By Patrick McCarron
A few years ago a confident David Kleppinger gave MeadWestvaco, a Fortune 500 paper company, his top 10 reasons why the company should build its new warehouse in the Rockbridge area. The company became excited about thepotential location. All three Rockbridge area jurisdictions bought the land for the company’s $20 million building. Support was heavy from everyone involved in the decision. But then, Kleppinger said, the citizens of Buena Vista changed their minds.
“Everyone was for it until word got out that they were located [in Buena Vista], and all these primarily retired people came out in mass,” Kleppinger said. “It was like the world was coming to an end.”
Local residents were concerned about the potential increase in truck traffic in the town. The project was then shut down. The warehouse, which is now in Covington, employs 160 people. MeadWestvaco’s paper mill, which was already located in Covington, generates enough money in taxes to fund the entire Covington school system.
“I think today, everybody goes, ‘that was a bad idea,’” Kleppinger said. “If that project were proposed today, they’d be putting out a carpet for it right now, quite honestly. Everybody is looking for job creation and increased values on their properties. We need that.”
It was missed opportunities like this that disheartened Kleppinger, and led to his 2008 resignation as executive director of the Rockbridge Partnership. The organization marketed the Rockbridge area as an attractive location for industry and aimed to create jobs and capital investment. But despite the goals, Kleppinger said the lack of government support killed the organization’s chances for future success, eventually leading to its collapse a couple of years later.
“When you’re sort of being starved to death, and you want to try to accomplish something, there’s no fun in the job anymore,” said Kleppinger.
Attracting industry was one of Kleppinger’s main goals and it remains the quest of Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County. Factories create jobs and are difficult to relocate, giving long-term stability to small economies. Industry also has a multiplier effect—more purchasing power for employees means that other businesses in the area benefit as well. Service jobs, such as those offered at local universities, do not pay as much, said Washington and Lee University economics professor Mike Smitka. As of October 2012, about 16 percent of employed people in the area worked in manufacturing jobs, while nearly a quarter of them worked in the service industry. [pullquote] It used to be that an industrial announcement in a community was a time of community pride.[/pullquote]
Kleppinger said the MeadWestvaco fallout and input from retirees hinders the Rockbridge area’s ability to attract industry. He said that in the early 2000’s, the Rockbridge Partnership went from being a legitimate economic development option to an organization handcuffed by the influences of anti-industry citizens and government.
“It used to be that an industrial announcement in a community was a time of community pride,” Kleppinger said. “Now, an announcement will bring people out talking doom and gloom, the end of the world as we know it.”
He insisted that despite the problems that industry may generate, the payoff is greater in the end. But Brian Brown, Buena Vista’s director of economic development, said that the county’s decision not to allow MeadWestvaco in the area was influenced by more than just retirees.
He said the backup of trucks into neighborhoods, as well as the number of them that would be driving through Buena Vista, was problematic. Additional issues within the company also made the county wary of building a MeadWestvaco plant.
“I don’t think that decision is indicative of economic development for the future in this region,” Brown said.The key problem with Rockbridge County’s economy, Kleppinger said, is its wealth disparity between the affluent retirees—the “haves”—and the poor, unemployed or low-wage working class—the “have-nots.”
“These [retired] people who come here, they’re confident and comfortable, and perhaps are remembering how nice it was to feel important, whereas country folk are trying whatever they can to get by. You just have such extremes in the Rockbridge area. And unfortunately, the public policy is being framed by the ‘haves,” Kleppinger said.The county has missed other opportunities to create business and industry.
But Sam Crickenberger, director of economic development in Rockbridge County, said it was for reasons other than the Rockbridge area’s outspoken retirees. He said the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, which markets the entire state as an attractive business location, does not view the Rockbridge area as “anti-development.”
“If you talk to the [Partnership] staff in those offices that work real closely with us, they’ll say that’s not true. So, to me that’s old history. I think there are some people on the street that might come up with that attitude, but that’s just because clearly they’re uninformed,” Crickenberger said.
Crickenberger said the county’s rocky land and mountainous terrain is difficult to build on. The Governor’s Opportunity Fund provides grants to localities with qualifying business projects, as long as that locality can match the grant itself. But while southern Virginia can pay the bill with money those counties received from the 1998 tobacco settlements, the Rockbridge area needs to find the funding elsewhere.
“A lot of times, that cash is the turning point in a project and it’s going to take it to another part of the state,” Crickenberger said. “It really puts a lot of burden on localities like us, because that’s not cash we’re going to be able to come up with.”
Rockbridge County was criticized by some for being unable to secure a Nestle bottling plant, a national Boy Scout camp, and an airport. But Crickenberger said that protesters were not the main issue.
