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'County Well Positioned For Future'

Halifax County has and is facing tough times, but has positioned itself well for future growth and opportunities.

That was the message five speakers delivered during the ‘State of the Community’ luncheon Wednesday at Riverstone Technology Park, each offering their unique perspective on the opportunities and challenges facing the community.

Speaking first was Chamber of Commerce Chairman Nookie Green addressing the state of business in the county.

Green said the recession that has slammed the national economy has trickled down to the local level while acknowledging that Southside has been struggling for some time with the decline in manufacturing, textiles and the tobacco industries.

“Many customers are being prudent spending their money,” Green said.  “Local businesses confirm this.”

Green said he spoke with several bankers, and they said they are seeing some commercial activity because of the current favorable rates.

On the residential side there is a wave of refinancing taking place as homeowners also look to take advantage of low rates.  And many contractors are seeing more homeowners do renovations and additions rather than try and sell their home.

“Residential building permits are down 38 percent,” he said.  “There is a lot of remodeling work being done.”

According to Green, several of the area’s larger contractors are going out of the area to bigger communities to find work to get through the recession.

Green also noted that not all the news from the business community is negative.

“Everything is not negative, a lot of businesses, large and small, are doing well,” Green said.

One good thing to come from the downturn is that more local people are shopping in the community rather than driving out of town to shop.

“We are a resilient community,” Green concluded.  “Halifax is poised and ready to grow.”

Next Halifax Regional Health System CEO Chris Lumsden addressed the state of health care in the community.

Halifax Regional, like many industries, had a tough 2008 fiscal year, but the health system’s plan of “disciplined growth” has not changed, according to Lumsden.

In fact, the health system’s growth and diversification has helped it weather the downturn, Lumsden said.

HRHS employs roughly 1,200 people, according to the CEO and offers services and has facilities in three counties, Halifax, Charlotte and Mecklenburg.

The number of doctors also has increased to 125 doctors with 28 specialties being offered.

According to Lumsden, recruiting talent remains a high priority for HRHS, and he is pleased with all the community has to offer which has helped the hospital attract doctors to the area.

“Doctors can choose where they want to work,” Lumsden said.  “And we’ve been successful at attracting talent.”

Lumsden also spoke about the importance of Medicare and Medicaid to HRHS and said that hospital officials are closely monitoring what is going on with health care reform legislation in Washington.

Roughly 60 percent of the hospital’s patients are on Medicare, and 10 percent are on Medicaid meaning any changes to those programs would have a profound effect of Halifax Regional, Lumsden explained.
“There is a lot of uncertainty,” Lumsden said, noting that some reform could be positive because currently many uninsured patients simply can’t pay their medical bills.

Lumsden also touched on the investment the health system has made in upgrading its IT capabilities, which put it in the top tier in the nation, and the $3 to $4 million a year the hospital spends on routine capital expenditures.

In closing, Lumsden said the hospital was grateful for all the community has done and that HRHS will continue to work to give back to the community.

New County Administrator George Nester spoke about the state of the county.

Nester said he was very impressed with what the county was doing when he interviewed for the administrator’s position several months ago.

But he issued a warning to the audience, saying that he detected a mentality in the county where people do not expect good things to happen here, rather only in other places.

“Good things do happen in other places, but they also happen here,” Nester said.  “Halifax has a lot of things that make it unique.” 

Speaking about county government, Nester said there are problems facing the county, but that they are solvable.

Nester said his job is to work with supervisors to address the three top priorities facing the county: economic development, education and public utilities.

He said county government is going to make mistakes, but that officials will make the best decision with the best information available at the time.  Nester also praised the county’s staff.
“We do not have a lot of staff,” Nester said.  “But they are very dedicated.  I appreciate what they go through.”

In closing Nester said, “We can be what we want to be.”

Next IDA Executive Director Mike Sexton addressed the state of economic development in the county.

While the unemployment rate is high in Halifax County, Sexton said if you are unemployed the unemployment rate is 100 percent.

In the future, Sexton said he sees manufacturers hiring fewer workers with more education at higher wages, and the county is positioning itself to attract these types of smaller industries like new alternative energy companies.

“The cost to land a project has gone up significantly,” Sexton explained.  “We compete for industries that have high expectations.”

Sexton acknowledged that the community will sometimes be divided over incentive packages that are used to lure industries to the county.  He also said the Tobacco Commission is critical to the county’s success.

“We have people working everyday to put packages together,” Sexton said, noting that the efforts are paying off.

Currently the pipeline of projects is about half full, Sexton said, noting the county currently has 10 active projects.

Of those, three businesses have committed to locate here, and announcements will be forthcoming shortly, he added, noting there are also 10 strong leads that the IDA is pursuing for projects.

Sexton also said the strength of the community is existing businesses and industries.

The county must bring farmers into the economic development process. Sexton said, “We have to find ways to make farmers part of the equation.”

Farmers will play a key role in the alternative energy projects that come here with Riverstone being designated an energy center, he said, noting Riverstone is a tremendous asset.

Also, agriculture is still the largest industry in Virginia.

“The importance of agro-business has been largely ignored,” Sexton said.  “It has to become more of an aspect of economic development.”

Sexton also touched on the issue of workforce development.  He said the first thing prospective industries look at is the quality of the area’s workforce.

And last, the audience heard from Superintendent of Schools Paul Stapleton who opened by thanking the business community for all the support it gives the school system.

Currently, the county has a school system that is innovative, high quality and continually improving, Stapleton said, noting that Halifax’s system is well respected throughout the state.

Stapleton also briefly addressed recent media reports about fights at the high school noting that the school is very safe and that a recent two-and-a-half hour drug sweep netted no drugs.
Stapleton also pointed out all of the county’s schools are accredited.

When he came here, Stapleton said he was concerned about the condition of many of the county’s facilities, saying Halifax was in the bottom five percent of quality.

But with the investment made in the middle school renovation project and the construction of the new South Boston and Cluster Springs elementary schools, the county is now in the top 10 percent, he said.
Halifax also has a high percent of ‘highly accredited’ teachers, which puts the county on par with richer suburban school systems.

Stapleton said he also is proud of how many high school students are graduating having taken college-level courses.

According to the superintendent, 57 seniors graduated from the high school this year with an associate’s degree in addition to their high school diploma. 

This means they can enter a four-year university as a junior and save their parents money on tuition.

Also, 85 percent of the high school’s graduates have a college transcript, which means they have taken college-level courses, Stapleton explained.

There are 650 students at the STEM Center in Halifax everyday taking college-level courses, Stapleton added.

Addressing challenges facing the school system, Stapleton said the main one is budgetary.

This year the school system cut 40 positions to close a budget shortfall, Stapleton said, noting the system was greatly helped by federal stimulus funds that will be gone after next year. 

Also, the county must address the school system’s composite index in 2010 due to South Boston having reverted to a town status, which means more county funds will have to go to the school system.

If the state economy does not turn around in two years, the school system will be facing very difficult and unpopular budgetary choices, Stapleton said, citing student/teacher ratios as an example.  “We still have a great student/teacher ratio.”

“Our main challenge is to maintain a high quality school system,” he concluded.