- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2003

DANVILLE, Va. Annette Burke stitched sweat shirts for 21 years, and when she rubs her fingertips she still can feel the fabric she handled in a factory buzzing with sewing machines. She can close her eyes and summon the smell of roasted tobacco from curing barns on her family's farm.
The sensations are bittersweet: The factory job is gone, and so is her family's tobacco. "It's sad, but I can't dwell on it," said Miss Burke, 43, now a Web designer. "I like to think about the future."
After thousands of factory furloughs and cuts in tobacco quotas, government leaders in Danville and Pittsylvania County are doing the same, focusing on fiber-optic networks, high-tech high schools and multimedia service access points. Tobacco and textiles may have given the community its soul, but the future is being paved with technology.
"We have to change," said Pittsylvania County Administrator William D. Sleeper. "You just can't go out and buy a 100-acre tract and farm it and expect to make money anymore."
Government leaders are making use of Virginia's share of tobacco-settlement money, investing $17 million in an Institute for Advanced Learning and Research and $1 million in a 900-acre industrial park.
In April, community leaders will activate about 40 miles of newly installed fiber-optic cable, paid for with $2 million from the tobacco settlement.
The "EDan" network is expected to be capable of sending and receiving a billion bits of information per second for each user enough to enable video conferencing and allow complex applications to be downloaded in an instant.
Prices haven't been worked out yet, but EDan Director Nancy Franklin said she expects EDan access to be one-half to one-third the cost of comparable digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable modem access in Danville.
The hope is to extend the network across the 34 counties in Virginia's tobacco belt, said Ben Davenport, co-founder of the Future of the Piedmont Foundation, a local economic-development agency that secured the funds for EDan.
"We saw that we were never going to have the interstate highway we wanted, we weren't going to have a major airport, so our best chance of moving this economy forward was to have a fiber-optic system that's highly affordable and very robust," Mr. Davenport said.
The effort is a rare example of a community using tobacco-settlement money as it was intended, said Mark McMullen, a senior economist for Economy.com, an industry-research group based in Westchester, Pa.
"In the past couple of years during this climate of fiscal crises, a lot of these kinds of programs are not being funded," Mr. McMullen said. "States are cashing in on the tobacco settlement … using the money for the general fund completely."
When EDan is complete, Danville and Pittsylvania County will join three other Virginia communities in the telecommunications business. Bristol, Front Royal and Martinsville also are working on their own networks, said the State Corporation Commission.
Bristol Virginia Utilities Board lawyer Jim Bowie said small communities are installing their own fiber-optic lines because it is hard to persuade companies to invest there.
"No doubt investor-owed [Internet] companies would eventually arrive in the rural areas," Mr. Bowie said. "But we want to compete economically for development now."
In Danville, business and government leaders knew for years that they needed to find new industries.
Danville's unemployment rate had been well above the state average during the 1990s, settling at 5.7 percent in December, compared with an average 3.6 percent across the state. Flue-cured tobacco acreage also was on the decline, down to a 30-year low of 4,430 acres in 2000, the Virginia Agricultural Statistics Service said.
Danville needed to change, and in 2000 city leaders learned how hard that would be.
"America Online was going to move a major data center," said City Manager Jerry L. Gwaltney. "It would have created about 125 jobs with an average salary of $65,000. What a start that would have been."
Danville competed ferociously for the project, but AOL instead chose Prince William County, in high-tech Northern Virginia.
Meanwhile, thousands of people like Miss Burke found themselves in a new economy in which factory jobs were moving overseas. With no technical skills, many had nothing to offer the job market.
"I didn't even finish high school," said Miss Burke, who was laid off from textile company Bassett-Walker in 1998. "I'd never typed on a keyboard before. I didn't even know how to turn a computer on."
Some of Miss Burke's friends found jobs at other factories, but she worked on her high school equivalency and took computer courses at Danville Community College.
Three years ago, Miss Burke started designing Web sites at radio stations WAKG-FM and WBTM-FM. She is making slightly more than the $10 per hour she made at Bassett-Walker and enjoys working with her mind instead of her hands.
"I'm not working physically as much as I did before," she said. "I don't think I could handle the factory again."
With a new Internet network and technical programs to re-educate workers, community leaders expect to win big-business investments. Mr. Gwaltney hopes Danville someday will be as known for its entrepreneurs as it was for tobacco and manufacturing.
"There still are people who still question what we're doing," he said. "But the more success you have, the more people will say, 'By God, this will work.'"

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide