegates 67-31 on Feb. 5 and the Senate 29-11 on Feb. 14, according to data from Virginia’s Legislative Information System.
What I’m hoping to do, working with the interested parties, is going back and working with governor between now and the beginning of the 2020 session,” Wilt said. “Being able to sit down with him and say ‘Really, where can we find consensus and move the measure forward?’” In other business, Landes also presented the Shirley B. Gordon Award of Distinction to John Downey, the president of Blue Ridge Community College, as a result of a joint resolution passed in Richmond.
Downey was the only Virginia college president to earn the Shirley B. Gordon Award of Distinction in 2019. The award is presented to presidents or campus CEOs of colleges who “who have fostered academic achievement, leadership, and service among the students on their campuses,” according to the resolution.