Nearly 100 people electronically joined the eighth annual Valley Business Summit on Sept. 23 to hear from elected officials and local economic development leaders about the future of business and industry regulations in the region and commonwealth.
Dels. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, Chris Runion, R-Bridgewater, Ronnie Campbell, R-Bath, and John Avoli, R-Staunton, said they were concerned for business and public safety because of the Democratic Party’s majority in the General Assembly.
Wilt said there was fundamental disagreement between Valley legislators and members of the Democratic majority about businesses’ motives and ethics.
“With this new makeup of the General Assembly, there’s a feel there that business is evil,” Wilt said, especially in how the statehouse and Gov. Ralph Northam have approached labor issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It really frustrates and it upsets me that it’s not an undertone, it’s an overtone,” Wilt said.
An example Wilt cited was that though there were COVID-19 outbreaks in poultry plants, it was never in the plants’ interest to have their workforce fall ill, and they did the best they could to stop the spread in the workplace with the resources they had available at the time.
Campbell, who previously worked as a Virginia state trooper, said the shortage of troopers the Virginia State Police is experiencing will only grow more acute if bills, such as ones the Democratic majority has passed, make police work more dangerous.
He cited 300 trooper vacancies in the Virginia State Police and 300 other employees at retirement age.
“I can see these people leaving, the 300, and if we can’t hire the 300 now, I can see 600 vacancies in the state police,” Campbell said.
A decrease in public safety quality, such as number of available staff, ripples out and negatively impacts businesses, according to Campbell.
“These bills that [the Democratic majority] are passing [are] going to make it even more difficult to hire police officers, which will affect the safety of the citizens in our communities and it will affect the businesses and their safety and their ability to do business when you have an increase in crime,” Campbell said.
All four delegates also spoke about the need to reopen schools to make sure students, especially those who are disadvantaged, are learning and the need for child care to help their parents, who may be sidelined taking care of them at home, reenter the workforce.
Avoli, who has worked as a teacher and coach at Wilson Memorial High School in Fishersville, also spoke about how state and federal groups need to “step up” to provide more broadband to rural areas for both telehealth and education needs.
Though many service sector businesses in the Harrisonburg area have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as those in hospitality and leisure, there are other local opportunities that can provide stable employment with reliable pay, according to Jay Langston, the executive director of regional economic development group the Shenandoah Valley Partnership.
“We’re seeing a lot of economic development activity, both new and coming from our local partners, where our existing businesses have been very active, especially our manufacturers,” Langston said.
Manufacturing was the least impacted industry, losing 6,300 of 240,000 jobs, during the first wave of shutdowns and economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the Virginia Employment Commission.
Job losses were seen across all major industries, but with the heaviest toll taken out of leisure and hospitality, where roughly 40% of jobs were lost — from 402,200 positions to 240,800 in April alone.
Langston and Blue Ridge Community College President John Downey spoke about the potential for convincing unemployed service sector workers to change their employment sector and help fill the labor shortage in the manufacturing industry.
“Simply said, much harder to deliver,” Langston said.