Going for the Goals
by Fred D. Baldwin
Southwestern Virginia's New River Valley has a lot going for it: natural beauty, access to a busy interstate highway, and the presence of several universities noted for technological innovation. But it has also had a major vulnerability—an economy tightly tied to fluctuating levels of military spending. Community leaders are planning, and acting, to change that.
The New River Valley Planning District includes three Appalachian counties (Floyd, Giles, and Pulaski), the non-Appalachian county of Montgomery, and the city of Radford. At the district's geographical center, adjacent to Radford, sprawls the 4,000-acre site of the Radford Army Ammunition Plant (RFAAP—known locally as the "Powder Plant"), built during World War II to manufacture munitions. The economy of the area has been closely linked to RFAAP operations ever since then, and RFAAP's employment levels have spiked during periods of armed conflict and dropped sharply at their close. Between 1989 and 1995, RFAAP laid off more than 3,200 workers, costing the area economy about $34 million in earnings. "Ripple effect" seems too mild a term for the additional 800-job loss (costing $14.8 million) stemming from these layoffs; additionally, the area suffered an unrelated closure of an AT&T facility involving about 1,000 jobs during the three-year period from 1990 to 1992.
In 1993 this downsizing challenge led area leaders to launch, in partnership with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and the Department of Defense's (DOD) Office of Economic Adjustment, a strategic planning process. More precisely, they set in motion a series of concurrent and ongoing initiatives.
"The process was really great," says David Rundgren, executive director of the New River Valley Planning District Commission (NRVPDC), a local development district. "You could see people buying into it." Working closely with the eight local governments who were already commission members and with seven other towns in the region, the NRVPDC formed six working groups to address different goal areas, and a steering committee to coordinate planning. Representatives of local government agencies took the lead on physical infrastructure issues such as industrial park potential and transportation access to park sites. Individuals from area colleges, public schools, and service organizations like the Virginia Employment Commission studied "human infrastructure" needs such as education and job retraining. Environmental organizations and individuals representing tourism interests met together on a "quality of life" working group that considered issues like land use, cultural attractions, and preservation needs.
Banks and financial institutions were heavily represented in the working group on "economic infrastructure." Business and industry groups combined with army leadership from RFAAP to examine the region's current industrial base, its diversification needs, and its potential for reconversion from defense-oriented to civilian production. Finally, Congressman Rick Boucher chaired a special working group on the future of RFAAP.
"One of the things it showed us," says Rundgren, "was that we're all inextricably linked together. When a good thing happens, we all benefit."
Indeed, Rundgren says, the most difficult part of the process for the NRVPDC staff came in early 1995 as they struggled to communicate in one report all the regional interconnections the six working groups had identified. They soon decided that the linear constraints of print media were not adequate to the task and, as a result, produced their report in three formats: a print version only 30 pages long, a multimedia version designed for public presentations from a laptop computer, and a World Wide Web site whose multiple linkages could be navigated according to the interests of any user. (The NRVPDC's Web site may be found at http://www.bev.net/blacksburg/pdc and is, of course, linked to the home pages of other agencies and organizations in the area.)
The print and multimedia reports are called Vision 2020. The title is intended to suggest that the community has a clear vision of its long-term goals for the next two decades or so—symbolically represented by the year 2020. The NRVPDC staff is at pains to emphasize that the report, in whatever format, should be considered a catalyst, not an end in itself. That's the way it's understood locally. The steering committee still meets regularly, and Rundgren remarks that people he meets on the street comment (in the present tense) on what Vision 2020 "is accomplishing."
"The strategic plan does not implement any of its projects," adds Pat Therrien, NRVPDC environmental planner. "It builds a webwork. As pieces get filled in, it takes on a new reality."
A Great Step Forward
Several pieces are already falling into place. During 1998 the area is scheduled to take a giant step toward meeting its entrepreneurial and business-related goals with the opening of the New River Valley Competitiveness Center and the Montgomery Enterprise Development Center (known locally as the "Health-Tex renovation" after a textile manufacturer that previously owned the building). The competitiveness center will house a small business incubator and several regional offices, including the NRVPDC, a Small Business Development Center, an office of the Center for Innovative Technology, an ISO 9000 registrar to facilitate certifications of compliance with international quality control standards, and the New River Valley Economic Development Alliance, which is a marketing group for the Valley.
The Health-Tex renovation will be a multi-tenant facility specifically targeted toward manufacturers of fiber optics and other computer-related equipment. The old building is suited for ultra-modern technology because its wood floors are nonconductive and free of the static electricity that can damage delicate electronic components. The Appalachian Regional Commission is providing funds for water and sewer infrastructure for the competitiveness center; the bulk of the funding for both facilities ($3.2 million) will come from the Economic Development Administration.
