September 2004


What happens when you let your major employer rule your town

Since Adam is away I thought I would fill you in/bore you with some details about the economic make-up of my current hometown of Danville, VA. This is prompted by an article titled, Small towns tired of slow rollout create own high-speed networks in the money section of the 9/21/04 USA Today (you’ll need the subscription). This article gives a nice little synopsis about our little burg and gives it some much needed national economic attention.

Our major employer is Dan River, Inc. which is named after the river that flows through town. At the height of their employment rolls there were about 10,000 people working at the plant(s). Keep in mind that the town currenly only has a population of about 48,000 and that the company drew employees from a wide region including many counties in North Carolina as Danville city has it’s southern boundary on the VA/NC state line.

Unfortunately for the economy in Danville, Dan River is down to 2,500 employees today. According to my boyfriend, who is a Danville native, Dan River pushed and cajoled the city into keeping other employers out during the 70’s and 80’s. Then when the company decided to move manufacturing overseas the city was left holding the bag. A good portion of the city is now blighted with decay and crime because of this short sightedness. It seems every time I hear of a murder on the local TV news, it happened in Danville.

Now the current city leaders don’t seem to be as misguided as the leaders back in the 70’s. Sure, they are still a bunch of ostriches with their heads in the sand, but at least they have recognized something, you won’t attract high tech to your area unless high tech has a way to communicate with the outside world. So the city did an end run around Verizon and Comcast and decided THEY would build the high-speed interent infrastructure in town. The result is that the government agencies and schools, the local community college and the private university all have standard internet access that makes today’s DSL and cable Internet service available from Verizon and Comcast look like a Thomas Edison hand cranked phone. Naturally, Comcast and Verizon were not too pleased but then they were not exactly doing much to get this service going in Danville themselves.

Guess what? Business is starting to take notice. High tech is starting to arrive, and hopefully one day the town will be economically viable. The good news is that it will attract educated young people that don’t have their heads in their collective asses when it comes to social issues. Maybe there is hope for this area. All I know is that if I see one more high tech company move in, I’m likely going to start buying up the town. Once you get a few seed companies in, others follow. This will cause real estate to go up in value, significantly. Not bad for a town that currently has a 14% unemployment rate (and I suspect higher than that if you take into account those folks that have run out of bennefits… it’s likely closer to 25%).

And what is happening with Dan River, the company that is still by far the largest employer in Danville? They are closing one of their major plants in the spring, of course.

The USA Today article was very flattering until the last paragraph where the Danville city manager took away all the goodwill generated by the article by getting quoted as saying, “If we keep our vision — our tunnel vision — and stay the course, the sky’s the limit for us.”

Apparently we have a city manager that still needs to learn the power of proper marketing. Good going Jerry Gwaltney… It’s good to know my boyfriends boss is a complete idiot.

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