Does Augusta County need an economic-development department?

The Top Story by Chris Graham

Poll: Does Augusta County need an economic-development department?

It amazes me that Augusta County government has been able to get along as long as it has without an economic-development department to build on what the county has at its economic disposal for the future.

OK, so yeah, I know the numbers. Unemployment in the county is 2.9 percent, nearly two percentage points lower than the national average, and well within what economists consider full employment. And we’ve been in that situation basically as far back as anybody can remember, if not further.

And then there’s this: The county’s median income is the tops in the Greater Augusta area, at $46,202, according to the Virginia Employment Commission, and even outstrips the median income nationwide by nearly $2,000 a year.

Actually, the numbers tell us that things are going gangbusters in Augusta County.

So …

Why is it, again, that we need to spend money on an economic-development department?

“We’re very lucky here in having a strong mix of industry and a very strong agricultural segment that has always been our foundation. And so we really haven’t seen tough times. And we’ve been able to get by, and actually not only get by, but do very well, in terms of attracting things like Hershey, and still keeping that balance with our agricultural sector. But just because we get by now doesn’t mean that we don’t do something, that we’re not going to be facing a crisis in 20 years,” Riverheads Supervisor Nancy Sorrells told me.

Sorrells and other members of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors voted in February to hire the Lakewood Ranch, Fla.,-based Moran, Stahl and Boyer to help the county develop an economic-development strategy. The consultants will be in town this week to engage county residents in a series of community discussions of the county’s economic future. The first of three community workshops will be held tonight from 7-9 p.m. at Stuarts Draft High School. Workshops are also on the schedule for Tuesday from 7-9 p.m. at Riverheads High School and Wednesday from 1-3 p.m. at the Augusta County Government Center in Verona.

The workshops will begin with a presentation aimed at facilitating understanding of economic development and local trends and to introduce the strategic-planning process. The focus will then shift to a discussion of the Augusta County economy, community change and the types of jobs and companies that should be considered to achieve future prosperity in the county.

Middle River Supervisor Gerald Garber initially resisted going the consultant route, indicating earlier this year that he would prefer to see the county spend the $148,000 it is committing to the study to the creation of an economic-development department that could undertake a similar effort as the one that is getting going this week. Garber eventually joined fellow supervisors in the decision to hire Moran, Stahl and Boyer, “and now that we have them, I want us to get the most out of them that we can get,” Garber told me this morning.

“I just want to go to the meetings and see what they have to say and what the people have to say. I haven’t changed my mind about where we’ll go. But my thoughts are on hold, and we’ll go through this process,” Garber said.

Garber used similar language as Sorrells in describing the county’s economy as “getting by.” “And one reason we’ve been able to get by the way we have is that the county has a lot to offer,” Garber said. “The county has been attractive to a lot of businesses. But one of the things that always concerns me, as I’m fond of saying, is that we have a lot of people who can tell you what you can’t do, but we don’t have anybody who can tell you what you can do. And particularly small businesses that want to expand, I just think they need that opportunity, they need an advocate, and nothing against the people we have, but we don’t have anybody who has the time, that’s their job, to do that.”

Wayne Supervisor Wendell Coleman isn’t willing to go as far as to say that he feels it to be a given that the county needs an economic-development department in place to be able to build for the future.

“Even though it’s been recommended by our community development department, the board has decided basically to not go that way yet,” Coleman said. “A couple of things in particular that stand out in our mind is the low unemployment level in the county, and that we have a good, strong diverse economy in Augusta County and the region, and the fact that we partner with the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, and are one of the major players with them in terms of them helping to promote the area.

“Things appear to be going well in terms of that situation. But having said that, there’s no absolute assurance that that will continue to be our future. So I am open to that, if it is in fact something that they recommend. And if in fact they don’t recommend that, I can live with that, too,” Coleman said.

Joining Coleman on the fence is Pastures Supervisor Tracy Pyles. Pyles wrote in an e-mail to me that the point of hiring the consultants was to identify the county’s strengths and weaknesses, determine what is likely to be the county’s best potential opportunities, and then how it would be best to proceed from that point moving forward.

“Whether or not this takes ‘an office of economic development’ with director and staff support, or if this can be done with some redeployment, structure and emphasis within our present staffing, would be something better determined after reviewing the consultant reports,” Pyles wrote in the e-mail.

“I am not saying we would not come up with an economic-development department, but I don’t think it is absolutely a foregone conclusion,” Pyles wrote.

The board as a whole seems to agree on that point, though I should point out that supervisors did agree in April to set aside $75,000 to fund the creation of an economic-development department in the fiscal year beginning July 1 should the consultants hired by the county recommend such action and a majority of the board were to agree at that point in time to get the department up and moving.

Sorrells, for one, is already thinking ahead to that being the case in the near term.

“It’s enough a priority that a majority of us set money aside back during our budget session in the hopes that one of the recommendations that comes out of this group that’s doing the study for us is that they recommend we have one,” Sorrells said.

“I personally think it’s a must – if we’re going to go forward and be competitive and get the right kind of businesses and industry in here,” Sorrells said.

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