Sizing up the region

December 12, 2003

Bulletin Staff Writer

Despite a shrinking and undereducated work force, Henry County and Martinsville's business climate still is competitive, according to an analysis done for a local economic development study.

J. Mac Holladay, a economic development expert and chief executive officer of Market Street Services in Atlanta, Ga., discussed his consulting firm's competitive assessment of the area during a meeting with business and community leaders Thursday night at Forest Park Country Club. He unveiled the study earlier in the day.

The firm has determined that Henry County and Martinsville can competitively draw, expand and maintain businesses with similar-sized city/counties in Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia, according to a copy of the report.

During the past six months, Market Street Services has interviewed and polled residents and analyzed the area's infrastructure, work force, cost of business, and quality of life.

It then compiled a list of the positive and negative aspects of living and doing business in this community compared with three other southern communities: Danville-Pittsylvania County; Carrollton-Carroll County, Ga.; and Columbia-Maury County, Tenn.
While Henry County and Martinsville's unemployment rates - 12.1 percent in the city and 14.9 percent in the county - were higher in September than were those in the other municipalities, it has similar population size and makeup, according to the assessment report.

While this locality has several shortcomings in comparison - most notably a steadily rising crime rate, lack of recreation and increasingly undereducated work force - Martinsville-Henry County has assets "that other communities across the country would kill for," Holladay said.

According to the report, these assets include a relatively low cost of living and doing business; ample access to utilities especially water service; competitive incentive packages for relocating businesses; an excellent local community college and quality public school systems; four 18-hole golf courses; a competitive local airport; and plenty of available industrial sites and buildings.

Also, "there is a feeling that it is a great place to raise a family," Holladay said.

Among the report's negative findings:

--The area has educational shortcomings. While there is a large available work force with a strong work ethic, many employees lack basic math, science, language and interpersonal skills. Businesses claim to have difficulty finding quality entry-level employees.

Several city schools fall short of federal guidelines for student performance and the entire public school system is struggling to integrate non-English speaking students into the classrooms.

--Existing businesses - especially those owned by minorities - have complained that they feel neglected by local leaders and economic development organizations. Focus group participants claim that the business community is "cliquish" and adheres to a history of paying low wages and barring competition.

--In terms of quality of life, certain crimes are becoming disturbingly prevalent, including forcible rape, motor vehicle theft in Martinsville and intentional manslaughter in Henry County.

The firm detected negative health trends including high instances of heart, liver, Alzheimer's and respiratory diseases.

Also, young people complained about the area's shoddy entertainment options and dismal nightlife.

--Finally, focus groups said that some negative media and divergent leadership between the city and county perpetuates widespread negative attitudes and a lack of vision for the future.

"Many participants noted that outlets such as local cable Channel 18 contribute to an overall climate of negativity in the community that leads to a perception that Martinsville-Henry County is not a desirable place to live or run a business," the report states.

After giving the presentation, Holladay asked the audience to participate in a group exercise imagining Henry and Martinsville's future.

People sitting at each table were asked to make a consensus and read aloud what they would do for the community if they were king for a day and had absolute power. Also, they were asked to dream up a New York Times headline they would like to see in 10 years about Martinsville and Henry County.

As the audience members read their desires, it became apparent most would like to see three things improved: Schools, quality of life and city and county governments relations.

Del. Ward Armstrong said his table would like to see a consolidated school system with an emphasis on college preparatory classes.

Butch Hamlet, a local businessman and member of the Coalition of Economic Progress, said he would like to see a consolidated Henry County-Martinsville government.

And if she were queen, Chamber of Coalition's Partnership for Economic Growth (C-Peg) member Amy Lampe said she would "create 10,000 jobs paying a minimum of $30,000 a year."

The Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce and C-PEG commissioned the Market Street Services analysis and development strategy. It is being funded by The Harvest Foundation.

The competitive assessment is the second step in the consulting firm's five-part plan. In early 2004 it will deliver a target business analysis, a community and economic development strategy and implementation plan. The entire study will be complete by March.


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