There's not much Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) can do for the hard-pressed communities of Southside and southwest Virginia. With his state budget mired in a billion-dollar shortfall, there's little money for big, new social programs or roads that might spur economic development or pay raises for teachers.
But he still has the state jet, and he vowed during his campaign not to forget the people of rural Virginia. So Warner took to the skies today, touching down in five towns to preside over announcements by six private companies that are promising to bring more than 1,200 jobs to some of the most distressed regions in the state.
"One of the main reasons I wanted to be governor was to see if we can make Virginia the place that got the 21st-century economy right," Warner said, repeating his campaign pledge to make sure rural Virginia is not left behind. "With the economic downturn, that's been more of a challenge. But while we have limited resources now, there are still tools."
As a candidate, the Alexandria resident visited rural Virginia often, promising to bring the economic prowess of Northern Virginia to parts of the state where unemployment rates are between 10 percent and 15 percent. He talked about connecting the state's poorer regions to the future by hooking them into the Internet economy. He vowed to build a transportation network that would attract businesses and jobs. And he pledged that teacher salaries would rise.
Warner's promises to rural Virginia paid off for him. Democratic strategists believe Warner's ability to win over rural voters gave him the edge in the 2001 election.
But many of the campaign promises are on hold, and it's unclear when, if ever, they can be revived.
Instead of wiring rural Virginia for the future, Warner faces the fallout from the collapse of the Internet economy. The drop in personal wealth, especially in Northern Virginia, has reduced tax revenue by billions of dollars.
Instead of building roads through Southside and southwest Virginia, Warner has slashed the state's construction plan by a third.
And instead of raising teacher salaries, Warner is reducing spending and firing workers.
Success stories have been scarce everywhere. Last week, voters in the state's most densely populated and prosperous regions soundly defeated two of his main initiatives: the transportation tax proposals for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Now, Warner will have difficulty developing a robust transportation plan in the remaining three years of his term.
But for almost 12 hours today, Warner was the bearer of good news, a man adored by desperate communities thankful for the governor's efforts on their behalf.
"If these regions prosper," Warner said, "they are going to contribute to the overall well-being of the state."
In rapid succession, he traveled to Wythe County, Lynchburg, Henry County, Mecklenburg County and Emporia to announce 1,208 new jobs. Companies will invest $50 million in the state's most struggling areas, he told appreciative audiences.
"I'm getting to deliver on the promises I made," Warner said as he flew aboard the state's seven-seat jet from Rural Retreat to Lynchburg. "The budget makes these economic job announcements all the more important. Particularly in Southside and southwest Virginia, as important as the jobs are, equally important is the hope that they bring to the region."
In Rural Retreat, a small community southwest of Roanoke, Warner joined the president of Klockner Pentaplast to announce the expansion of the company's plastics manufacturing plant, which will employ an additional 108 people. Before the announcement, Warner told Danny McDaniel, chairman of the Wythe County Board of Supervisors, that he hasn't forgotten rural Virginia.
"I know Virginia doesn't stop at Roanoke," Warner said.
McDaniel, a Republican, beamed. He said Warner is making good on his promises, despite the budget crisis. Wythe, which has a 5.6 percent unemployment rate, lost 250 jobs in the last two years after the Emerson Electronics plant moved to Mexico. The county needs jobs more than state money, McDaniel said.
"Give us the opportunity to help ourselves," he said.
Paula Burnette, a Henry County supervisor, said Martinsville has been struggling to recover from the failures of its industries.
"Textiles, furniture and tobacco. Did we get a triple hit or what?" Burnette said.
The city, she said, desperately needed Warner's announcement that a closed clothing plant would be reopened by another company and employ 405 workers.
By this evening, Warner was in Emporia, near the North Carolina border, to highlight a $2.7 million expansion of Creative Playthings and a $5.3 million expansion of an American Plastics plant. Together, the companies have pledged to create 165 jobs.
Today's job announcements did not come cost-free. State economic development officials approved $2.19 million in incentive payments to the companies and the localities. A state legislative committee issued a report this week calling such incentives necessary.
Today, Warner agreed, and he urged lawmakers not to seize the state's incentive money as a way of balancing the budget, as they did last year when the fund was reduced from $50 million over two years to $17.5 million.
At day's end, Warner was back in Richmond, where the 2003 General Assembly session begins in January. By then, today's trip is likely to be a pleasant memory. Warner will again be the bearer of bad news, presiding over more budget cuts and facing legislative opponents determined to reduce the size of state government.