This will be an unfashionable statement in some quarters, we realize, but it is the truth: Some of the most creative thinking about building a new economy in rural Virginia is coming from the Republican state legislators who represent far Southwest Virginia.
You can argue that they’re not doing enough, if you want, but when we look at how little some localities and their representatives are doing to prepare for the future — or even the present — these guys look like rock stars.
Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, and state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell County, sponsored a bill that would allow localities to designate abandoned schools as “opportunity zones” eligible for tax breaks, as well. Southwest Virginia has a lot of schools that have closed as the population declines; the idea here is that those could be converted into incubators for startups. That alone won’t draw high-tech entrepreneurs to rural areas, but, as we said before, no one thing will, so we better start doing lots of little things.
This year, Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, sponsored a little-noticed bill that could be a potential game-changer for getting broadband internet into rural areas. Virginia’s two big utilities — Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power — are getting ready to run lots of high-fiber as part of their upgrade to “smart grid” technology that lets them better manage their electric loads. If the utilities are running new fiber anyway, why not add a little bit more to get broadband to previously-unserved areas? No other state has done this; O’Quinn’s bill instantly drops the cost of extending broadband into rural areas and makes Virginia a national leader.
It’s not hard to imagine an energy research center in Southwest Virginia becoming an important place for developing both of those things into marketable applications. The key development for now is that we’re seeing some imagination from what some cynics might think is the unlikeliest source of all — politicians.