Stealth Regionalism Quietly Makes Headway on the Coattails of GO Virginia, Part One

You should know upfront that this is a “follow the money” story. While it’s interesting that nine newly formed regional boards from all over the Commonwealth, consisting of up to 24 members who are private citizens, have control over the next few years of millions of dollars of your tax money … well, I feel obliged to give you a hint: that’s not the money to follow.  

GO Virginia has been on my radar screen since its creation by our General Assembly in 2016. Reading snippets here and there amid the glowing language and hype put out by its creators, I noticed that most reporters were picking up on the fact that a sizable chunk of taxpayers money was slated to be spent by those not elected to spend it.

Like many who have been following the process of GO Virginia, I took a wait-and-see attitude. Reading the creatively written language in the GO Virginia press releases, which essentially consist of economic development catch phrases that sound good and mean nothing, I yawned, thinking it was the usual jargon. 

I honestly put the whole thing off to the broken relationship between the General Assembly and local government, chalking it up to the same old disconnect. You know, that huge chasm between Richmond and local government, except when it comes to that magic season of the year known as election time, when they need the base that local leaders come into contact with daily to help get reelected.  

Last year in 2016, $35.5 million was awarded in legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly called the Growth and Opportunity Act, and billed as an economic development initiative to foster regional collaboration in the attraction and retention of business. This same legislation, after some discussion with Terry McAuliffe, also created a 24-member governing State Board, commonly known as GO Virginia, who oversee the nine new regional boards mentioned above.

To follow all this, it might be easier to let you know I’m telling the GO Virginia story backwards, as it’s less convoluted that way. You see, it had some bumps along the path when the Governor got cold feet and was uncomfortable enough to make sure God, world, and everyone else knew it might be unconstitutional. So, while it was created in 2016, it’s engine is just now gearing up with the creation of these new regional boards.

Following closely through both budget cycles, the light bulb went off in my head that while $35 million would make most of us feel pretty happy if it showed up on our check card, it’s not that much in the larger scheme of things. Divide it by, let’s say, 134 localities in Virginia, and that’s about $22,000 and change for each entity — not enough for the site work on a simple box store, for example. While it’s technically divided up according to GO Virginia guidelines by population, ostensibly so that Richmond and NOVA don’t get the lion’s share, it isn’t much when spread around. It turns out, however, to be the tip of the iceberg and just one of many layers.    

Floating around, there is another $2.35 billion in bond money under their purview as well, which is explained as investments in facilities which offer Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, commonly known as STEM, and another $12 million to support workforce credentialing through community colleges.  Then there is nearly $100 million, if you dig for the data, to push for commercialization of research and development at universities. Most of this was passed under the Virginia Research Investment Fund, a project by Delegate Chris Jones, a Republican from Suffolk. His original bill called for the whole ball of wax to come under GO Virginia. When the Governor balked and threatened to walk away (more about this later), Jones amended the bill to establish the fund as a separate entity.             

GO Virginia might take issue with me on whether they have direct control of these Virginia Research Investments Funds, but I would argue the relationship is close enough. The legislation setting up the Virginia Research Investment Fund Committee calls for two members of GO Virginia’s State Board to have a permanent seat. Currently they have managed to secure four seats, and since investment of these monies is part of the legislation, much of these doings are exempt from FOIA. 

Now would be a great time to mention that both the State GO Virginia Board and the regional boards are peopled with members whose companies, like Inova Health, are the prime poster child to receive research and development grants of this nature. They are also peopled with representatives from numerous community colleges and universities which stand to benefit as well. 

So, STEM is great, STEM is the future, as is biomedical research and the workforce needed for the 21st century, but why make it so convoluted to get to? Why could these not be administered under, say, the State Council for Higher Education? What’s GO Virginia really about?         

So digging a bit more, I realized, except to assure local government in some amorphous language, that their cooperation is voluntary and the intent is not to disturb local zoning. For the most part, Boards of Supervisors, City Councils, Planning Boards, Industrial Development Authorities, and Economic Development Authorities are essentially bypassed by the GO Virginia initiative.

The nine GO Virginia “regions” were determined by the members of the state board. Subsequently, to govern these regions, boards were created earlier this year in a murky process with some of the regional members essentially nominating themselves. This was cause for a real heads up. Out of over 200 plus appointees all over the Commonwealth, duly approved by that State Board, seven supervisors made the regional cut. In addition, four or five city mayors, four or five economic development staff members, and a few planning people, are all that represent what is touted as a bottom-up approach to economic development. GO Virginia is fond of saying, “who better to identify their business needs than localities?” The only problem is, localities are not represented.  

