Appalachian Democrats try to claw their way back (100 Days in Appalachia)

Donald Trump’s 2016 election win put an exclamation point on two decades worth of political shift from Democrat to Republican in Appalachia. Except for urban centers and a few notable exceptions, Democrats have essentially been wiped from the map in the region.

Now, in an ever increasingly polarized political environment, can they make up ground by using the new president as a foil?

I looked at the early signs in 2017 for 100 Days in Appalachia. Read it here.

NRV & Bristol seek passenger rail extension from Roanoke (Roanoke Business)

Amtrak is running on schedule for its arrival in Roanoke next fall. Even as the Star City prepares to celebrate the return of passenger rail for the first time in more than 34 years, its neighbors to the southwest already are pushing to extend the service.

The service arrives as part of Amtrak’s extensions of its Northeast Regional service into Virginia. The commonwealth invests in state-funded train extensions that run to Lynchburg, Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News. The Lynchburg extension, which began regular daily service in 2009, outperformed expectations and sparked momentum that lead to the push westward to Roanoke.

Amtrak estimates it generates a national economic impact of $7.9 billion annually, supporting more than 110,000 jobs through its daily operations plus tourism and supplier impacts.

Local governments also desire the economic boost that goes with passenger rail, which tends to create a 3-to-5 percent growth in the number of annual visitors. While short-term construction and engineering jobs come with the line’s upgrades and related construction, that growth in visitors creates potential for a larger, more durable ripple, especially in the restaurant and hospitality industries.

Now, rail fans in the New River Valley and Bristol metropolitan areas hope to bring those benefits to their localities, too.

Read my story about their efforts at Roanoke Business.

How announcements of 2 new breweries validate Roanoke’s changing image (Virginia Business)

There’s been lots of talk about transitioning the economies of Appalachian communities from their historic base into the 21st Century. But what does that actually look like?

I’d suggest the Roanoke Valley as a possible example of economic transition. The railroad—which jumpstarted Roanoke as the city in 1880s—no longer is a big economic driver, but we’re seeing a cascading series of companies coming in to fill the void: Large production breweries, advanced manufacturing & more. Better partnerships between regional entities—think Carilion & Virginia Tech for one example—are generating new activity as well.

Clearly not all that success has translated equally to residents across town, but it does look like progress from the big-picture perspective. Certainly people seem more stoked to live in Roanoke now than they did a decade ago.

For more about what this transition looks like in 2016 Roanoke, read my regional profile in Virginia Business.

How the rebel flag plays into the 2016 election (Politico Magazine)

Growing up 20 minutes from Lexington, Va., and its numerous links to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, I’ve always had a fascination for the mutable meaning of the Confederate battle flag and its convergence of ancestry, race, history, politics & more.

That meaning has shifted again in the year since Charleston, those right on the edge of the flag debate have escalated the conflict, heightening contradictions and putting the flag back in the news on numerous occasions around the South & the rest of the country.

In this story for Politico Magazine, I tried to take a meaningful look at how the past year has changed the fight over the rebel flag, as well as how that all slots into an already crazy election year.

Read the story here.

The coal depression’s downstream effects (Roanoke Business)

The combination of competition from cheap natural gas, a decline in overseas construction and enforcement of federal clean air regulations have sent the U.S. coal industry into a tailspin.

It’s not just miners who are suffering, however, but also the various downstream businesses that support the coal industry. For Roanoke Business, I wrote about how railroads, equipment manufacturers and other support businesses are dealing with the slump.

Read the story in the April issue of Roanoke Business.

International market trends result in Volvo layoffs (Roanoke Business)

thousands of regional workers.

The list of layoffs and job reductions stretches through the years: 300 jobs in 2013, 50 in October, 700 in 2009, 650 in 2008, 1,075 in 2008. Yet regional advocates took solace from two economic development announcements in the past two years, including the investment of $69 million into a customer experience track in 2014, creating a projected 200 jobs, and an additional $38 million facility to accompany it, announced last year and creating 32 new jobs.

Any hopes that the announcements signaled an end to cyclical job reductions were dashed in early December, when the company filed notice it would lay off 730 employees in February. In early February, that number was decreased to 600.

My story about the whys and hows of the layoff announcement runs in this month’s issue of Roanoke Business, available online and at grocery stores around Roanoke and the NRV.

Making the short list: What’s most important when it comes to economic development? (Roanoke Business)

What does it take to land a big corporate relocation or expansion in 2016?

It’s a tough, complicated question, and one asked constantly as the needs of business evolve. The answers vary by sector and even by company, yet it’s also possible to find some constants on corporate relocation wish lists—good location, abundant access to utilities and the Internet, and available talent.

What else might distinguish the Roanoke and New River valleys? Do quality of life, a sense of self-confidence or social media campaigns make a difference? Based on its strengths and competitive advantages, what industries can it expect to grow?

Read my cover story in the January 2016 issue of Roanoke Business, available online and on stands now.

Foreign companies invest in western Virginia, & a new regulation affects wood stoves (Roanoke Business)

The October 2015 issue of Roanoke Business features a pair of my stories:

– The cover leader looks at international investment in the Roanoke and New River valleys. Volvo, Korona Candles, Red Sun Farms — why are these companies locating here, and what does it mean for the region?

– I also examined the impact of a new EPA regulation on a Floyd County wood stove dealer.

Read more, either online or in the print edition, which is available free this month on racks in Roanoke & NRV grocery stores.

The changing fortunes of farming, hydroponics & the Virginia Senate (Roanoke Business)

The September 2015 issue of Roanoke Business magazine features three of my stories:

The changing fortunes of farming, the cover feature, which examines southwest Virginia ag in 2015 through the five-year USDA Census of Agriculture and interviews with key players.

“About as high-tech as it gets”: Red Sun Farms may be agriculture’s future under glass, a sidebar that looks at the hydroponic tomato grower’s 18-acre — and growing — operation in Pulaski County.

Power in balance: The region’s races could determine which party controls the Virginia Senate, a round-up of issues and candidates in the three-way races in the 19th and 21st districts, which encompass most of the Roanoke and New River valleys.

Railroad legacy fades (Virginia Business)

When news came in March that Norfolk Southern would close its Roanoke administrative offices, moving 426 jobs to Norfolk and Atlanta, many city residents feared for the city’s economic future.
After all, Norfolk and Western Railway’s decision to build in Roanoke in the 1880s kick-started the “Magic City’s” growth and long served as its leading industry. Yet, the railroad has waned in influence and employment for decades, shrinking a local workforce of more than 5,000 people at its height to 1,200 today. The closure of the administrative offices continues a process that began in 1982 when Norfolk Southern, formed in the merger of Norfolk and Western and Southern railways, moved its headquarters from Roanoke to Norfolk.

Other closures are testing the economic resilience of the Roanoke and New River valleys. Retailer HSN Inc. will close its Roanoke County fulfillment center next year, eliminating 350 jobs. Banking company BB&T Corp. closed its Roanoke call center, and wireless phone service nTelos shuttered its Botetourt County customer support center for a combined loss of nearly 200 jobs. A staff reduction at Allstate Insurance Co.’s Roanoke County customer support center cost another 185 jobs.

Despite the spate of job losses, however, optimism remains. The region no longer relies on one, two or even three industries. Indeed, Moody’s has ranked Roanoke and Richmond as the cities with the most diverse economies in Virginia — an attribute that helps cushion the blow.

Read more in my Roanoke/New River Valley community profile for Virginia Business magazine.