In December 1999, Danville and Pittsylvania County were in what felt like a death spiral. The community’s longtime economic mainstays – textiles and tobacco – were shrinking. The worst still lay ahead and, while no one knew that at the time, some sure sensed it. Meanwhile, in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech had just named a new president – Charles Steger – who would take office the following month.
One of the most influential business people in Pittsylvania, Ben Davenport, traveled to Blacksburg to meet with the president-elect. (Disclosure: Davenport is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.) “My hope was to engage Virginia Tech in a new kind of outreach,” Davenport said at the memorial service for Steger in 2018. “Well, Charles quickly saw the infrastructure we could create. And through helping us he began the creation of a new model for the role of a land-grant university. His backing attracted support from the General Assembly and I’m happy to say the rest is history.”
That “new kind of outreach” that Davenport referred to was the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research that was founded in 2002. Here’s what I wrote for The Roanoke Times when Steger passed away: “At the time the idea of a high-tech research center in Danville seemed far-fetched. Today, though, Danville is a city on the rebound – and staking a claim in the new economy in a way that couldn’t have been imagined back then.” Eight foreign flags fly over downtown Danville to signify all the countries whose companies have invested in manufacturing operations in the city. I used the occasion to pose the theory that perhaps college presidents are more important than governors, because here was an example of Steger’s legacy that was panning out nearly two decades later.
The ribbon cutting for Pittsylvania’s AeroFarms facility will be this afternoon, signifying the end of the construction phase for the New Jersey-based indoor vertical farming company. AeroFarms says this operation will be the largest of its kind in the world.
The 140,000-square-foot facility is a $42 million investment, located in Cane Creek Centre, a joint industrial park owned by Danville and Pittsylvania County.
AeroFarms has already started growing and selling out of its Pittsylvania location, and the ribbon cutting is an official grand opening for the site.
But what exactly is indoor vertical farming? And how does it fit into the agriculture industry?
Indoor vertical farming is a subset of something called controlled environment agriculture. CEA is a technology-based approach to farming, where factors like temperature, humidity, airflow, light intensity and duration, and water supply can be controlled to try to produce optimal conditions for growth.
Familiar examples of controlled environment agriculture include greenhouses and hydroponics.
Cardinal News brought Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, to Danville to speak about the future of advanced manufacturing.
Workforce investment is key in bolstering the advanced manufacturing industry, the president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers said Monday in Danville.
Areas that want to invigorate their manufacturing, like Danville and the surrounding Pittsylvania County, need to grow the talent pool and invest in people. That’s how you attract leading manufacturers, Jay Timmons said.
Susan Edwards Crocker served as Vice President of Human Resources and Associate Services for BMW Manufacturing Corp. (1993-1998). She established, and was responsible for, the functions of recruitment, training, associate services, safety, health, security, compensation, benefits, environmental engineering, and associate relations. The BMW plant start-up was the fastest in automotive history, going from green field to production in just 18 months.
Before joining BMW, Mrs. Crocker spent 15 years with Sara Lee Corporation where she gained extensive experience in human resources management, training, policy development, and communications. Prior to becoming a plant manager for Sara Lee, she was an area human resources manager for the facilities in Morganton, NC.
Susan Crocker holds a B.S. and Masters degrees from North Carolina State University, with honors and was the North Carolina Woman of the Year in 1987, NCSU Outstanding Alumnus in 1987 and nominee for South Carolina Outstanding Human Resource Professional in 1998.
Susan Crocker founded her company in 1998 to provide outsourced human resources, consulting, and benefits brokerage to clients in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. She has served as an expert witness for major law firms in the Southeast. She served on the American Red Cross and Compass of Carolina boards and Pittsylvania County, VA Chamber of Commerce. Ms. Crocker has 44 years of human resources experience and is a master trainer for Development Dimensions International. Since 1998, her firm has specialized in human resources consulting for regional companies in the southeast.
The Southern Virginia Workforce Solutions Summit is a joint effort of the Southern Virginia (SoVa) Taskforce which is comprised of economic developers and chamber executives across the southern Virginia region and workforce providers across the region. With the support of GoVa Region 3, the taskforce worked collaboratively through the COVID Pandemic to address industry needs. The number one request as the region emerges from the pandemic remains employee recruitment and retention.
