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To bring jobs, think regional IDA board told

Jerry Gwaltney, executive director at the Institute For Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, brought a clear, concise message to the Halifax County Industrial Authority Board of Directors Friday morning.

“The Institute is a regional facility, and all I can give you is my word on that,” he told authority members during their regular monthly meeting at Riverstone.

Gwaltney, a longtime economic development leader and former Danville city manager, recently came out of retirement to assume the director’s position at the Institute to get it back “on its original track” by rebuilding relationships.

At the board’s invitation, he told directors about the Institute’s new focus on regionalization as the authority considers entering into a memorandum of understanding with the neighboring facility to work together to attract jobs to the area.

According to Gwaltney,
originally the Institute was envisioned to be “a regional facility” serving counties from Mecklenburg to Patrick.

However, it never reached that mission for which it was developed, he told authority directors.

Since assuming the helm, Gwaltney said he along with four other “regionally-oriented” people have been hired and placed in leadership positions at the Institute to ensure the facility will work toward the original regionalized mission of attracting jobs to all areas of Southside Virginia.

In addition to Gwaltney, others employed at the Institute include:

Leigh Cockram, director of business development and strategic initiatives;

 Michael Dunn, director of research and commercialization;

 Steve Bridges, director of economic development; and

 Julie Brown, director of advanced learning.

The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research engages in research, education and conferencing to achieve economic development. 

These five experts focus on finding marketable innovation, preparing tomorrow’s workforce; and helping entrepreneurs, growers and educators become better-connected and more effective.

Research at the Institute involves renewable resources, agriculture and horticulture, sustainable chemistry and polymers and composites, Gwaltney explained. 

Advanced learning spans K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs, graduate and post-graduate research, professional development for educators and lifelong learning. 

The Institute also operates a full-service conference center utilized by residents of Southern Virginia and beyond for meetings, events and dining.

Since the Institute’s reorganization, Gwaltney said Bridges has been on the road one week out of every month scouting prospects who he has brought back to the area.

“They had no idea of what is here in Southside, and they marvel at what they see,” he said referring to the Southern Virginia Technology Park at Riverstone, the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center and Innovation Center in South Boston and the Institute for Advanced Learning in Danville.

He described the perception of “ruralness” of the Southside area and the lower educational attainment as major weaknesses for attracting industry here.

The Institute’s primary focuses are on improving the educational attainment of the area workforce and increasing awareness of what opportunities are available in Southside Virginia.

Rebuilding working relationships with Virginia Tech is another huge part of the Institute’s plan moving forward, Gwaltney explained. Bringing in the kind of resources and projects that Virginia Tech offers will not only help the Institute, but it will help promote regional economic development by offering incentives for new businesses to locate in Southside.

As the Institute continues to promote all of Southside, Gwaltney said his intent in this process is to make sure the New College Institute in Martinsville, Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, Danville Community College, Averett University, Patrick Henry Community College and others work together as educational partners to train and educate a workforce that will be available for targeted industries that economic developers are trying to attract to Southside.

Partnering with local educators is a key component to aiding economic growth, something the Institute should have been doing all along, he added.

He listed advanced manufacturing, wood and forest, automotive and aerospace industries as a few targeted prospects for the area.

“We are working with Steve Bridges to make sure he has the right story to tell these prospects,” Gwaltney added.

Another focus involves increasing the per capita income of the area’s populace that now stands at $29,000 annually.

 “We can work with you, and we are ready to serve you,” he continued, reiterating the Institute’s focus on promoting a cooperative regionalization concept.

“I can assure you our research and economic development staff understands it is a new day. We are working under a whole new and different concept (of regionalization). We want to take this thing back (the Institute) and make it work as it was meant to,” he continued.

Gwaltney said he realized in order to make surrounding jurisdictions have faith in the Institute’s newly found regionalization concept, trust must be rebuilt.

An “amazing weakness” of the area involves a “territorial attitude” that counties and cities have held for so long, he said.

“We need to develop an attitude that we have to work with each other. Right now we’re not playing off each other’s strengths. If this region brings all its good qualities together, then we’ll have a real winner.

“I feel good about this redirection, and we are beginning to see the benefits from it,” he added.

Gwaltney assured the authority that in an effort to make the Institute’s board have a more regional flavor, appointments of new trustees would be made from “this end and the other end” referring to Halifax County and Patrick County, the outlying areas of the Southside footprint.

Currently the majority of the Institute’s trustees live in the Danville area.

“Trust us. Give us an opportunity. Call on us and test us if you need to. The IALR can be an enhancement, and if you will do this, I think we all can win,” he concluded.

In other action Friday morning, authority directors approved the annual audit and were reminded of a public information meeting to be held Monday evening at 5 p.m. with Dominion Power in the Riverstone conference room.

The meeting will provide an opportunity for property owners who may be affected by the addition of a permanent power line to Riverstone running along the west side of Highway 58.

The routing of a second permanent power source to Riverstone Technology Park is necessary to best position the county to attract new business and industry, according to Authority Executive Director Matt Leonard.

Dominion Virginia Power representatives will attend the informational meeting to assist in answering questions.