Virginia has 466 large sites available for development as factories, distribution centers and other job-producing businesses, but just 30 are ready to market in competition with other states for big economic development projects, according to a new state study presented to the Virginia Growth and Opportunity Board on Monday.
Without sites that have the necessary land-use approvals, environmental reviews and other work necessary to prepare them for construction within 18 months, “another state has a better shot” than Virginia at landing big economic development projects, Stephen Moret, the president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, told the GO Virginia board.
Moret called the study the first of its kind in the country to catalog every potential development site of 25 acres or larger, quantified by its readiness for development in a tiered evaluation system that ranks their attractiveness to national consultants who help big companies and employers find the best sites to expand or move their businesses.
Virginia lags behind other states, nationally and regionally, in readying sites for speedy development, but he said the report provides an advantage that competitors don’t have — “site intelligence.”
State officials also hope the report encourages localities and regions to work together to increase the number of sites that Virginia could use to entice companies to make large capital investments and create jobs, especially in rural and small metropolitan areas.
“This tool is very useful in trying to stimulate collaborative conversations,” Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball told the board.
But the effort will require money, directly from the state to the Virginia Business Ready Sites Program run by the partnership and from state-funded programs that GO Virginia administers to promote economic opportunities in nine regions of the state.
Moret said the partnership is asking for $15 million for the site readiness program in the two-year budget that Gov. Ralph Northam will propose next week. The GO Virginia board unanimously adopted a new policy on Monday to broaden the use of two grant funds it administers to increase the number of sites that could be ready for development in 12 to 18 months.
The state funded the $2 million study by the partnership in cooperation with GO Virginia and regional and local economic development agencies. It cataloged 466 sites in 103 localities in the state, evaluating them for potential use in attracting prospects in eight targeted business sectors, such as manufacturing and distribution.
The study uses a tiered system, with Tier 5 designating sites that have been developed with the necessary infrastructure: road and, in some cases, rail access; sewer and water; electricity; and, often, natural gas.
The goal is to increase the number of sites that meet Tier 4 requirements: full investigation of any potential environmental or legal obstacles to development; necessary public planning and zoning approvals; detailed plans and designs for necessary infrastructure, with cost estimates, to have the sites ready for construction in 12 to 18 months.
Anything less than Tier 4 is not likely to prevail in competition with other states, such as the Carolinas, Tennessee and Georgia, which have many more prepared sites to offer to big economic development prospects, the study said.
“Over the last decade, Virginia has missed out on tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in capital investment due to a lack of prepared sites,” the study states.
The partnership says the state needs to produce an additional 160 to 200 “project-ready sites” to produce enough new jobs to reach the top 10 states for job growth over the next decade.
However, the study initially found that detailed information “was sorely lacking” for most sites on fundamental services necessary for development, such as water, sewer, electricity and natural gas capacity.
Ultimately, the study concludes that success will depend on how local governments use the information to work with the state and regional organizations to identify priority sites and find sources of funds to prepare them for quick development.
“Localities are the linchpins in this effort,” it states.