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Shenandoah Valley Officials Seek To Expand Ag Bio Jobs

Thursday, October 8, 2015  
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As reported in the Daily News-Record, Carrie Chenery, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership (SVP), said the regional economic development organization is trying to convince biotech companies to invest in the area.

To take advantage of the Valley’s No. 1 industry, a specific push is being made for agricultural bio business, including local officials hosting a regional industry showcase at James Madison University.

“These are natural assets we have the opportunity to combine and build on right now,” she said. “We have strong bio assets in the Valley and strong agricultural assets in the Valley, so it’s inherent for us to now bring those together.”

The seven counties in the SVP accounted for nearly $1.23 billion in agriculture sales in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.

Rockingham County topped Virginia by far with $659 million in agriculture sales, with Augusta, Page and Shenandoah counties — all SVP members — ranking second, fourth and fifth in the state, respectively.

Chenery said the region’s bio assets include SRI Shenandoah Valley north of Harrisonburg, a bioscience research and development firm; drugmaker Merck & Co. near Elkton; and device manufacturers Cadence Inc. in Staunton and Hollister Inc. in Stuarts Draft.

There’s also James Madison University, which she said is the only public university in Virginia offering a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology.

George Anas, Rockingham County’s economic development director for almost a year, said he’s working to turn those assets into new jobs.

“We’re trying to figure out how to leverage our relationship with SRI, and the idea of creating this ecosystem. We’re trying to figure out how we can bring all these pieces together,” he said. “We can leverage JMU and Blue Ridge Community College. We’re trying to figure out what fits, and at the end of the day, ag fits.”

SVP and Rockingham County declared their intent to be a player in biotechnology and ag bio in September at the Governor’s Agriculture and Industrial Biotechnology Conference in Danville. Officials from SRI and JMU were among the event’s presenters.

They’ll continue to highlight their interest with the JMU and Shenandoah Valley Biotech Showcase, a daylong event set for Oct. 12 at the university’s Festival Conference and Student Center. The Richmond-based Virginia Biotechnology Association is co-sponsoring the event.

“What we’re seeing is activity in this area for innovative companies that maybe have been traditional agriculture or traditional bio, and now they’re moving into this from a research and development standpoint or an expansion standpoint, and that presents the opportunity for us,” she said. “We know how strong our manufacturing and agriculture assets are. We know we can bring them together when we meet with the big leaders in ag bio.”

Traditional agriculture, Anas said, “is inherent in our DNA” and won’t go away. But it can be built on to help diversify the economy, and the state’s recently announced push for ag-bio jobs should benefit Rockingham County.

Having the workforce necessary to support ag-bio businesses is important, because the key factors in landing a company’s investment have changed, he said. Having a ready-to-go site and financial incentives used to be the primary drivers, but a sustainable workforce is the new key.

“We’re not saying to the outside world that we’re this biotech hub,” Anas said. “It’s about saying we have the people you need to be successful.”

The county is working on “a couple” of projects with agriculture and biotech ties that could lead to more local jobs, he said, and he’s optimistic that announcements could be made within the next six months.

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