Tobacco Commission 20 years in

Published 11:41 am Wednesday, March 27, 2019

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Virginia Tobacco Commission. It is appropriate to look at what the Commission has accomplished, the work we continue to do, and how we have helped set southern and southwest Virginia up for success moving forward.

Twenty years ago, the outlook for the region was grim. Everyone is familiar with the story: manufacturing and textile jobs had been lost by the tens of thousands and tobacco — a mainstay of the region’s agricultural economy was facing declining demand. Something had to be done.

The General Assembly created the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission to help rebuild our economy. Since then, the Commission has made strategic investments that have not only produced immediate results by bringing jobs and significant capital investment to the regions, but we have also made long-term investments that have set us up for success for decades to come.

The Commission has focused on education as a vital part of developing an economically diverse and successful economy. If you are going to attract businesses to a region, you must have a workforce that is ready to fill the jobs that will be created. For that reason, the Commission has invested more than $196 million in our community colleges and student scholarships since 2000; acting as a critical source of capital allowing educational institutions to start programs in nursing, IT, manufacturing and other in-demand fields. Further, the Commission recognized that workforce training and certificate programs would be critical; therefore, we have offered thousands for scholarships and aid, lowering the cost of training. Education has always been, and will continue to be, a top priority for the Commission.

Workforce training efforts must be coupled with economic development that gives trained workers employment opportunities. Through our incentive programs, the Tobacco Commission has helped bring thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of investment. This includes global companies like Microsoft, IKEA, ABB, Goodyear, Amazon, Aldi and Kyocera SGS along with hundreds of other businesses like TMI Autotech, Press Glass, Oran Safety Glass, Monogram Foods and Empire Bakery. By concentrating on both education and job creation, the Commission aims to make sure the region can offer jobs to their citizens and trained employees to employers.

We also know that developing a diverse economy, our stated mission, isn’t going to happen overnight. Strategic investments are also necessary to create a vibrant, resilient economy. To that end, the Commission has invested extensively in several areas that have set us up to be successful for decades to come.

The Tobacco Commission has been working to expand broadband access for nearly our entire existence; spending more than $130 million in support of fast internet infrastructure. These efforts began with the creation of Mid-Atlantic Broadband in 2004 to build and operate crucial backbone fiber infrastructure for our region. As well, it includes $11 million for projects just last year that will connect over 31,000 homes and businesses. Broadband access is vital to attracting companies and their employees to rural Virginia. Like electricity and water, companies simply will not locate in an area that does not have fast broadband connection. Moreover, broadband at home is crucial if we are to close the so called “homework gap” and offer students in our region the same opportunities their urban counterparts enjoy.

Additionally, the Commission has also invested in improved access to health care, high-impact tourism projects, important agricultural assets and research, and direct programming to support business attraction efforts. As we look forward, we recognize that, while there remains work to be done, the Commonwealth can be proud of the accomplishments of the Commission. It is my privilege to serve as Vice Chair on the Commission, and I look forward to continued years of working to serve the tobacco growing region of Virginia.

Frank Ruff represents Lunenburg in the state Senate. His email address is Sen.