Business owners and investors in Orange County, Virginia truly have it all. They benefit from a business-friendly climate, a skilled workforce, low tax rates, excellent transportation links, and a strategic location offering easy access to major cities, airports, ports, higher education facilities, and business and consumer markets. It’s no wonder Phil Geer, Director of Economic Development for the county, is saying everyone should ‘Think Orange’.
“I can’t take credit for Orange County’s success, but the county has done a great job aligning themselves with the needs of businesspeople,” says Geer, who assumed the directorship just this past August. “I am, however, excited to be here and loving every minute of it.” A Virginia Tech graduate with eight years of experience working for private business and in regional economic development in the state, he’s quickly become a determined booster for Orange County businesses.
“I’ve been making it my mission to go out and meet business owners, just so I can let them know we’re here for them; no matter what the issue is, we’ll try to help them solve it. And we also love to hear from them when things are going well and try to learn what they’re doing right so we can share with others, as long as that is not proprietary information. I like being a resource for the business community.”
In addition to having a proactive Economic Development Authority (EDA), Orange County has the good fortune to be in the Commonwealth of Virginia, which in 2013 was named the top-rated state in the U.S. for business, according to Forbes’ ‘Best State for Business’ rankings, and remains consistently in the top five. The Commonwealth was also ranked number one in the 2018 Regional Workforce Development Rankings for the Atlantic Region according to Site Selection Magazine.
Located in the state’s north-central region, Orange County offers the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of small town and country living, while just 70 miles from the urban amenities of Washington, DC and 60 miles from the state capital of Richmond. Situated east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it enjoys four distinct seasons and a six month-long growing season, making it ideal for agriculture including vineyards, wineries, and plant nurseries.
“If you drive from one end of Orange to the other you can see how diversified we are,” Geer says. “On the eastern end, close to Fredericksburg and Lake-of-the-Woods community, there’s a lot of retail activity, but as you drive west it gets more rural – you’re driving through farmland and you see dairy farms, wheat and corn fields, and the next thing you know you’re going past James Madison’s Montpelier (the home of the fourth U.S. President). It’s an incredibly historic area and then when you get to the western end, it is just beautiful scenery, with wineries,” he shares.
“There’s a well-thought out plan for where we want to have growth and where we want to keep it pristine. I think it’s a testament to the board that we have a business-friendly environment, yet we’re careful not to grow too fast or in the wrong places.”
A key factor in attracting business from outside the state and for helping existing businesses expand has been through partnerships with several organizations, including the Central Virginia Partnership for Economic Development and the state-wide Virginia Economic Development Partnership, “so we really rely on those groups,” says Geer.
Prospective businesses wanting more information about available programs and properties can visit the County’s Economic Development website, appropriately named thinkorangeva.com, which provides a detailed look at the County’s Economic Development Policy and the Commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund and other state incentives. Among the available incentives are a series of grants, fast-track plan review and permit fee waivers, advance start-ups, and a Red Carpet Rollout, along with 16 other specific programs and incentives. The message is clear. Both the Commonwealth of Virginia and Orange County welcome new businesses and encourage existing ones to flourish.
In addition to helping individual businesses get established, there is a concerted effort to help the business community as a whole. For example, not all residents and businesses currently have access to high speed internet and may have to rely on satellite communications, but in the near future, this deficiency will be overcome as 33 miles of fiber are being laid, made possible through matching grants from the public school system and the county.
“The goal will be to have 100 percent coverage of the County and any resident who lives here will be able to access high speed Internet,” Geer says. “From a business perspective this is huge; especially when you think about entrepreneurs or people who would like to work from their home and don’t have the structure to do it. This opens a lot of doors to small businesses and telecommuting. Apple, for example, started in a garage, but that couldn’t have happened in Orange County — at least not until now.”
Meanwhile, Germanna Community College (GCC) is making huge strides in workplace development programs. “We rely on them heavily,” says Geer, “because education is a major part of economic development. Without the workforce we can’t be successful, and workers have to be good at what they do. Germanna has focused on those jobs that require mid-level skills, not the ones that require a Bachelor or higher degree and not the ones that require only a high school diploma, but those that require certification.”
Recently, GCC partnered with the George Washington Carver Piedmont Technical Education Center (Carver Center), who received a grant of $245,000 from the state to redevelop a former regional high school into a state of the art Technical Education Center for training machinists and welders. New Pathways Tech, a licensed National Institute for Metalworking skills certified training provider and the American Institute of Welding, an American Welding Society accredited testing facility, will provide the programming. GCC will handle administrative efficiencies and student pipelines. “This is a very exciting development as several businesses have expressed interest in the new programs, as there is a huge need for highly skilled, precision machinists,” he says.
Among those employing highly skilled machinists is Ridgid Products, who supported the project by donating equipment to the Carver Center. Several other Orange County businesses are poised to benefit from the programs offered through the GCC partnership, including Aerojet Rocketdyne, who builds rocket engines for the defense industry.
Adds Geer, “To deal with the nursing shortage across the nation, Germanna also has a really great program that is churning out LPNs (Licensed Practical Nurses). The college is solving real-time problems for workforce development and we are lucky to have them here in Orange County. They are really good at picking up on data that shows where skills are lacking and starting programs to solve that need.”
Other programs aimed at workforce development include Manufacturing Day for high school students so they can see just how sophisticated manufacturing jobs are and that it’s not, as Geer says, “about getting dirty and greasy.” Recently, 100 students were invited to spend the day visiting Ridgid Products, which manufactures plumbing hand tools and pipe and drain equipment and were able to watch the robotic arms at work, ask questions, and be exposed to career options. Then there’s Hornets for Hire, a job fair specifically for students either looking for summer jobs or to enter the workforce directly out of high school. Says Geer, “One of the things students wrote on their exit survey was that they didn’t realize how many job opportunities are right here in Orange County. Now they don’t have to go to Charlottesville or further afield; they can stay here, where the cost of living is lower, and find quality work,” he shares.
“We are definitely a business-friendly community,” he emphasizes. “We want more businesses to come in and we want the ones who are here to expand – and the message is spreading.” The County’s employer base spans a variety of industries, and in addition to manufacturing, there are agriculture and industrial/service sectors. Battlefield Farms, for example, which employs over 200 people, grows bedding and holiday plants; there’s Macmillan Publishing Services (MPS) which also acts as a book fulfillment center and employs over 300; and American Woodmark, which specializes in cabinet components and employs more than 300 people.
Geer goes on to talk about how Green Applications, a commercial screen printing company, headquartered in New Jersey, which currently employs over 200 in Orange County, is presently undergoing an expansion and is seeking job applications.
Lohmann Specialty Coatings, a German company which employs 1500 worldwide, moved its operation from San Jose, CA because company officials realized an Orange County location would be more advantageous. It invested $7.5 million in a brand new building and in return Orange County was able to grant a tax rebate and permit fee waiver up to $85,000 to match a grant from the state.
In addition to being an excellent business location, Orange County is also an outstanding location for families, as cultural, recreational, and educational opportunities abound. Amtrak provides quick access from neighboring localities to Richmond and Washington DC, so people working there can earn what Geer calls “big city dollars, while enjoying the low cost of living in the County, along with fresh air and scenic beauty. It’s about having the best of both worlds.”