For this city of about 43,000 residents near the North Carolina border, the challenge is clear: Work is hard to find.
The unemployment rate topped 11 percent as of June, roughly double the statewide average. And local officials, armed with the new motto “The River City, Where Innovation Flows,” are still striving to replace thousands of jobs lost years ago.
“We simply looked at what we were — tobacco, textile — knew that would be no more, and we started focusing on technology and energy and other kinds of projects for our city,” Mayor Sherman Saunders said recently as U.S. Senate candidate George Allen (R) was visiting Danville.
“We also focused on education, worker training and retraining.”
Two hundred and fifty miles to the north, the challenge is decidedly different in Arlington County: Workers are hard to find.
“We’re blessed and cursed, because we’re in Northern Virginia, where unemployment is effectively zero,” John B. Spirtos, chief executive of the energy-management firm GridPoint, told Timothy M. Kaine when the Democratic Senate candidate visited the company’s headquarters in bustling Clarendon.
The state’s jobless rate, at 5.9 percent, is among the lowest in the country, but it masks the reality that there are two Virginias. One, concentrated in the thriving Washington suburbs, has escaped much of the economic turbulence that buffeted the rest of the nation. The other, nestled in the southern and southwest regions of the state, is struggling to adapt to a world where manufacturing is no longer king.
For Allen and Kaine, popular ex-governors with deep ties across Virginia, success will be measured by how well each campaigns in both places. Polls give Kaine an advantage in Northern Virginia while Allen leads in the southern part as both campaign hard in the battleground state.
The race to succeed retiring Sen. James Webb (D) — one of the most anticipated Senate contests in November — is essentially tied, and in poll after poll, Virginians say jobs and the economy are their No. 1 concern. But that answer can mean something very different to different parts of the state.
“To have my tech friends in NoVa and my coal-mining buddies here and my oystermen on the Eastern Shore — that’s the part that’s really amazing about Virginia,” Kaine said recently in Floyd, southwest of Roanoke. “There are different challenges, [but] people want to talk about the same issues: economy, deficits, the budget and working together.”
Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, said it is normal for large states to have some economic disparities.
“I think what’s maybe a little unique to Virginia is that the distribution is so one-sided: It’s Northern Virginia versus the rest of the state,” Fuller said, although he allowed that Hampton Roads “is not too bad economically.”
At GridPoint, Spirtos urged Kaine to work on allowing more H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers, a frequent topic of discussion in Northern Virginia’s technology sector.
What his company and others in his industry also need, Spirtos and Kaine agreed, is more college graduates with math and science degrees.
“We’re hiring. Everybody’s hiring,” Spirtos said. “This is a sector, I always tell young people, this is going to have a good 10- to 15-year run.”
Kaine’s standard campaign message includes a heavy emphasis on the importance of education and the “talent economy.” In Northern Virginia, that can mean luring workers with advanced engineering degrees. To the south, it might refer to vocational training.
In Floyd, Kaine said, “they really get the training issues, because unlike Northern Virginia, this is a part of the state where there is a significant concern that parents have: When our kids finish school, will they go away, and will they come back or not?”
In the south, Kaine continued, “these folks get the infrastructure stuff. It may be different kinds of infrastructure. It may be broadband rollout that is what they really need here rather than the next interchange.”
Allen also delivers a reliably consistent stump speech at his appearances, regardless of geography. He nearly always promotes smaller government, lower taxes, the repeal of President Obama’s health-care law, and increased oil and gas exploration.
In recent weeks, he has emphasized the billions of dollars in defense cuts looming in January unless Obama and Congress reach a deal to avert them. In Danville, he also mentioned the need to quickly approve new construction and the protection of Virginia’s right-to-work laws.
“Every part of Virginia has its own strengths,” Allen said in Danville.
To illustrate his point, Allen cited data centers, which many counties — from Loudoun and Prince William in the north to Mecklenburg in the south — are trying to attract because they bring plentiful jobs.
“There are more [workers] that are conversant in running a data center in Northern Virginia, but the costs are less here,” he said.
Energy prices are lower to the south, as are labor and construction costs. Local leaders are trying to use those advantages to gradually transform the region.
Typical of Danville’s economic journey is Multi-Wall Packaging, a company Allen visited this month. It started in the 1920s, making textiles and then furniture, and now has transitioned to making cardboard packing materials. Business has been decent and will continue as long as U.S. companies have plenty of products to ship.
“We’ve been kind of holding our own, but we’ve got to make sure we keep manufacturing in the United States,” Keith Kushner, Multi-Wall’s vice president of manufacturing, told Allen.
In Floyd, 90 miles northwest of Danville, the economic goals are very distinct.
“We don’t need big factories coming here,” said Woody Crenshaw, the owner of the Floyd Country Store, where Kaine played the harmonica with a bluegrass band on a recent night.
With its galleries and burgeoning music scene, Floyd has sought to become a destination for artists, tourists and retirees. “We have a quality of life that we’re interested in protecting,” Crenshaw said.
Winchester, where Allen chatted with business owners on a recent morning, falls between Virginia’s two economic extremes. The unemployment rate in June was 4.9 percent, below the state average but slightly higher than most of Northern Virginia. “It’s very slow growth, but it’s going in the right direction,” said Lanita Byrne, the co-owner of Espresso Bar and Cafe on Winchester’s downtown mall.
Down the block, at Bell’s clothing store, owner Stephen Shendow also told Allen that business is “flat right now. But we’re hoping things will change.”