A Winning RBI 

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

Southside Virginia has been beset in recent decades by a variety of challenges that are no less daunting simply because they are common to rural, agricultural areas: the loss of family farms as viable entities, both causing and being exacerbated by the flight of young people from the farms for higher-paying jobs in cities; unpredictable, up-and-down and often unnerving changes in market demand for its crops; a constant struggle to provide educational opportunities for its students on a par with more affluent, and more technologically advanced, parts of the state; and the sad decline of many once-vibrant small town Main Streets.

And these are just a few of the more easily identified and articulated struggles facing this region known for its clay soil, its peanuts and pines, its beef cattle and cantaloupe, and its most famous crop, tobacco, the green-growing, golden-cured leaf that has been the region’s economic mainstay for over 200 years. But rising health concerns and falling demand for the crop have been at the epicenter of many of the region’s economic struggles in recent decades.

So if the region’s fortunes were a baseball game, then a coalition of leaders determined to reverse Southside Virginia’s woes came through in the clutch recently with one of the most spectacular “game-winning hits” the Commonwealth has ever seen. This cadre of federal, state, and local leaders worked cooperatively across party lines to fashion what many of us think will secure a much brighter, more prosperous future for the hard-working residents of this hard-luck region.

So what’s the name of this game-winning, and region-rebuilding, “hit”? Why RBI, of course, in this case not a Run Batted In, but a Regional Backbone Initiative.

So just what is this RBI? It’s an effort to allow Southside Virginia to connect to the Internet and other advanced communications technologies through a 700-mile, fiber-optic cable network that will connect five cities, 20 counties, and 56 industrial parks in a high-tech network that will serve nearly 700,000 citizens and thousands of businesses. The network will run as far west as Patrick County, as far north as Buckingham County, east to Sussex County, and south to the North Carolina line.

A bipartisan array of the Commonwealth’s leaders, from Governor Mark Warner, to U.S. Senator George Allen, to Congressman Virgil Goode, to state Senator Charles Hawkins and Delegate Clarke Hogan, made a compelling and successful case for two $6 million grants to fund the effort.

One is from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission (founded in 1999 by the General Assembly to promote economic growth in areas especially hard-hit by declining demand for tobacco, and able to provide assistance using funds from the ’98 master settlement between tobacco companies and the states). The other grant is from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.

Helping support this effort behind the scenes over the last few years has been Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, power supplier to 10 of Virginia’s 13 local electric cooperatives. At the heart of this effort was Old Dominion’s manager of economic development, David Hudgins. According to him, this effort “marks the beginning of a hallmark project not only in the Commonwealth, but in the nation,” pointing to the fact that it will help make a rural region “as competitive as any other for the creation of new jobs and investment.”

In many ways, the spotty availability of broadband service in rural areas today is hauntingly similar to the limited presence of electric service in rural areas in the 1930s, when only about 10 percent of rural folks had electricity in their homes. The answer then was for rural folks to create their own utility — an electric cooperative — and provide themselves with a service that no one else would. With help from the federal government in the form of low-cost loans, this success story was repeated in nearly 1,000 communities in 46 states during the 1930s and ’40s. And, it continues today.

So it’s a sweet irony to Hudgins and other electric cooperative leaders that the entity formed to manage the grant funds and oversee development of the project is — you guessed it — a cooperative, the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative. Hudgins is chairman of the board of the new cooperative, which hopes to have the broadband backbone finished by early 2006.

The project promises to make Southside Virginia more competitive in attracting high-tech industries and their high-paying jobs; more appealing to urban and suburban dwellers who would prefer living in a rural area if broadband service were available to allow them to telecommute; and more desirable to current residents in providing them with the many cultural, medical, business and educational amenities available through high-speed Internet access.

In addition, the RBI project will create over 1,500 good new jobs during the construction phase, resulting in perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in direct and indirect benefit to Southside Virginia. It’s truly a win-win-win for the region, the state, and yes, the nation as well, serving as it will as a national model of an innovative, open-access, advanced broadband network designed to provide high-speed bandwidth service to a rural area.

But this RBI does differ from its baseball namesake in one clear regard: Baseball games have winners and losers. There are no losers in this RBI, just a bright future for a beleaguered region, lots of good old-fashioned cooperation, and one brand-new cooperative to welcome to the family.



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