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Wednesday, October 5, 2022
FairfaxOpinionCommentary: Va. needs to invest in facilities for business expansion

Commentary: Va. needs to invest in facilities for business expansion

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by JOHN MILLIKEN and STUART MALAWER, for the Sun Gazette

Five times since 2007, including the past two in which it published its survey, CNBC has ranked Virginia the best state in which to do business. Kudos in particular go to our educational system and workforce, according to the network. And we must keep investing in both.

But to make Virginia even more attractive to companies seeking to establish or to expand, we must start with sites.

In recent years, Virginia has lost out on an estimated $55 billion in capital-investment projects, more than $235 million in potential state revenue and nearly 40,000 direct jobs because we lacked shovel-ready sites or existing buildings.

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That is a major problem, when consultants seek locations where construction can be completed in 12 to 18 months.

It’s not that we do not have options. In 2019, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and a trio of top engineering firms identified and analyzed over 450 development sites for cost, technical feasibility, available workforce and other key factors. Virginia is believed to have the best site-intelligence of any state now, but not the money to prep them for businesses eager to set up shop.

To those of us who live in densely populated Northern Virginia, it is hard to imagine large, undeveloped land areas. But others in the commonwealth have them. We have a Virginia Business Ready Sites Program (VBRS) that simply awaits funds to stand up a handful of megasites and 10 to 20 midsize ones, with 50,000 new direct and indirect jobs in the offing.

Other states, including Georgia and North Carolina, are not waiting for Virginia and have appropriated funds for this purpose. If our Southern neighbors can step up to the plate, surely Virginia, where firms already want to locate because we are “the best to do business,” should, too.

Fortunately, Gov. Northam included $150 million in his final budget proposal for VBRS. The legislature should adopt that recommendation.

With 95 percent of the world’s population and 76 percent of the planet’s gross domestic product outside the U.S., the commonwealth – with its state-of-the-art marine terminals and deep-harbor channels – is best positioned for global trade. Norfolk International Terminal (NIT) and Virginia International Gateway are modern, state-of-the-art facilities and together make Virginia the fifth largest container port in the country, and one without supply-chain backups. Offshore wind interests are leasing land at the state-owned, but long vacant, Portsmouth Marine Terminal. More supply-chain firms are on the way to service Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project off Virginia Beach and others along the East Coast.

Many nations are looking to America to manufacture goods, including ones that the pandemic has highlighted, like pharmaceuticals, PPE, medical devices and supplies, in addition to agriculture and electronic products.

For example, new federal policies are encouraging the establishment of new chip-manufacturing facilities to counter China’s competition.

The Shenandoah Valley, Southside and Roanoke/New River/Lynchburg, in particular, are export-anxious. However, they require the support of elected officials in denser Northern Virginia, Central Virginia and Hampton Roads. Timely funding now will bring economic development to rural areas, allowing them to better stand on their own financial feet.

The Virginia International Trade Plan, the brainchild of a bipartisan committee, is in place. Gov. Northam included funding for it in his outgoing biennium budget. We hope Gov. Youngkin, whose business bona-fides are well established, and the legislature will unite around our natural and manmade advantages and approve that funding. We also urge Richmond to advance a capital expenditure of $260 million to upgrade the north yard at NIT, to complement an earlier expansion of its south one.

With his experience in global investment, Gov. Youngkin surely understands the critical interconnection of state economic development and the global economy. It’s important for him to lead foreign-trade missions, to build political and popular support, and to urge General Assembly action to promote trade and foreign investment.

As we begin 2022 with a fresh set of elected leaders, let’s unite and right the ship, so to speak, and make Virginia the gold standard in international commerce. With the 12th largest population and 13th biggest gross state product (GSP) in the nation, Virginia should not be 41st and 44th in the nation in exports per capita and exports as a share of GSP, respectively.

Milliken is a former Virginia Secretary of Transportation and current chairman of the board of the Virginia Port Authority. Malawer is Distinguished Service Professor of Law and International Trade at George Mason University. Each serves on the bipartisan Virginia International Trade Advisory Committee.

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