Opening an empty ‘Innovation Center?’

Rep. Morgan Griffith speaks at center opening.
Rep. Morgan Griffith speaks at center opening.

Floyd County’s Innovation Center, built largely from tobacco fund grants, planned for a big launch today with a bio-tech anchor tenant and high hopes for the future.

Didn’t work out that way.

The center opens with a ribbon-cutting today with no anchor tenant and adjoins the empty Branwick Building that — until this summer — housed the Dex truck recycling operation.

Those who attend the ribbon cutting will later tour the mostly-empty building.  Will they also announce some good news for the center?  Some say a surprise is in the works.

At the other end of the county’s commerce park, the once-thriving Dreaming Creek Timber Frame company is mostly a shell.

The Economic Development Authority opens the Innovation Center is tempered enthusiasm and more hope than anything else for the future.

What happened?

Economic reality.  Initially, the Innovation Center embraced a promised, but always tentative, biology firm that needed federal approval.  The start-up company, founded by a Virginia Tech professor, needed to have everything fall into place with few, if any, hiccups.

That didn’t happen and the company packed up a rented truck late at night and cleared out, leaving behind some expensive electronic equipment that the county owns and hopes to get rid of at a good price.

It doesn’t help, at this point, that the project depended on funds from Virginia’s Tobacco Commission, which faces many questions about its operations and grant making practices.

It also doesn’t help that Floyd County starts with more minuses than pluses when it comes to attracting business to the area.  A rural county with no immediate access to Interstates, no railroad access, no hospital within its boundaries and no available natural gas give potential businesses a lot of negative marks at the start.

It’s ironic that Floyd County is in the midst of controversy over a proposed natural gas pipeline that would send the energy fuel from West Virginia to a distribution point in Chatham in Pittsylvania County without leaving any in the area — unless there is a leak.

The Economic Development Authority and Lydeanna Martin, the county’s economic development director, have worked hard to bring revenue-producing business to the county but they face long odds and an uphill fight.

Floyd County faces another tough budget year with virtually no money for economic development and must compete with other counties, towns and cities that spend more on postage than the entire amount set aside here for economic development, promotion and solicitation.

County supervisors huddle in frequent, closed-door “executive sessions” to try and generate some good news about the economy.  Hollingsworth & Voss is expanding, as it tourism, but the road ahead will be long and difficult.

Is innovation and good news in the future of the new Innovation Center?

Time will tell.

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