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Community viewpoint: Virginia Tobacco Commission changing to meet the needs of communities
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Community viewpoint: Virginia Tobacco Commission changing to meet the needs of communities

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The past year or so has been challenging for all of us in a variety of ways and while we have had to adapt and change so too have our local businesses and local economies.

The coronavirus outbreak put massive amounts of stress on our business community as we were all forced to stay home to stay safe but, fortunately, it looks like we have finally turned a corner and brighter days are ahead. This seems like an opportune time to reflect on how the Virginia Tobacco Commission has supported our businesses and communities and how it will continue to do so moving forward as we all work to recover from what has been a distressing time.

As the needs of our communities have changed, so too has the commission and we continue to look for innovative ways to attract top professionals and employers to the region. Most recently with the introduction of our Talent Attraction Program and our Business and Community Lending program.

Over the last 20 years the commission has probably become best known for helping to attract top employers to Southern and Southwest Virginia through our traditional grant programs. These include companies you know well like Microsoft, Tempur/Sealy, Morgan Olson, Aldi and more as well as hundreds of other businesses that have brought more than 26,000 jobs and $4.3 billion of investment to the regions we serve. The commission has done so through grants which have, over time, depleted the funds available to continue attracting new businesses. To counter this, and to ensure that the commission remains viable well into the future, we are adding a new tool to our toolbox: our Community and Business Lending Program.

Many of our local and regional partners have made it clear that access to capital is one of the biggest roadblocks standing in the way of continued economic progress. Increased lending activity will allow the commission to help remove this roadblock while also providing financial sustainability for the commission itself. This is a win-win for the region: businesses can get the funds they need to grow and create jobs at rates lower than those offered by commercial lenders while the commission gains an ongoing source of funds to reinvest in the region as opportunities arise. This is vital because the commission remains the single largest source of funds available to communities in Southern and Southwest Virginia in terms of economic development incentives. Absent the ongoing support of the commission many businesses may choose to locate in other states. Localities also may be left without the resources needed to get projects, critical workforce development programs or needed infrastructure in place.

Another part of our strategy to ensure the commission remains a catalyst for regional growth well into the future is the inclusion of revenue sharing provisions in our grant agreements. Over the years commission projects have generated over $4.3 billion in taxable capital investment resulting in hundreds of millions in new tax revenue for the localities in which they are located and this is by design. Taxable capital investment is factored into the commission’s decision making process when deciding whether to offer a grant for a project and how much that grant should be. Moving forward 5% of the new tax revenue generated by commission funded projects will come back to the commission so that we can continue to make strategic investments in projects that will improve the economies of Southern and Southwest Virginia.

Education and workforce development has always been a top priority for the commission and we are adapting to the needs of our communities moving forward. Our Talent Attraction Program, now in just its third year, is designed to encourage recent graduates to live in Southern and Southwest Virginia while working in targeted, in-demand fields like teachers, industrial and electrical engineers, I.T. professionals, physical therapists and more. While it is too soon to know the full scope of the impact this program will have, I can tell you that our communities are already being made stronger by having hundreds of new graduates working, living and raising families in them who might have had to go elsewhere to pay off their debt without this program.

For entirely too long we have heard about the so called “brain drain.” Too many of our best and brightest go off to school and then choose to utilize their newly gained skills and knowledge elsewhere instead of returning home. This program is designed to start reversing that trend and close the gap between our need for these professionals in Southern and Southwest Virginia and the number of graduates available to fill them. We hope that once these graduates set down roots in our communities and see all that we have to offer they will remain for decades to come.

As you can see, the commission is changing to meet the needs of our communities. We look forward to working with our regional and local partners to continue to develop innovative ways to bring jobs, investment and growth to Southern and Southwest Virginia and we are always open to new ideas.

Owens currently serves as the chairman of the Virginia Tobacco Commission as well as mayor of South Boston.

Over the last 20 years the commission has probably become best known for helping to attract top employers to Southern and Southwest Virginia through our traditional grant programs. These include companies you know well like Microsoft, Tempur/Sealy, Morgan Olson, Aldi and more as well as hundreds of other businesses that have brought more than 26,000 jobs and $4.3 billion of investment to the regions we serve. The commission has done so through grants which have, over time, depleted the funds available to continue attracting new businesses. To counter this, and to ensure that the commission remains viable well into the future, we are adding a new tool to our toolbox: our Community and Business Lending Program.

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