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Report: State economic development program’s ‘overall success’ unknown

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(The Center Square) — A recent study of Virginia’s economic development program elicited some positive reviews but also found that it lacks the data to measure its success truly.

The Virginia Growth and Opportunity program, also known as GO Virginia, was created by the General Assembly in 2016 to “promote regional collaboration” and “grow and diversify regional economies.”

In 2022, the assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which conducts analyses of state programs, policies and agencies, directed staff to review the program.

Staff researchers found that the program was functioning well and fulfilling its purpose in several ways.

The program divides the state into nine contiguous regions based partly on geography and their economic strengths, weaknesses and resources. Designed to expand private-sector business and unite localities in their pursuit of regional economic growth, GO Virginia provides grants to localities attracting private businesses and meeting program criteria.

“GO Virginia appears to be facilitating greater collaboration within the state’s regional economies,” according to the report.

At least two regional organizations must come together for a project to qualify for a grant through the program — local governments, school divisions or other local public institutions — and researchers observed that two or more were involved in every case they examined.

Most economic development officers surveyed by JLARC reported that the program has improved regional collaboration and has proven “useful for promoting growth and diversification in their regional economies,” according to the study. Project leads unanimously attested that projects aided by the program moved faster and more efficiently, whether through greater access to skilled workers or other support the program provided.

However, despite these positives, GO Virginia needs help with quantitative data and record keeping.

“The program’s overall success cannot reliably be measured because the outcomes data reported for many projects is unclear, inaccurate, or misleading,” according to the report.

The program doesn’t clearly define some foundational benchmarks, nor does it provide for routine, rigorous data collection on projects, nor for oversight or confirmation that what’s reported is accurate.

Due to the lack of clarity, some projects have been portrayed as much more successful than they actually were.

“For example, the program’s outcome measure for jobs … combines two distinct activities with different economic benefits — number of jobs created and number of jobs filled — into a single measure,” the report stated.

As a result, JLARC discovered that “only approximately 10 percent of the reported jobs created or filled by the sample of projects reviewed could reasonably be attributed to GO Virginia projects.”

While the program may achieve some of its stated goals, “most GO Virginia projects do not directly create jobs and job creation is not required by statute,” according to the report.

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