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Kaine: Corps permit OK expected ‘soon’
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U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine said Thursday during a stop in Martinsville that he thinks a permit to begin work on Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre is on the road to approval. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Friday, January 24, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine said Thursday he thinks the federal government is ready to let the development of Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre proceed.

“That’s my hunch,” Kaine said while visiting Martinsville, based on a meeting he and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner recently had with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Both senators are Democrats and former Virginia governors.

The industrial park is planned off U.S. 220 south of Ridgeway near the North Carolina line. The project is stalled because the corps, acting on the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s behalf, has not yet approved permits for the site to be graded.

Corps officials have said they consider the project speculative because no users for the site have been identified. Yet companies will not consider a site that has not been graded, Henry County and Martinsville officials have said.

However, the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission recently approved $6.5 million in grants to prepare two sites for building construction at Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre. Tenants for those sites were identified by code names.

Asked when he thinks the corps will give its approval, Kaine said “soon.” He added that he could not be more specific.

Based on his conversations with corps officials, Kaine said, he thinks local and state officials in recent months “have been very persuasive and done a good job in answering questions” posed by the corps about the industrial park.

“They have been very patient,” he said, and provided the corps “a much better” understanding that Commonwealth Crossing is crucial to helping attract companies that will create jobs and tax revenue.

Kaine also said some new personnel at the Corps of Engineers seem to be more receptive to Commonwealth Crossing than some they replaced.

Last week, Congress approved changes in the language of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 that basically rejects the corps’ interpretation of the Clean Water Act, according to 5th District U.S. Rep. Robert Hurt’s office.

The language change was introduced in August by Kaine and Warner along with Hurt, R-Chatham, and 9th District U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem.

Officials have said they think the language change could speed up site work for Commonwealth Crossing.

Kaine said he thinks the corps ultimately will have to approve different permits for different stages of the project as they proceed.

On another issue, the senator is optimistic that local efforts to train workers for emerging high-tech manufacturing jobs will spur companies to locate in the area.

The Academy for Engineering and Technology at the New College Institute (NCI), plus programs being developed there in advanced manufacturing and telemedicine, are “examples ... of programs we need more of,” he said.

Advanced manufacturing skills include understanding of computers used on modern production lines. Telemedicine involves using electronic devices to monitor patients’ chronic health problems and other ailments remotely.

Such programs fall under the category of career and technical education, which Kaine is pushing.

Public schools in recent years have de-emphasized career and technical education as they encouraged pupils to pursue four-year degrees from colleges and universities, according to Kaine.

But there are many technically oriented jobs that pay good wages, he said, noting they generally require certain levels of education past high school but not four-year degrees, although training can begin in high school or before.

Kaine said he is investigating opportunities to promote career and technical education. Ideas he has include developing apprenticeship programs, creating “career academies” in public schools and recognizing students for high levels of achievement in technical education programs in much the same way that top-notch, college-bound students are recognized.

RTI International Metals, which makes parts used by the aerospace industry, is a local example Kaine mentioned of a high-tech manufacturer in need of employees with skills that NCI aims to provide workers with.

The aerospace industry is achieving prominence in Virginia and nearby, he said, also mentioning the Rolls-Royce aircraft engine plant near Petersburg and the Honda Aircraft Co., which is developing lightweight jets for use by businesses at its Greensboro, N.C., headquarters.

With those aerospace-related companies nearby, and with NCI teaching people skills needed for jobs with such companies, Kaine said, “we have a capacity in southern Virginia to build up an aerospace concentration.”

Economic development officials have “done a good job” in considering that and are reaching out to firms in the aerospace industry, he said.

While he was governor, Kaine signed into law legislation that established NCI in 2006. The institute opened later that year.

With no public university or four-year college in Southside, NCI was created to provide local access to higher-level courses for bachelor’s and master’s degrees conferred by universities statewide in high-demand career fields.

That still is being done, despite NCI’s recent focus on providing training for technology-based jobs.

When NCI was established, local leaders expressed a desire for the institute to eventually become a branch campus of a partner university, or perhaps a stand-alone university. That notion was put on the back burner three years ago, largely due to economic issues.

Kaine said NCI still could evolve into a university setting. He mentioned, for example, that George Mason University has grown from a storefront school to an institution with four Northern Virginia campuses and 33,000 students.

As a U.S. senator, Kaine has helped the state-funded institute get federal grant money. He said he will continue to help NCI in any way he can.

NCI’s current setup seems to be “working good for now,” Kaine said.

However, “NCI leadership and the community have a better sense” of how it should grow and evolve than he does, he said.

“I have a high degree of confidence in William Wampler,” a former state senator who now is NCI’s executive director, and his ability to lead the institute, Kaine added.

 

 
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