Forum Keys on Future

October 16, 2003

Bulletin Staff Writer

A multifaceted approach to development stressing education and training is the key to rebuilding the local economy, according to state Sen. John H. Chichester, R-Fredericksburg.

"I can't stress this point enough - education is the vital cog in revitalizing your economy," Chichester said during an economic development forum Wednesday morning at The Dutch Inn in Collinsville.

The forum was the first of a four-part series sponsored by the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce. About 40 local government officials and business representatives attended the meeting.

Chichester, the senior GOP member in the state General Assembly and chairman of the senate Finance Committee, said that it is the joint responsibility of state and local government and the private sector to encourage young people to finish high school and attend college or trade school. State government can provide funds for work force training, he said, and local businesses should collaborate with county government to nurture education.

While he stopped short of offering short-term solutions for boosting the local economy, Chichester emphasized that increased educational opportunities and work force training are essential to long-term economic development plans.

"I believe that we need a mix of strategies," he said. "Some that are homegrown and some that are statewide in their focus."

Arguing for the importance of education, Chichester recited figures showing that a person's annual salary increased with his or her level of education.

The average salary for a high school dropout - roughly $10,000 a year - is half of what a high school graduate makes. A college graduate, in turn, makes nearly twice as much as a person who only finished high school, he said.

"It's hard to argue with these numbers, but statewide, we're not living (up) to our potential," he said.

Furthermore, Chichester said that an educated work force would be a powerful incentive for prospective businesses seeking to start up or relocate to the region.

Chichester noted, however, that local economic development is dependent on the actions of state government, saying the General Assembly needs to "get its fiscal house in order" by balancing the state budget.

A two-year budget shortfall has endangered the state's AAA bond rating. If it loses the rating, which is determined by the New York-based bond rating agency Moody's, it would cost the state more to borrow for capital projects.

Chichester likened the economy to a seed of corn, saying that it could sprout untended but would grow faster and stronger if vigorously nurtured.

"It's not good enough to let it grow on its own. We have to infuse it; we have to infuse it with vitality, energy," he said. "We must prepare our soil properly."

Essentially, he said, a balanced budget would serve as the linchpin around which statewide economic revitalization efforts could revolve.

Chichester said that while he did not have time to provide details, a balanced budget would free up state funds for education and work force training, and allow legislators to re-examine state health care and public safety policies.

During a question-and-answer session after his speech, Chichester was asked if he had any short-term solutions for Henry County's economic woes, and if he thought that the development of Philpott Lake might boost the local economy.

Chichester said he was not intimately familiar with Henry County and would be "talking through his hat" if he claimed to have any short-term solutions.

On development of Philpott Lake, Chichester warned that a residential development would not guarantee additional revenue and might actually be a financial liability. However, he praised the ingenuity of the plan.

"Just keep those ideas flowing," he said. "If you get one idea out of 50 (to succeed), that could be the home run."


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