HARRISONBURG — The Shenandoah Valley Partnership, a regional economic development program sponsored by James Madison University, presented its annual report on Wednesday at Blue Ridge Community College’s Robert E. Plecker Workforce Center in Weyers Cave.
In the report, the group celebrated the creation of 615 jobs along with $1.2 billion in investments for new businesses and expansions in Augusta, Bath, Rockbridge, Rockingham and Shenandoah counties and the cities of Staunton and Harrisonburg between 2018 and 2019.
The majority of that investment comes from a $1 billion investment by Merck to expand its biopharmaceutical manufacturing location in Elkton, which was announced on May 7, according to previous Daily News-Record reports.
Jay Langston, the executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, presented a case study on the process of securing that expansion in the Shenandoah Valley.
Langston credited much of the success to the partnerships of Valley groups to come together to address the company’s needs, he said.
“We had the kind of attitudes amongst people that were going to get it done,” he said.
Rockingham County had a good relationship with the company while keeping in constant contact with economic development groups, and the Virginia Economic Development Board oversaw the project.
The biggest issue for Merck was workforce, and local educational institutions stepped in to meet that need, Langston said.
“It sounded to us like the workforce issue was going to be the critical aspect of winning this deal,” he said.
Blue Ridge Community College and James Madison University found a solution for Merck in a collaboration of programs that would help VEDP and Merck’s willingness to invest in the area after seeing the prospects.
CNBC, a news business outlet, named Virginia the top state for business in America on July 10 due to the education and workforce available in the state.
“We were understanding the exact needs, and Blue Ridge and JMU could respond to that,” Langston said.
The model of collaboration done between BRCC and JMU can be duplicated as well to meet other businesses’ workforce needs, he said, adding that they are not the only Valley educators working together.
Workforce is a leading factor in businesses choosing where to establish themselves, but the picture is not so simple.
More and more, people are making decisions based on quality of life and amenities in the areas they would be moving, Langston said.
“You can’t have the workforce, or you can’t keep the workforce, if you don’t have the quality of life or amenities people are expecting now,” he said.
Educational institutions in the Valley graduate about 7,000 people to the workforce every year, Langston said, and retaining even 700 of those would help the region economically.
“That’s a challenge, and that’s an opportunity,” he said.
But even if that amount of graduates were to stay in the region, it would not be a silver bullet, Langston said.
Business friendliness, which means being favorable to business concerns, and logistical and marketing realities are still important in convincing companies the Valley is right for their business, he said.
International trade is also an area targeted for growth in the coming years.
There is a $3.2 billion market for international trade in what is called Region Eight of Virginia, an area that includes all the localities from Clarke and Frederick counties down to Rockbridge County.
“There are 9,000 jobs supported by international trade in that same region right now that are directly related to products and services that are being sold internationally,” he said.
If this sector grew only by 10%, it would create almost a thousand jobs, he said.
“A job is a job,” Langston said.