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February 11, 2009

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

By AMANDA BUCK - Bulletin Staff Writer

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Terry McAuliffe got an earful of ideas - from job training to infrastructure to education - Tuesday during an economic roundtable at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

McAuliffe, who chaired Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, is one of three Democrats seeking the party's nomination for governor this year. Tuesday's roundtable was one of a series of similar events McAuliffe is holding around the state to seek ideas about how to improve Virginia's economy.

About 20 people gathered at the museum to discuss the local economy with McAuliffe, who probably asked more questions of participants than they asked of him.

An issue that came up early and often during the roughly two-hour discussion was the need for job training in the area's work force. John Parkinson, president and CEO of Drake Extrusion, told McAuliffe that his company recently posted an ad for eight job openings and received more than 200 applications in response.

Despite the response, "I'm not sure we'll get eight appropriate people," Parkinson said.

Drake had to "immediately discard more than half" of the applicants because they didn't have the required education, Parkinson said. Other applicants could not pass a drug screening test, he said.

"We need to be upgrading the education of our incumbent workers," Parkinson said, echoing the words of Kim Adkins, executive director of the West Piedmont Workforce Investment Board.

If work force training is not addressed, "the businesses that do come can't continue to grow," Parkinson said. "It's a real challenge for us at this time."?

Rhonda Hodges, dean of continuing education and work-force development at Patrick Henry Community College, and Nolan Browning, vice president of academic and student development there, said PHCC works to meet those needs for existing businesses. However, Browning said, that can be difficult because it is hard to get updated data on what companies need.

Program offerings should be matched better with businesses' needs, Browning said. "So if there is a layoff, we know the type of training (workers need) and where the jobs could go."?

Parkinson commended PHCC for its help with training when Drake located in the area 13 years ago. But more should be done, Browning and Hodges indicated.

"Some is funding; some is collaboration and communication," Hodges said of what needs to happen.

As he did throughout the meeting, McAuliffe, 52, took notes about the ideas and issues raised.

Scott Kizner, superintendent of Martinsville Schools, and Curtis Millner, Iriswood District representative on the Henry County School Board, stressed the importance of preschool through 12th-grade education in developing a qualified work force.

Kizner said Martinsville's high rates of unemployment and teenage pregnancy make the needs greater here. It doesn't make sense that some parts of the state, such as Alexandria, spend about $20,000 per student each year while Martinsville and Henry County have only between $9,000 and $10,000 per student per year, he said. Those figures include local, state and other sources of funds.

"The expectations are the same for a child born in Falls Church (as they are here), but the opportunities are not the same," Kizner said.

Although McAuliffe said he does not want to raise taxes, Kizner suggested that a "very targeted tax" might be a way to help the school systems.

McAuliffe said creating income by creating jobs is a way to bring in revenue without raising taxes. One way to help localities do that would be by eliminating the Dillon Rule, a legal concept that strictly limits the power of local governments, placing it with state government instead.

"We need (to give) more authority to the localities," McAuliffe said. As governor, he could not eliminate the rule, but "I certainly could curtail parts of it, I think."?

McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the issue is not necessarily a partisan one, but he is committed to seeing a Democratic majority in the General Assembly, which he said would help with curtailing or eliminating the rule.

Several speakers, including Parkinson, Iriswood District Supervisor Paula Burnette and local businessman Ronald A. "Skip" Ressel Jr., talked about the importance of completing the four-laning of U.S. 58 and constructing Interstate 73. McAuliffe said he is an ardent supporter of the "shovel-ready" 58 completion because of its potential to connect Virginia's ports with the nation's heartland.

He also expressed support for I-73, although Ressel and others pointed out that that project is not shovel ready because, among other things, there is a disagreement about what route the interstate should take through Henry County. The project also is being held up by a lawsuit.

Other speakers stressed the importance of small businesses and said more money should be made available to help them get established and expand. James McClain of Southwest Virginia Gas urged the streamlining of governmental resources dedicated to work-force training, and Barry Dorsey, executive director of the New College Institute, said it is essential that the institute be allowed to continue evolving into a stand-alone, four-year college.

Numerous other ideas were shared during the discussion. Afterward, McAuliffe said he and his staff will compile the ideas they hear statewide into a "business plan for Virginia" that will be released in the coming months.

"We picked up probably 20 great ideas" Tuesday, he said, mentioning job training as one that stood out.

McAuliffe, who said this was his fourth trip to the area since September, said he is committed to campaigning in Southside and plans to open a campaign office in the region. If he is elected governor in November, he said he would "be back a lot" and would continue to hold meetings similar to the roundtable.

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