By Bob Feeser
No one who comes to Covington, a population of around 6,000 and the seat of Alleghany County government, would think it has much in common with Norfolk, a city 40 times larger and across the ‘Interstate 64.
But without Norfolk International Terminal and the entire Port of Virginia, Covington would be a much less prosperous outpost in the southwestern part of Old Dominion.
During a 35-year career with Westrock and its predecessor, MeadWestvaco, I was responsible for the Covington paper mill, which produced millions of rolls of paper that left our mill bound for Hampton Roads and markets of the whole world.
At its peak, nearly half of our production and operating revenue came from international sales. Families are opening the packages in locations far removed from Covington, unaware that the container’s main ingredient comes from Virginia’s third-smallest city.
Over the years, those of us in industry across the state have focused on educating citizens and their representatives in Richmond that global commerce is not something that happens at the level of the sea. In fact, for a time, MeadWestvaco was responsible for more containers leaving our ports than any other company. That’s why I was eager to serve on an international trade committee that, together with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, formulated an international trade plan (ITP) to guide future state policy.
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In his final state budget proposal, Governor Ralph Northam recommended that ITP receive the dollars needed over the next biennium to hire staff, support businesses, and invest in infrastructure that will make Virginia more competitive. .
Given the state’s current multi-billion dollar surplus, the $4.6 million for year one and $8.1 million for year two do not seem like substantial amounts; but they are, and every corner of the state will benefit if Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who brings deep business experience to the office, and to the General Assembly, delivers on the promises of the business plan.
We calculate that twice as many companies will discover and take advantage of export opportunities when the ITP is fully funded. Greater attention will also be given to improving our logistics and supply chain, as well as further implementing the excellent assistance programs of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.
The state must also continue to invest in education as well as in roads and rail to link the factories in the west to the docks in the east.
And finally, we need to have more and bigger development sites where our own businesses can grow and others can come in who naturally want to set up shop in Virginia, the best state to do business in, according to CNBC.
This is a problem that contradicts our stellar ranking. In recent years, Virginia has lost over $75 billion in capital investment projects, an additional $290 million in potential state revenue, and over 40,000 direct jobs because we lacked start-up sites. or existing buildings.
This is a big drawback when consultants are looking for places where construction can be completed in 12-18 months.
In 2019, VEDP and a trio of leading engineering firms analyzed over 450 development sites for cost, technical feasibility and available manpower. Virginia probably has the best site intelligence of any state right now, but hasn’t allocated the funds to make it ready for potential investors.
Governor Northam included $150 million for site development in his final budget proposal. Again, we encourage the new governor and the next legislature to maintain it.
We must not delay this essential funding because our neighbors are ahead of us. In May, for example, Georgia and a development authority in Savannah purchased a megasite for $62 million. North Carolina recently used $50 million in COVID relief funds for site development.
With the nation’s 12th largest population and 13th gross state product (GSP), Virginia isn’t expected to be 41st and 44th in the nation, respectively, in exports per capita and exports as a percentage of GSP.
I hope our assembly and our new governor will join with the Maritime Association of Virginia and the Committee on International Trade to make our American state the gold standard for international commerce.
Bob Feeser is the retired President of Consumer Packaging of Westrock (formerly MeadWestvaco) and a member of the Virginia International Trade Committee.