Some projects address more than one goal. In particular, area residents are determined to preserve their largely unspoiled physical environment and capitalize on the appeal of nearby outdoor recreation areas. As a result, tourism initiatives are under way, but so are efforts to make the area's small towns appealing to entrepreneurs and professionals. In Giles County, for example, the town of Narrows (population about 2,000) will be the site of a new small business incubator, thanks in large part to an ARC grant to renovate a former automobile dealership on Main Street. The 12,000-square-foot building will be equipped with the latest electronic communications technology. The idea, says Mayor Donald E. Richardson, emerged from a series of strategic planning meetings; a key insight, adds town manager Michael J. Kirk, was that Narrows had to think regionally.
A Major Spin-off
Possibly the single most important spin-off of the Vision 2020 process, however, involves RFAAP, the institution historically at the heart of the New River Valley economy. The RFAAP land and facilities are owned by DOD and operated by Alliant Techsystems, an aerospace and defense technology company. The RFAAP site combines level land along a bend in the New River with hilly terrain common across Appalachia. It contains large buildings equipped for manufacturing and assembling chemical products; these are widely separated from each other and often sited in hollows. ("When you're making high explosives—610 million pounds during World War II and over a half million pounds per day during the Vietnam War—you want any accidents to be closely contained," says David W. Ratcliff, Alliant business manager for defense reconversion and development.)
The RFAAP infrastructure would be the envy of many communities. The installation has roads, buildings, and a railroad spur. It operates its own telephone service, generates its own electricity, and runs two water treatment plants, the smaller of which can produce 1.5 million gallons of drinkable water per day, and the larger of which can produce 35 million gallons per day for industrial operations.
The problems associated with adapting RFAAP facilities to civilian uses are complex: on the one hand, the army wants to reduce its costs by converting substantial parts of RFAAP's sword-making facilities into plowshare-making facilities; on the other, it must consider that events may someday require a fast re-tooling for swords. Therefore, RFAAP's 4,000 acres and its facilities will be leased only. The Armament Retooling and Manufacturing Support Initiative (ARMS Act), passed in 1992, is designed to assist transitions from defense-related activities to civilian uses by providing incentives for partnerships between DOD, its military contractors, and local communities.
To develop its own strategic plan, Alliant contracted with the NRVPDC. The resulting plan identified five goals: reducing army costs by maximizing commercial reuse of idle facilities; developing Alliant business opportunities; promoting environmental stewardship; improving the standard of living in the New River Valley; and maintaining a skilled workforce in the area. Achieving that fifth goal is obviously important to both the community and the army (since idled facilities can be reactivated far faster in a crisis if skilled workers are available locally).
There has been substantial progress toward these goals. Some of the efforts are, in a phrase used in the Radford area, "inside the fence;" others are "outside the fence." The physical fence is there, but where the flow of ideas is concerned, it no longer exists and other barriers to cooperation are falling fast.
Altogether, there are now about a dozen non-military businesses or activities operating within the fence surrounding RFAAP. They include Carilion Radford Community Hospital Wellness Center, a fitness center using the gym and recreation facilities of the former army base, and Metal Processing, Inc., a machine shop with about ten employees. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, located in nearby Blacksburg, uses an RFAAP concrete pad to store coal economically and with minimal adverse environmental impact. Alliant also has agreed to pipe potable water from RFAAP to a nearby industrial park. This will allow a textiles firm located in the park to expand its operations.
In terms of jobs, the most successful transition is a lease to New River Energetics (a subsidiary of Alliant), which manufactures powder for the commercial sport ammunition market. New River Energetics now employs 120 workers; expansion into a new product line is expected to add up to another 100 jobs soon. Ratcliff says that Alliant spent approximately $10 million in adapting the leased facilities to its needs. Alliant also uses RFAAP facilities to produce a chemical compound similar to the explosive TNT that is used in commercial urethane coatings.
Then there's Fireworks by Grucci, a firm that manufactures fireworks and conducts fireworks shows, including huge ones for national patriotic occasions and for commercial customers like Disney. After starting operations in November of this year, Fireworks by Grucci is expected to employ 20 to 25 workers. The doors of rooms that will contain explosives are painted bright red; others are painted blue.
"[RFAAP's] 're-use' plan was a direct outcome of the work we did on Vision 2020," Rundgren says. "They asked the commission to provide leadership in its preparation so that it was connected to what we were doing in the region generally, as opposed to being plant-specific."
Rundgren mentions that several communities in the area are talking about joint purchase of approximately 1,000 acres for an industrial park larger than any of them could afford alone. An application has been filed with the Department of Commerce to have the New River Valley Airport, located in Dublin, designated a foreign-trade zone. (About 50 area companies have been identified as doing some import-export business.) Vision 2020 suggested that the airport might also be a good site for warehousing products for commercial customers needing "just-in-time" deliveries. The town of Dublin is now doing this with warehouses of its own; the idea, Rundgren remarks, "migrated" to Dublin. The town's warehouses were formerly a Burlington Industries plant, which was once part of the New River site of the RFAAP. In short, the efforts spurred by Vision 2020 are proceeding according to plan, even when they don't quite match original expectations.
"It's like an early Picasso," says Lesley Howard, NRVPDC economic development planner, referring to that artist's sometimes unusual placement of eyes and noses. "Everything's all there. It's just not where you expect to find it."
Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.