(The Center Square) — The 1990s and early 2000s weren’t particularly kind to Southside Virginia’s Pittsylvania County, but some sustained, concerted efforts to turn things around may be paying off.
For much of those decades, the county’s unemployment rate exceeded the nation and Virginia. But in recent years, that has changed. Now, Pittsylvania County’s unemployment rate of 3.1% is significantly better than the national average, though it still lags the state (Virginia has the eighth-lowest rate in the country).
“Twenty to 25 years back, this region was furniture, textiles and tobacco – pretty much all at one time,” Matthew Rowe, the county’s director of economic development, told The Center Square. “That resulted in the region, in the early 2000s, really hitting rock bottom.”
Rowe largely attributes the county’s then-misfortune to globalization, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of 1998, which resulted in greater regulations on the tobacco industry and automation.
Founded in 1882, textile manufacturer Dan River Mills is just one of the region’s organizations that saw immense success during its history – the Danville mill at one time employed 14,000 people – but was forced to shutter in 2006, after a long decline brought on by the importing of cheap textiles, according to Encyclopedia Virginia.
“If you were to bring back that operation today, it would probably employ maybe only 1,000 people just due to automation,” Rowe said.
Rowe called what happened to Dan River Mills “typical” for the region at that time.
Around the time of the Great Recession, community members finally found some potential solutions to the job loss, economic depression and population loss they had experienced.
“I think that as a community, you can either frankly accept your lot in life of ‘we’ve gone to rock bottom,’ or you can say, ‘You know what, we’re not satisfied with the status quo. We want to change our trajectory,’” Rowe said.
Community leaders surveyed local employers that had weathered the storm and asked for their insights into what the county could do to rebuild a stronger economy. Industry feedback told them they needed to bolster their advanced manufacturing capabilities.
“When most communities were really just preserving their resources… this community said, ‘You know what, we’re going to take this opportunity here to do the exact opposite and to invest heavily in these programs because we know that once this recession ends, the economy will pick back up and we’ll be in an opportune position to take advantage of it,’” Rowe said.
The county began investing in educational courses teaching skills like precision machining, advanced welding, cybersecurity, automation and robotics – skills that would prepare students for careers in advanced manufacturing. At this point, Pittsylvania County has invested over $68 million in its middle and high school programs alone, according to Rowe.
“The number one thing you can do for economic development is invest in your people… Your goal is that the skill sets and your people stay,” Rowe said.
The county’s investment has paid dividends. Since 2018, companies have invested over $1.3 billion and brought more than 4,300 new jobs to the area. The U.S. Navy opened its Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence in Danville just last year. And what started in Pittsylvania County has now spread to other localities – every high school in the county’s Southern Virginia region has adopted an advanced manufacturing curriculum, according to Rowe.
Between the school and higher education courses and the Navy’s new center, the region is churning out thousands of graduates with training in advanced manufacturing qualifications every year.
Now, developers are installing new housing developments with thousands of units to accommodate newcomers to the area.