Sharing the load and the wealth: Southwest Virginia localities partner in regional authority

Mike Still • Mar 10, 2020 at 7:30 PM

DUFFIELD — Duane Miller and Craig Seaver know the importance of regional cooperation in Southwest Virginia.

Miller’s career at the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission has included years of advocacy for localities to support each other in everything from water and sewer service to attracting new businesses.

Seaver, a three-decade veteran and retired director of the Virginia State Parks system, understands the importance of regional marketing of Southwest Virginia’s outdoor recreation and tourism resources from a tour as the director of Natural Tunnel State Park.

When LENOWISCO and its member counties and city started looking at state legislation about two years ago that allowed localities to form economic development authorities that could share revenues from joint projects, Miller knew who to bring onboard to help steer the Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority when it formed in 2019.

Seaver took over as LPRIFA’s first coordinator in September.

“What sets RIFA apart is the ability to share revenues without a referendum,” Miller said. “We knew Craig was perfect for the job because of his experience in the park system and working with localities and different organizations.”

In less than a year and through the support of Scott, Lee, Wise and Dickenson counties and Norton, LPRIFA has already started Project Intersection, a potential $9 million overhaul of a former surface mine site in Norton to create four industrial/commercial sites ready with utilities and broadband internet infrastructure.

When Project Intersection is completed, all the authority member localities will share in revenues from the project such as property and machinery and tools taxes and site leasing revenues, Miller said. The project also means jobs for people from all member localities too, and Intersection represents what can be done with joint projects in other authority locations.

While Intersection is located in Norton, Miller said all the authority members are helping invest in the project to match available federal and state funding sources.

Miller said the seeds for the type of cooperation RIFA encourages goes back almost five decades ago when Bruce Robinette LENOWISCO’s first director, got member localities to support creation of the Duffield Industrial Park. While located in Scott County, the park’s tenant businesses have provided employment for people across Scott, Lee and Wise counties and Norton.

“This group works wonderfully together,” Miller said of LPRIFA’s board of directors “A RIFA project, assuming a 40-mile circle of employment effect, can impact three or four counties in Southwest Virginia.”

“Strength in numbers is critical leverage,” Seaver said. “This region has always had to pool its resources.”

Miller said regional cooperation is especially important as many state and federal funding programs use a scoring matrix that favors regional cooperation in development projects.

“We’re onto what has been done here for years,” Miller said of that regional approach. “We’ve been successful faster than we thought we’d be at this point.”

While building construction-ready industrial sites is one way of helping build the regional economy, Miller and Seaver agree that quality-of-life issues underpin whether a new business will stay in the region.

“Step outside this building and you can see the outdoor recreation and natural resources we have in Southwest Virginia,” Seaver said. While those resources can attract people to the region, Miller said affordable housing for people looking to work or start a business is also key to giving the region’s younger residents and potential new residents a stake in Southwest Virginia.

Project Homestead is another LPRIFA project to help give existing or new residents a reason to come to Southwest Virginia. Miller said RIFA wants to find ways to offer plots of land to people starting out in the area’s workforce. In return, those people would commit to building starter homes and living in the region for a set time.

Miller said another potential LPRIFA project could encourage a new agricultural section in the LENOWISCO region through growing specialty grains for brewers in surrounding areas.

Seaver said LPRIFA projects can combine with efforts in other localities to deal with a broader vision of business development, recreation and quality of life for families in Southwest Virginia.

“If we have a kid and family-friendly environment here, it’s rewarding for people to come here or stay here,” Seaver said. “With Project Homestead, you have people rolling up their sleeves and committing to live here, too.”

“You have to have people on the ground to bring that kind of energy to our region,” Miller said.