Nestle considered building its bottling plant at Big Spring, whose waters flow into the Maury River. Although residents were concerned about the potential water withdrawals, Nestle pulled out for another reason: that the plant’s proximity to two interstates could result in a contaminated water supply if there was an oil spill.
“[The interstate] was a good and a bad thing at the same time. Great for transportation, but really vulnerable in terms of the water supply,” Crickenberger said. ”It could have been a really good project for us; we just don’t really know. But the stigma of citizens running it out has stuck for some reason.”
The Boy Scouts of America considered Goshen as its location for The Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve, the site of its quadrennial National Jamboree. Citizens protested with a “Save Goshen Pass” campaign. But Crickenberger said the possibility was doomed from the start. Much of the property lay on a floodplain, and the difficulty of bringing water, sewer, and transportation to the area was too great to overcome.
“Quite honestly, it was putting a square peg in a round hole,” Crickenberger said. “A few dollars may have fallen out locally, but it really wasn’t a good project for where it was proposed.”
In three referendums in the past 40 years, Rockbridge County has also rejected proposals to build an airport along Interstate 81. Smitka said a local airport could have attracted jet-flying executives looking to build branches in the area. Kleppinger also said local airports are attractive to companies looking to set up shop in the county.
“It just provides a level of immediacy. It’s just access, access, access is the game,” Kleppinger said. “It’s just so shortsighted for Rockbridge to [vote it down].”
But Crickenberger said that with three nearby regional airports within a fifty-mile radius, it was not a necessary project. Attracting industry and business to the area is not the only problem. Kleppinger said globalization is hurting rural areas like the Rockbridge area because companies can pay lower wages in foreign countries.
“It used to be manufacturers didn’t care what was going on in Europe or Asia. Their competition was here, so it was a fairly static environment,” Kleppinger said. And the presence of large industrial employers in the current industrial climate leaves local economies in a vulnerable position. When a Stillwater plant shut down in Goshen in 2001, 120 employees were out of work. Two-thirds of those losing their jobs were without a high school education, and one-third didn’t even have a driver’s license.
Dana Corp. once employed 400 people in an impressive factory in Buena Vista, jam-packed with assembly line equipment. It once supplied transaxles to all the big automakers. Kleppinger said in the current industrial climate car companies needed suppliers closer to their plants to limit costs. Kleppinger was shocked when the plant closed in 2007.
“In a two year period I went from having a conversation with management where they were talking about undergoing another expansion, to at the end of that two year period telling me they were going to be closing that plant,” Kleppinger said.
But not all industrial employers have left. Mohawk Industries is the largest industrial employer in the area, and many residents rely on the company for work. The commercial carpet company’s plant is located in Glasgow.
“The county has been very lucky that the Mohawk plant has stayed in business, because that’s over 1,000 jobs,” Smitka said. “So when you’re in a small market of single employers, you make a difference. So that’s a challenge here.”
Despite the area’s problems with industrial development, its economic representatives remain optimistic. Crickenberger cited the success of Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company in Rockbridge County as an indicator of the area’s ability to create successful industry. The county granted the brewer 12 acres of land on the condition that it create enough jobs and investment within five years to meet the county’s standards. The company accomplished these requirements in just a year, and has built a second brewery.
Heatex America is looking to expand its facility in Natural Bridge. Crickenberger said the county hopes it can create another work shift with new employees within the next month.Crickenberger also said that “spinoff” development, which comes as a result of previous projects, is key. The current owner of White’s truck stop in Raphine has added enough business to expand his building and attract a nearby logistics center and doctor’s office.
“We’re really supportive of business development and creation where it belongs,” Crickenberger said.Lexington City Manager Jon Ellestad said Lexington’s economy will remain secure.
“Of course, Lexington is a college town. That’s our industry. Washington and Lee and VMI is our industry, and they’re pretty stable,” Ellestad said.
Brown said the presence of industry in Buena Vista will keep its local economy healthy. “One thing we’d like to see is some higher paying jobs that come in, but we still have a very strong manufacturing economy,” Brown said. “It is the lifeblood of a lot of our growth and development.”
Smitka said the Rockbridge area has a lot to offer economically.“It has infrastructure where it needs to be, water, sewer, natural gas, it has two interstates that intersect there, it has colleges and universities and communities of character,” Kleppinger said.
Crickenberger said those who label the Rockbridge area as an “anti-development” entity are missing out. “I think it’s a really exciting time right now, and I think we’ve got a very positive business climate,” Crickenberger said. “I’m sorry for people that have memories that just don’t go away.”