As one recent article astutely pointed out, GO Virginia creates nine new regional Economic Development Authorities that are independent of those already established within counties and other localities. While the observation was profound, the reporter failed to flesh it out. How do local Economic Development Authorities, and already established regional planning entities all over the state, figure into GO Virginia? But that would beg the question why we needed it at all, right?

An editorial in the Roanoke Times on March 29 spoke to the lack of equitable representation on their regional board, and wondered if it had 28 members, why they couldn’t add more. Not so easy to do, though, because if you have over 24 members, you have to justify on a questionnaire, provided by GO Virginia’s state board, why you need more. Question four on that survey also requires a box to certify that the majority of your members are from the private sector.

In an earlier editorial written on March 24, I suspect by the same writer, the author called the Roanoke/Blackburg/Lynchburg region an “awkward marriage of different communities.” Titled GO Virginia’s $1.01 Million Question, it drew the same conclusion I did about the funding, and pointed out that when it’s all said and done, the amount of monies allotted to the entity when divvied up among nine regions really isn’t enough to do much. Bingo!

He goes on to report on the first regional meeting, “An attempt to show commonalities fell flat when not a single participant could name all three minor league baseball teams in the region.” Then adds, “Some rural areas feel left out. Even with 28 members (three more than recommended), there are few representatives from the region’s rural localities, and no one at all from the Allegheny Highlands. The three localities there made a point of sending a delegation of local officials to sit in anyway.” The operative phrase of course is “sit in,” an interesting choice of words, but right on the money. At a meeting where the future of their respected localities was discussed, local elected officials sat on the sidelines.

Apparently some regions had a leg up in the appointment of their members and deciphering what was going on when the legislation was passed. This came in the form of a little support from their General Assembly members who just happened to help create or push GO Virginia. Some had the benefit of interested parties who held seats already on the GO Virginia State Board. Region 2, which is the area covered in the Roanoke Times editorial, nominated its members from an “ad hoc” committee, which kind of naturally appeared from the mists, and was narrowed down to a steering committee encouraged by members of the State Board of GO Virginia. Research reveals no consistency in what entities were tasked with submitting lists of names. Like sleepwalkers, certain groups and even individuals just knew what to do.

Referring back to both Roanoke editorials and reading between the lines, I surmise the author has his doubts and was trying to draw the lines from A to B to C, but it’s tough. I called two economic developers who I have known for years, deliberately bypassing my home county, to see if they could give me an example of any project that might actually qualify for a future grant from GO Virginia. They couldn’t and expressed similar frustration.  

The Roanoke editorial profoundly and astutely pointed out that if influential business leaders are feeling altruistic and want to advocate for economic development, they really don’t need a pot of money. 

A news story in the Roanoke Times on March 20 conveyed the following which I lifted for space sake in excepts.

“Roanoke-area legislators voiced bipartisan skepticism Monday of GO Virginia, an economic development group that tapped 28 people to serve on a Roanoke-Blacksburg- Lynchburg regional council earlier this month.”

“Legislators at a Roanoke Regional Chamber breakfast said the economic development region is too large and its council members, who are not representative of all the localities within, will have too much power.”

“Some General Assembly members have had concerns about GO Virginia since its inception last year because they worried about unelected officials spending taxpayer money.”

“My concern specifically is people who are politically connected who are not accountable to the voters,” said Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.”

“Lawmakers also worried GO Virginia would create a ‘super committee’ of people who already have a significant amount of influence on government spending, said Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem. The release of the list of the 28 regional board members March 9 did not do much to assuage those fears, he said. ‘It’s a list of sort of the same-old, same-old that has always been given control over decisions is now given more,’ Habeeb said.”

“Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said the local GO Virginia region, which stretches from Giles and Pulaski counties to Appomattox County, is too large.”

Kudos to the Roanoke leadership at all levels and to their newspaper for paying close attention to GO Virginia. They are sadly in the minority.  

