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COMMUNITY VOICE: See, I told you so

By Barry Bank

I told you so. Regarding an article entitled “Numbers dip in Halifax, across Southside region” recently published in a local newspaper, the results posted by University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Services were like those indicated in several letters I submitted to the newspapers in Halifax County over the last 10 or so years. 

As I indicated in those letters, Halifax County was going to soon face a declining and aging population crisis exacerbated by high unemployment as result of the loss of apparel, textile and tobacco jobs and the lack of preparation to replace those jobs with equal or better jobs. 

Unfortunately, I have been proven correct.

The article stated that “Overall, the state’s population continued to grow, but at a much slower rate than in past years.” The article noted that the counties of Halifax, Brunswick, Pittsylvania and Charlotte have lost population, and census projections by the University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center show that this trend will continue in the future.

Over the last 12 years, the answer to invigorating these areas has been to pour over $910 million (excludes local participation amount) by the Tobacco Commission into the Southside Virginia, over $75 million per year. 

As noted in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Jan. 11, 2012, this amount of money has had little if any effect in improving economic conditions. It is like a drowning man holding onto a waterlogged sinking log called industrial development instead of a life jacket of alternate objectives. 

A massive injection of funds into dubious enterprises has proven to be fruitless. Pittsylvania County and the City of Danville in recent years have done away with their industrial development authorities and their tourism departments and have gained industry.

According to statistics from the Virginia Employment Commission: website VirginiaLMl.com under Labor Market Data; Average employment in Halifax for the first quarter of 2001 was 14,020. After 12 years of “investment” in attracting industry to Halifax County and the expenditure of close to $100 million, the average employment for Halifax County for the first quarter of 2013 was 12,066, a decrease of 1,954 jobs from 12 years earlier. 

This does not take into consideration the fact that many of the jobs currently created and held by individuals in the county are now part-time low wage positions. 

The average weekly wage increased by $163 from $481 to $644, an increase of 33 percent, according to the Virginia Employment Commission. This was in part as a result of the increase in the minimum wage from $5.15 in 2012 to $7.25 in 2013, an increase of 40 percent even though the minimum wage covered fewer employees.

A reasonable solution to these problems of population loss, unemployment and loss of industries can be found by emphasizing three areas of interest:

First, attract retired individuals with the financial ability to purchase, renovate or build homes and pay taxes. With some 70,000 plus baby boomers retiring each day, and many seeking low cost areas in which to locate, Halifax County looks favorable with low taxes compared to many other areas of the  Lynchburg, Greensboro and Raleigh/Durham Airports and local and nearby recreation and sports areas.

 Secondly, a new emphasis is needed on agriculture. A recent report from the 2012 U. S. Census of Agriculture released Feb. 2 indicated the long-term trend is for farms to grow larger. With the ending of the Tobacco Buyout Program, many farmers will be left with unused farmland with no crops or other agricultural products to be raised on this land. There is a growing market for specialty agriculture products such as hormone free beef, pork, chicken, lamb and goat meat and a number of vendors seeking this type of product.

 Thirdly, use funds currently going into industrial development to financially assist existing small county companies to expand or purchase new equipment.

All three of these areas can be accomplished with limited or no expenditure of additional public funds. A portion of current funds utilized for tourism could be used for the advertising of Halifax County as a retirement destination in conjunction with promoting tourism. 

The board of supervisors has already taken steps to re-emphasize agriculture by promoting a meat processing facility, hiring a new extension
agent and talks concerning sponsoring the livestock show. 

Part of the funds currently used to fund the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority could be diverted to a fund to assist businesses and agriculture in the county to obtain financing for new equipment, buildings or other needs.

To accomplish the above will require an about face on emphasis for economic development in Halifax County, leadership, both politically and economically. 

Halifax has a long tradition as a rural agricultural economy. Funds now used for industrial development could and should be utilized to encourage agriculture as well as provide funding to assist local small businesses. 

Currently efforts are being made to bring a meat processing operation to Halifax County in addition to a new agriculture agent to provide farmers
with local and state agricultural support. 

These goals can only be accomplished with the backing of the citizens and voters of Halifax County with the full support of the board of supervisors. Working together we can accomplish the tasks at hand.

 

Barry Bank is ED-5 supervisor for Halifax County.