Diversifying Job Opportunities In Harrisonburg

Brent Finnegan -- October 14th, 2010

This is the second installment in a Q&A series with Harrisonburg City Council candidates.

hburgnews.com reader Chris writes:

“In many cases JMU students are forced to leave Harrisonburg post-graduation because of a lack of jobs in their field. Because of this, the Harrisonburg community loses much talent that would be beneficial to our community.

As a member of the city council what steps would you take to further diversify job opportunities in the area?”

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Joe Fitzgerald: The City Council’s ability to create jobs is limited, particularly during a long economic downturn. The tax policies and workforce to attract new jobs already exist here, but the city, in attempting to draw new jobs, is in the same buyer’s market as the roughly one in six Americans who are unemployed or underemployed. The city’s policies looking forward should be aimed at protecting what we have, particularly in two areas. The first is maintaining the current level of services without raising tax rates or, as the city has done three times in the past twenty years, creating new taxes. The second is in adopting a housing policy that puts the needs of the city as a whole ahead of the needs of specific developers, especially regarding new student housing. The city should adopt a moratorium on new student housing complexes, and begin looking for new ways to get tax revenues from students.

Campaign initiatives based on job creation or budget issues should be taken with a grain of salt. Cities in Virginia have limited budget options to begin with, and those options shrink during a downturn. The city’s most important choices will be on development, and candidates who have a record in that area should be judged on that record.

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Greg Coffman: Full employment is the goal of every community. However, even in the best of economic times, there is always some degree of unemployment. The city is being proactive in attracting new businesses to the area, and I would see this effort intensify over the next several years as we begin to emerge from the current recession.

Currently, prospective businesses can get financial assistance through the Harrisonburg Industrial Development Authority, Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, just to mention a few. These agencies offer financial assistance in the form of locally backed bonds and grants. There are other state and federal avenues also available for qualifying businesses. Recently, the city qualified to participate in the Rural Business-Cooperative Programs which will provide various types of loans to businesses. This small sampling of programs is by no means conclusive but is offered to demonstrate the efforts that are ongoing to provide better jobs for our area.

Also, the Harrisonburg Technology Park offers incentives for up to ten years, exemptions from water and sewer hookup fees, three year exemptions from the Business and Professional Office Licenses (BPOL), and assistance in acquiring land.

As a member of the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance (HDR) Economic Development Committee, I’ve been involved in helping the downtown area revitalize and plan for further renovations. What we’ve done in HDR has definitely brought more jobs to the downtown, and we’re continuously seeing plans put forth for future ventures. Many of the approaches we’ve used to invigorate the downtown could be utilized for other areas of economic development in the city.

At this point in time, even with the presence of the Rosetta Stone and other high tech businesses, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. The fit with JMU and high tech industries is obvious, and one we’re already exploring and supporting. The important thing is that the foundation is laid to begin attracting new businesses, job opportunities with prosperous futures, and growth oriented companies that will offer clean industries and community involvement by their employees.

While there is no magic bullet to developing jobs, I see us building on the previous efforts, learning from our mistakes, and capitalizing on our successes. My purpose is to provide quality jobs with secure futures to all of our residents.

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Carolyn Frank: As a member of City Council for 8 years, I can assure our citizens that your community and business leaders are committed to bringing new business opportunities to our city. We have welcomed SRI into our community and helped to facilitate the expansion of Rosetta Stone. We work to keep our city attractive to new businesses and those looking to relocate. Harrisonburg offers a unique quality of life that simply cannot be beat.

We are ideally located, have excellent educational facilities, world-class health care, recreational and family activities, a vibrant downtown community with housing and restaurants, and a diverse labor pool. We market our community and offer incentives to companies bringing new jobs to our city. We do this though our own economic fund and the Governor’s economic fund. We work regionally and locally to attract businesses and have experienced many successes. Talented people will create their own opportunities if giving the right environment. Harrisonburg is home to several very successful home grown companies that have given many opportunities to our people. My job as a council person is to make sure we keep an environment that is attractive and welcoming.

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Ted Byrd: Harrisonburg must continue to market itself nationally and internationally to perspective employers. This marketing function needs to be done in a cooperative manner through regional and state partnerships. In addition, Harrisonburg must continue to maintain a favorable business environment which encourages the growth of small and entrepreneurial companies. I represented both Harrisonburg and Rockingham County in this economic development role in the 1990’s and continue to help whenever I can in a retention/recruitment process. Successes in the last four years, include the expansion of Ariake USA, Rosetta Stone (twice), SRI International, and the just announced arrival of Harris Corporation.

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Charlie Chenault: I think we have done a good job of keeping JMU graduates in our community in jobs with the City and the City schools. Unfortunately, both are in the midst of hiring freezes/slowdowns, and the city has eliminated its paid summer intern program. One segment of employment opportunity lacking in our community that would benefit many of our JMU grads specialized skills are federal jobs. A good example is the FBI Records Center in Winchester that was scheduled to employ 1,200 people in high paying, skilled jobs which is now open. Ironically, some local residents (JMU grads) commute to their jobs there. We need to reel one these federal agencies to the City with the help of our Congressman and two Senators. We should not be alone in this endeavor as JMU will need to partner with the City to secure more employment in the technology area and in the federal jobs area just as it partnered with the Commonwealth, Rockingham County and the City for the SRI project which I believe still has not reached its potential in employing locals or graduates. The Arts Council which is partially funded by the City is attempting to stimulate the local arts scene which hopefully will provide some employment for arts related grads.

Job diversification in the community is fairly stable except in the area of light manufacturing. One suggestion that came out of the comprehensive plan public meetings was the concept of developing a light manufacturing presence in the community for sustainable products such as solar panels. EMU is now in the process of installing solar panels marketed by a group of local individuals. I believe the City has the opportunity to work with these individuals to support their efforts and encourage the manufacturing of the panels locally. This could extend to other sustainable products.

It has always been my opinion that one of the reasons we promote our downtown is its allure when recruiting businesses. It is no accident that this helped keep Rosetta Stone in the City. Quite frankly, if we can at least keep our existing employment outlook stable, we will be doing a good job. As important as the jobs for JMU students are, I am particularly concerned about the portion of our City that is underemployed or those who want to work, but are chronically unemployed.

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Updated October 15:

Sal Romero: I totally agree that JMU graduates exceptional students each year with amazing talents in many different career fields. I observed this trend during my educational career at JMU several years ago. It certainly would be very advantageous to incorporate these fine professionals so that they would contribute to our community. I believe we need to be realistic and consider the hardship we are encountering at this point in time which makes it very challenging to provide jobs even to a small portion of the graduates. A more realistic goal would be to accommodate employment opportunities for our neediest residents who are struggling to find a job. Nevertheless, I do believe Harrisonburg is doing a good job addressing the issue of more diverse jobs for college graduates by supporting local businesses such as Rosetta Stone, SRI, the expansion of JMU, just to name a few that are creating employment opportunities. I also think that in order for our JMU and other local University graduates to consider staying in the area, we must continue to make Harrisonburg more appealing in the areas of education, safe neighborhoods, recreational opportunities, and other important services that ultimately provide a greater quality of life. As a council member, I would continue to support efforts to recruit businesses that provide the type of employment that fits the needs of not only our graduates, but also our long time Harrisonburg residents.

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hburgnews.com will be emailing candidates questions and posting answers periodically throughout the remainder of October. All responses are listed unedited, in the order we received them.

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2 Responses to “Diversifying Job Opportunities In Harrisonburg”

  1. Erik Kimsey says:

    Haven’t read it all, but very nice post! Thank you, Brent.

  2. Jay Bender says:

    Very good post!

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