December 20, 2005
BY REX BOWMAN
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
MARTINSVILLE -- Gov. Mark R. Warner might have his critics, but you'd have to knock on quite a few doors to find any of them in this former capital of the state's textile industry.
Four years after saying the success of his governorship would one day be judged by the fortunes of economically beleaguered places such as Martinsville and surrounding Henry County, Warner returned to the city yesterday and received a standing ovation from local leaders.
According to local thinking, Warner has measured up to his own yardstick.
"He's made a Democrat out of me," said George Lester, a Martinsville businessman, longtime Republican and one of those who cheered the Democratic governor. "He made a lot of promises when he went into office, and he's done everything he could for this area."
The words of praise must be encouraging to a man presumed to be contemplating a run for the presidency. And they can be seen as astonishing in that the city still has empty storefronts downtown, idle factories and an unemployment rate of 8.3 percent, far higher than the state's 3.2 percent.
But local officials are increasingly confident that the city's darkest hour is at last behind them. And they are crediting Warner as the leader who rallied their spirits when wave after wave of economic woe threatened to deluge them. The city's unemployment rate hit 17.9 percent six months into Warner's term as the area's textile, apparel and furniture industries all but imploded.
"Things have been tough here for the last 10 or 12 years, but thank God for Mark Warner, because they've been a lot better than they could have been," said Mayor Joe Cobbe. "You know you're not in it alone when the governor shows up a lot."
"I am a lifelong Republican, but Mark Warner has transcended party loyalty and has established a record that will stand the test of time," said Rob Spilman, chairman of the New College Planning Commission, a group that is working to create a four-year college in the Martinsville area.
Warner came to Martinsville yesterday to encourage local leaders to prepare for battle next year as they try to persuade the General Assembly to spend $4.5 million to create a new college in the Martinsville area. Local officials think a four-year college will act as an economic engine.
For Warner, who included the $4.5 million in the two-year budget he unveiled last week, the pep talk was routine: He has visited Martinsville often in the past four years to encourage leaders, deliver checks and help woo businesses.
The aid for Martinsville and Henry was part of Warner's larger effort to pump life into the anemic economy of Southside, an effort the governor's office says has created 16,067 new jobs in the area, saved an additional 3,370 jobs from disappearing and resulted in $1.6 billion in capital investments in the past four years.
In Martinsville, leaders said the attention has made a big difference. "The state has stepped up," Cobbe said.
Martinsville, population 15,309, is a gritty city once known, along with Henry, as the "Sweatshirt Capital of the World." Generations of families have worked at sewing machines. But in 1994, the area's textile and apparel industries began a steady decline. One after another, longtime employers like Pluma, Ashmore Sportswear, Tultex, DuPont and VF Imagewear went bust or moved local jobs to Latin America.
In the eight years before Warner took office, the area lost 9,500 jobs. Many of them had paid more than $10 an hour. Some of the jobs landed outside the U.S., where they paid $1.50 an hour.
When Warner took office in January 2002, the city's unemployment rate stood at 12.2 percent. Henry's was 9.9 percent. The governor responded by paying attention to the area, cheerleading when necessary and opening up the state purse to help entice businesses to move in.
In the past four years, Warner has doled out more than $2.8 million from the Governor's Opportunity Fund to prompt local businesses to expand and new businesses to move to Martinsville and Henry. The businesses, which include Hooker Furniture, Activewear and Master Brand Cabinets, agreed to invest more than $65 million and create 2,184 jobs, according to data provided by the governor's office.
Warner also created a Coordinated Economic Relief Center in Martinsville, a one-stop site where those recently out of work could come for public and private assistance in finding other jobs, learning new skills and even writing résumés.
Additionally, the state gave the city more than $500,000 to help turn the empty Tultex headquarters building downtown into a business incubator where new companies could get off the ground. Lisa Fultz, manager of the incubator known as the West Piedmont Business Development Center, said the building was 98 percent empty 3½ years ago. Now, she said, it is 98 percent full.
Today, Martinsville's unemployment rate stands at 8.3 percent (as of October, the last month measured), and Henry's is 6 percent.
"I feel like the worst is behind us," said Lester, the businessman, who has offered a 180,000-square-foot building in Martinsville to house the proposed college. Warner "has been here for us."
Yesterday, Warner gave his pep talk to about 100 local officials and civic leaders in the former Tultex building. Wistfully noting that the visit might be his last to Martinsville as governor, he suggested that he shares the assessment that he has done right by the city.
"When I ran four years ago, people asked me what I hoped my legacy would be," Warner recalled. "I'd say, and not just in Martinsville but anywhere around the state, if at the end of four years that young person in Martinsville didn't feel like they had to move away to find a job, those four years would be worth it."
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