In my county, Caroline, we were placed within the hugeness of Region 6, and grouped along with not only the Northern Neck, but also the Middle Peninsula. Practically speaking, you could never get there from here, at least to the Peninsula, in a business “collaboration,” which is GO Virginia’s favorite word. There is one member of the Lancaster Board of Supervisors on the Region 6 board. Lancaster, of course, is a county along the water in the Northern Neck. He is a great guy, but of course would not know Central Virginia or Caroline’s growth and industrial area on I-95 if it jumped up and smacked him.

Appointments from this area were submitted, without input from our county at all, through the George Washington Regional Commission (GWRC), yet another “Regional” entity established years ago and located about 25 miles from Caroline. We were not asked who we wanted to represent us on the board, although two members of our Board of Supervisors attend GWRC meetings monthly. Turns out Tim Ware, the Executive Director of GWRC, was one of the architects of GO Virginia. Suffice it to say the creators of the effort are “keeping it close.” 

It seems appropriate to mention it now. Each of the nine regional boards gets start-up money for something called “capacity building” in an amount up to $650,000 which includes incidentals to be paid for like support staff and “studies” relating to “The Workforce Gap” and economic development to identify strengths and weaknesses.

The GWRC is acting as staff for our regional board and getting paid for that service. One of the big promises of GO Virginia is that it does not create another layer of government, but apparently that’s precisely what it does. We already have regional entities like GWRC and the Fredericksburg Regional Alliance whose mission is “collaboration” between localities and who already do studies, ad nauseam.  Hmm. Maybe the $600,000 is to study the studies, using the staff members who created the studies?

A look at Region 4, which includes the Richmond area, shows an interesting board makeup. The members here include Carter Reid, who is a senior Vice-President at Dominion Power. His boss, Thomas F. Farrell II who is the CEO of Dominion, has a seat on the GO Virginia State Board and has been one of the proponents of the effort from the beginning. The CEO of Hourigan Construction, Mark J. Hourigan, who is the lead contractor for Dominion Virginia Power’s new downtown high rise, also has a seat on the Region 4 board. Hourigan has given a little over $24,000 to Republican candidates since 2004. Hotelier William H. Goodwin Jr, of the Riverstone Group, whose family owns the Jefferson Hotel and The Keswick Hall and Golf Club in Albermarle, is the chairman of Region 4. He has given more than $1.6 million to political campaigns over the last several decades, and gave Governor Bob McDonnell the gift of a “cabinet retreat” for $920.00 in 2012.

So don’t get me wrong. It’s no secret that General Assembly members are naturally the grateful recipients of nice size donations from various business entities. We all know that’s how the system works. Whether we like it or not, it takes money to run for office. I often tell those who complain to get over it unless they can come up with a better way. In the case of GO Virginia, we will see that it’s legislative creators, state board members, and even regional board members, have relationships to one another which are significant and the monetary amounts are not chump change. There are, in fact, so many relationships and so much money involved in the overall empire of GO Virginia that it’s difficult to follow the money.

Moving on to Region 7, in a story done in early March by The Winchester Star, Delegate Randy Michew of Leesburg, one of the advocates of GO Virginia who is also a land use and zoning attorney, attended a legislative breakfast for the Top of Virginia Chamber of Commerce. He enumerated the benefits of the program, saying, “Localities know their own needs better than state government.” This is a supremely ironic statement since local government is bypassed by GO Virginia, and again begs the question, why do we need another layer of government run by private citizens?

So … it isn’t about ignorance of local government at all. GO Virginia was crafted by a creator or creators who had a clear understanding of how to work around it, bypassing all these pesky local officials and the Virginia Association of Counties’ new, improved, and talented lobbyists once and for all. Some of this is about limiting the need for the plethora of buddy bills put in on behalf of regulated industries like Virginia Power who were stymied time and time again by localities who insisted they play by the rules. It’s about the Healthcare Industry who are hot for state money, and others who are tired of their bottom line being blocked with the unsuccessful passage of legislation. Making the case that a project is good for a region as in the creation of 200 jobs and a $50 million investment is some heady stuff amid the loss of so many jobs in sequestration.

So, basically, GO Virginia creates a structure which does not have to answer to local government, or the majority of state government in the future, for that matter. They will have already acted on the apparatus to independently move forward, kind of like the Tobacco Commission and DGIF, but with much broader powers. 

Now that we have looked at the middle men, the regional councils, let’s take a closer work at the inner workings at the state board and the implications at that level. Stay tuned for Part Two and, in the meantime, here is where to look if you are interested in knowing who is on your regional council.

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