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 Summer 2015
 Southern Business & Development


Spring 2012

A semiconductor plant for Martinsville, Va.?

By Lee Burlett

(L to R) Mark Heath, President and CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County EDC and Mike Randle at Martinsville Speedway. Believe it or not, back in the mid-to-late 1990s EVERYONE in the South went out chasing what they believed was the "Big Kahuna" tranformational project -- semiconductor plants. If you remember economic development back then, consultants were paid big bucks to help a state or community land a chip plant. The experts said chips were the answer to how the American South would join the world's sophisticated economies with labor-intensive job projects employing tens of thousands. Just about the entire South bought in to the charade.

The lure of landing a semiconductor facility in the mid-to-late 1990s was intoxicating to leaders in the South. Every community in the region wanted one, even those in rural areas, especially one in rural ROVA (the rest of Virginia). That place was Martinsville, Va. 

How many semiconductor plants did the South get in the 1990s? That would be three, one in Austin, one in Orlando and one in Richmond. The last two mentioned closed down more than seven years ago. How many semiconductor plants has the South landed since the 1990s? Nada, zippo, none. In a related industry, though, the South is data center central, and places like Mecklenburg County, Va., happens to be home to one.

Back in 1999, Martinsville-Henry County, Va., won Southern Business & Development's "Small Market of the Year." It earned that honor because it landed seven projects of 200 jobs or more that year. Those projects were of the call center and distribution variety. Good jobs. The county executive for Henry County, Va., at the time, dismissed those seven large job-generating projects because they were not "high-tech jobs." Truth was, that county exec was disappointed that a billion-dollar semiconductor plant didn't choose Martinsville. 

Interestingly enough, the same week we named Martinsville-Henry County SB&D's 1999 "Small Market of the Year," that same county exec dissolved the economic development agency. Wow, talk about tough. It should be noted that there hasn't been a year since that a small market in the South turned seven deals of 200 jobs or more.

Today, Martinsville is even more attractive than it was in 1999. And with manufacturing finding some serious legs since 2007 in the South, Martinsville-Henry County, we predict, will win another "Small Market of the Year" soon. That would be the county's fourth. Martinsville has won more "Small Market of the Year" honors from SB&D (three in 20 years) than any other small market in the South. Aiken, S.C., with two, is the only other multiple small market winner. The "small" division is a competitive field. There are over 3,800 small markets in the American South that SB&D covers.

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