On Wednesday, September 7th from 8 AM – 5 PM at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, the SoVa Taskforce will provide a Workforce Solutions Summit targeting the concerns, solutions and opportunities to emerge from this workforce shortage in a more competitive position, working with a better qualified and dedicated employee team. The summit will address key areas like:
1. How do you recruit and retain employees in a competitive and limited job market?
2. How can this region’s labor shed support growth during a time when the nation faces a labor shortage?
3. Hear from private sector specialists who will discuss techniques for recruiting and retaining employees.
4. Learn about local, state and federal resources available to your company and browse exhibits from resource providers highlighting assistance for employers and employees.
5. Network with human resource managers and professionals.
The Patrick & Henry Community College Board has added four members: Sean Adkins, Belinda Bryant, Robert Foster, and Shana LeGrant. These members were appointed by their respective localities to fill vacancies that arose last year.
Sean Adkins is the Director of Economic Development and the Executive Director for the Economic Development Authority (EDA) for Patrick County. His career has almost entirely been spent as a public servant for non-profits and local governments in the fields of community and economic development. He earned his undergraduate degree in Business/Organizational Studies from the University of Connecticut, his Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree from the University of Miami, and originally came to Virginia for the PhD program in Public Policy at Virginia Tech.
Belinda Bryant received her Bachelor of Science, with a major in Social Work, from Longwood University through New College Institute. She graduated from PHCC in 2016 with an Associate in Arts and Science (General Studies) with a minor in Human Services and is currently employed at HopeTree Family Services as a Regional Director for their DDM (Developmental Disabilities Ministry) program. She travels to four group homes within a two-hour radius from Martinsville.
When manufacturers thinking about setting up shop in Southern Virginia visit Pittsylvania County, the county’s economic development director, Matt Rowe, doesn’t just show off expansive, shovel-ready industrial sites. He also touts the region’s workforce, which includes many workers with advanced manufacturing skill sets.
Eighteen percent of Southern Virginia’s labor force works in manufacturing, an industry that has been a central part of the region’s landscape for more than a century. However, as textile, apparel and furniture production moved offshore over the past several decades, many local factories closed. Southern Virginia, however, refused to cast aside its industrial heritage.
The cities of Danville and Martinsville, along with Pittsylvania, Halifax, Patrick and Henry counties, banded together to train workers to participate in a new generation of manufacturing, with a focus on advanced technologies, including robotics, mechatronics, precision machining, computer coding and automation. Along with community college and tech center programs, trade skills have been integrated into local schools’ K-12 curriculum, with dual enrollment courses leading to advanced certifications for high school graduates.
“We’ve invested in workforce programs highly desired by industry,” Rowe says, noting that Pittsylvania and Danville have earmarked more than $70 million for workforce training over the past decade. “The community asked industries what they needed and put significant resources into meeting those needs. Having those skill sets is highly valued by industries. It’s not only kept businesses in place, but it’s helped attract new businesses.”
Corporate investment is surging in Southern Virginia as firms take advantage of available land and talent. During the past six years, new and expanding industries have invested more than $700 million in capital projects and brought 3,200-plus jobs to the region. Much of that largesse has occurred at Cane Creek Centre, an industrial park co-owned by Pittsylvania and Danville; about 1,500 new jobs have been created at the park since 2018. Companies that have moved into Cane Creek in recent years include North America’s largest step van manufacturer, Morgan Olson LLC; indoor vertical produce grower AeroFarms; and Walraven Inc., a manufacturer of installation systems for plumbing and mechanical applications that moved its U.S. headquarters and manufacturing operations from Cadillac, Michigan, to Danville.
Next summer, Tyson Foods will bring nearly 400 jobs to the region when it opens its $300 million, 325,000-square-foot plant at Cane Creek. The food production facility marks the largest economic development project in Pittsylvania to date. While Southern Virginia boasts a central location and lower costs for utilities, labor, raw materials, taxes and real estate than many other U.S. locales, the region’s workforce training program was a major factor in Tyson’s decision to build in the region.
“Tyson saw the technical skill sets we’ve developed and adjusted plans for their facility and made it more automated and technologically advanced,” says Corrie Bobe, Danville’s economic development director. “The average wage increased, compared to what was originally planned. That’s a large success for our community.”
The region’s focus on preparing students for the manufacturing workforce was key to Tyson choosing to build in Southern Virginia, says Nancy Frank, plant manager of Tyson Foods Danville. “We’ve partnered with area high schools [and] community colleges, including Danville Community College, to offer a new maintenance technology training program and made significant local and state investments in training programs and facilities across the region to help find highly skilled workers and create pathways for employment for our future team members.