Burnett up to the ‘challenge’
It’s hard to say Augusta County has done poorly for itself in the economic-development arena, with the likes of Hershey and McKee Foods and MeadWestvaco, among others, setting up shop in the county and doing good business here.
But it has been apparent in recent years as the county has struggled to fill up its Mill Place Commerce Park in Verona that it has been in need of somebody to be out actively marketing Mill Place and the county in general to the business and industry world.
“The county has invested substantially in the commerce park, in the economic-development study, in this position. They’re committed to economic development. It’s a very strong commitment, and that’s good for the residents of the county, because they want to see us flourish,” said Dennis Burnett, who began work as the first director of economic development in Augusta County government on Sept. 1.
Burnett is no stranger to economic development in the county and the Shenandoah Valley. The county native served as the deputy director of the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport for nine years before taking a job as the director of ground operations for Colgan Air in 2005. He was still based in the Valley even then, and made it a regular point to talk up the Valley in conversations up and down the East Coast.
“It wasn’t something that I did consciously, but people would say, You must really love the Valley to talk about it as much as you do,” Burnett said.
Burnett, who will also serve as the executive director of the Augusta County Industrial Development Authority, will be paid an annual salary of $85,000. He was chosen from a field of 41 candidates and was a unanimous pick of the seven-member Augusta County Board of Supervisors.
“Dennis brings valuable industry experience, both locally and nationally,” Board Chairman Larry Howdyshell said. “This coupled with his enthusiasm and passion for Augusta County secured the committee’s recommendation.”
“It’s the perfect conclusion to our search,” Riverheads District Supervisor Nancy Sorrells said. “Dennis just loves Augusta County, and we all love that he loves Augusta County. We’re all very high on him. We think great things are going to happen. He understands the area. He understands the balance between rural and urban and suburban that we have here in the county. He understands how to put that right mix together, the balance.
“Dennis’ strengths are at marketing and PR. I think he can help people see the potential in Augusta County,” Sorrells said.
It’s not just filling up the commerce park and reaching out to business and industry across the state and across the country that are top priorities on Burnett’s agenda. First and foremost, actually, are efforts aimed at the retention of the county’s base of existing business and industry.
“We are very blessed to have the employers that we have, and we need to work with them. What are your existing opportunities? How can we as a county assist in your growth plans? It’s my job to serve as the liaison with the county, as the customer-service rep, if you will, and help our existing business and industry partners get the answers they need,” Burnett said.
With regard to the job of attracting new businesses, Burnett will be working closely with the Shenandoah Valley Partnership and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership on new leads. He sees his role as serving as a “conduit” between the regional and state development entities and county leaders.
“The questions I’ll be focused on are, Is Augusta the right fit for you? And on the flip side, does it fit our model? Is it what we want? Those are both keys in guiding economic development for the county,” Burnett said.
Shenandoah Valley Partnership executive director Robin Sullenberger called Burnett’s hire a “positive move” for Augusta County. “This position will allow more direct local focus on promoting new business growth, and equally important is that it will give the county an opportunity to nurture stronger ties with the existing business community, which has supplied a higher percentage of growth in recent years,” Sullenberger said.
“On a regional basis, Dennis will be a valuable contributor to our marketing committee, and because he already understands the Valley, there will be no lag time. Economic development is a regionally oriented game, and Augusta understands the benefits of being a regional player. Dennis will only enhance that process,” Sullenberger said.
Burnett feels ready for the challenge that blazing a new path for economic development in Augusta County promises to be.
“I said all along that this is a challenge, but it’s a good challenge. They have infrastructure here in place. It’s not like I’m starting from scratch,” Burnett said.