Crater Commission looks to future of area

The Crater Planning District Commission hosted an informative meeting last Tuesday to outline initiatives taking place in Virginia that will brighten the Crater district’s economic future and resolve infrastructure issues.

Economist Adam Smith wrote of an invisible hand in “The Wealth of Nations,” a book that has long influenced economics and is still regarded as possibly the single greatest book on the subject. The Crater Planning District Commission is similar to the invisible hand, looking to streamline the pipeline from schools to the workforce and prioritize funding for infrastructure projects through earmarks.

“We cover seven counties and four cities,” Dennis Morris said, the Executive Director of the Crater Planning Commission. “We have 28 members on our commission. The majority are local elected officials.”

The Crater Planning District Commission was organized in May of 1970. The Crater Planning District Commission is a certified economic development district under the U.S. Department of Commerce designated by a state department of economic development administration.

The Crater Planning District Commission’s number one priority is a highly skilled and motivated workforce. Morris explained emerging synergy between educational institutions and advanced manufacturing as carrying Virginian’s forward with a global economy. At the head of this development is a coalition initially formed by Rolls-Royce, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia.

“They put on the ground this thing called the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing,” Morris said. “It is commonly called CCAM. It sits right at the front of the Rolls-Royce campus.”

Morris said subsequently other universities followed, including Virginia State University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Old Dominion. There are 26 international private sector partners comprising CCAM.

“It is all about research and development for advanced manufacturing,” Morris said. “Now they are moving into workforce development for advanced manufacturing.”

The idea is a sort of symbiotic relationship where industry can communicate the skills they are seeking to the universities, high schools and community colleges, sending graduates into the workforce. The CCAM classes are currently focused on machinist positions for people transitioning from the armed forces into civilian life.

“CCAM is training transitioning soldiers to become machinists in about an 18-week period,” Morris said. “You don’t have to have been a machinist in the Army to fit in with this. You have to go through some testing to see what your skillset would be. For example, somebody in mortuary affairs transitioned out, got in the program, went through the 18-week program, and got four sets of credentialing for machinists. They are now working over at Rolls-Royce.”

CCAM has an agreement with 20 different manufacturers guaranteeing an interview after completing the program. Morris attended the graduation of about 12 participants in the program in Greensville and found that graduates were being hired over lunch.

CCAM is also providing a tremendous opportunity to top level students in the most demanding disciplines like engineering and information technology. Part of the relationship CCAM offers universities is development of the production equipment of tomorrow.

“Rolls-Royce employs about 290 people right now,” Morris said, “but when they came in, they wanted to have the research and development capabilities they have over in England.”

There is a solid plan to integrate Virginians of all educational backgrounds into the world of manufacturing. CCAM is working to create an apprentice academy for what Morris called the middle worker – the range between high school graduates and four-year college graduates. The apprentice academy would give these middle workers the requisite skillsets to find employment in advanced manufacturing.

The economic development implications are massive in the eyes of Morris, who expressed Virginia’s transportation systems as being prime for such development.

“One obvious advantage is our transportation,” Morris said. “From the interstates to our two major rail systems, to waterways, we have excellent access to the mid-Atlantic.”

This brings up another key component to the vision for the Virginia of tomorrow. The Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistic Systems is about three years behind CCAM.

“Fort Lee had a lot of interest in putting that together,” Morris said. “The same universities had interest in putting that together. As we look at the ports of Hampton Roads being one of the major economic engines for Virginia, the other being Dulles, that all comes up in through Central Virginia. It comes up through tractor-trailers. It comes up through the rail lines. It can be barged up the James to the Port of Richmond. This area is ready to explode in the whole of logistics.”

Morris and the Crater Planning District Commission have what they call a “30,000-foot strategic look” at the region. The focus is on workforce and economic development, tourism, effective education systems, infrastructure and agricultural commerce. The office comprises only 10 fulltime employees, occasional consultants, part-time employees and interns.

The commission is working to improve infrastructure on multiple tiers. Morris said broadband internet is lacking in some areas, but segued directly into the demand for natural gas.

“This proposal for the Atlantic Coastal Pipeline would help alleviate a lot of that for our particular region,” Morris said. “When you go upstream, there is a lot of consternation in Nelson and Augusta County and elsewhere about how that is going to come about. From a broad economic development standpoint, it would really benefit this region.”

Morris said $1.3 billion natural gas fired plant Dominion wants to build in Greensville to generate electricity would need natural gas. The proposed pipeline would serve the Greensville plant the natural gas it needs to operate. It is not clear whether there is an alternative to the Atlantic Coastal Pipeline.

Dominion said the 1,558-megawatt station will provide 1,000 jobs at peak construction; a number that will fall sharply once operation of the facility commences. The operating station will provide jobs 45 employees, and an estimated $8 million in property taxes.

Surry Board of Supervisors Chairman John M. Seward said property taxes paid by Dominion are essentially a moot point in a recent board of supervisors meeting, the point being that Dominion’s ownership of property is no different than ownership of a citizen.

The State Corporation Commission approved Dominion’s proposal, but there is no information on how the Greensville Power Station will source thE natural gas.

Wastewater capacity is another infrastructure problem in the region. Morris said parts of the region are already in a bind. Sussex County is in the process of obtaining a permit from the Department of Environmental Quality to release treated wastewater into Stony Creek and removing sludge to be finally disposed of at a landfill.

The Crater Planning District Commission is looking at the toughest issues the region faces with an optimistic outlook. A completed pipeline would provide the enough wattage to power 400,000 houses. The Crater Planning District Commission is confident Virginia will continue to grow as a manufacturing and logistics center, an achievement that will likely require energy production consistent with the the Greensville Power Station.

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