WEYERS CAVE — While Virginians have always known the Old Dominion is No. 1, the rest of the United States now knows as CNBC has ranked the commonwealth the top state for business.
Ninety business owners and community members were in attendance to hear the news at the seventh annual Valley Business Summit held at Blue Ridge Community College’s Plecker Center Thursday morning.
“We’d love to stay in that position,” said Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring. “Sometimes it’s difficult to keep that No. 1 ranking, and we’re doing everything we can.”
Ring credits “a number of things” to the state’s No. 1 ranking in business, including workforce development, which Virginia continues to strive to improve especially in the Valley, higher education possibilities and providing STEM in public schools.
“We know that technology is transforming our community in so many different ways,” said Ring, who served as keynote speaker. She said the department is “happy about the announcement with Amazon” bringing a second headquarters to Northern Virginia.
Agriculture is big across Virginia, but no bigger than in Augusta County. Ring acknowledged that the Valley especially understands the importance of youth and agricultural leadership.
Virginia has 450,000 agriculture-related jobs.
Rural economic development is a top priority for the Office of Agriculture and Forestry.
As a native of Craig County, Ring said she understands the challenges facing rural communities.
Recent projects in rural Virginia funded by grants from OAF working with local government include helping Route 11 Potato Chips, which added 19 jobs. Twenty-one of 26 facility grants awarded since January 2018 have been in rural areas of the state.
“These grants have ensured a huge amount of product from our farmers,” Ring said.
The Office of Agriculture and Forestry is working with Augusta, Rockingham and Shenandoah counties to create a tool kit for recruiting new businesses to rural Virginia.
Ring noted the Valley is overflowing with more than 300 wineries.
“We have world class wine. We’re being recognized internationally for our wine,” she said.
The state also boasts a healthy amount of craft breweries and cider businesses, particularly in the Valley.
“It’s really exciting to see that expand,” Ring said. Two hundred breweries and 21 cideries call Virginia home.
She added that Virginia’s colonial history includes the making of whiskey and bourbon.
“So to be able to bring that back and tell that story, it’s part of our culture here in Virginia,” Ring said.
While the state’s internal economy is healthy, its exports continue to be just as important.
“But now we recognize that the port of Virginia is so important to all of us across the state,” Ring said.
Maintaining relationships is also important for the state, according to Ring, including a trade relationship with China.
The opportunities are exciting, “but we know we have some bumps in the road that we have to work through.”
Agri-tourism remains the No. 2 industry for Virginia.
“You have so much to showcase [in the Valley],” Ring said.
Ring excitedly announced that a new bill will enable hemp to move from less research to more production in Virginia as the state’s 135 acres of hemp production has grown to 10,000. Hemp is under production by 900 farms in the state.
When Ring was asked what keeps her awake at night, she said she feels like “we’re in this magical moment in Virginia right now. I feel very fortunate and very honored to be in the position I’m in,” but said she worries about the state’s dairy industry.
Blue Ridge Community College President John Downey said that local delegates created the Valley Business Summit seven years ago to connect small businesses with local business resources. The summit has always included a business resource fair.
Business resource representatives this year included the Greater Augusta Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce, the Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center, the Shenandoah Valley Technology Council and the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board.
However, for the first time this year members of the resource fair were given the opportunity to present information about what their organization provides.
Valley Career and Technical Center in Fishersville was one of the resource participants at this year’s summit.
“This is a great opportunity for businesses and industry to be aware that we do have regional center,” said Principal Darla Miller of VCTC’s presence in the Valley.
She said that VCTC can help train students and adults to become employees in the trades.
Miller said the summit is an opportunity for VCTC to make connections with businesses locally and in the region who are looking for trained employees or will be looking.
“It’s a great networking opportunity,” she said.
The summit also provides an opportunity for local legislators to have face-to-face time with local business owners and community members.
“So [the summit is] a win-win for everybody,” Miller said.