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Virginia, America’s First International Trade Hub, Keeps Making History

Over at the Bacon’s Rebellion blog, they posted a summary of a recent CATO study that, among other things,  finds that Virginia is one of the leading states in the country where welfare benefits do not exceed the value of an entry-level, minimum-wage job. Bacon Rebellion‘s bottom line:

Poverty sucks in Virginia. But that means people are more motivated to find work, even in disagreeable jobs, than in many other states. That’s why Virginia also has one of the lowest unemployment rates, and one of the lowest poverty rates, in the country.

One the more unique features of this state that contributes to its economic success, as well as low levels of poverty, are its people. Virginians like to work and innovate. When our political leaders get on the same page, this mindset has led to fulsome reforms that better position the state for growth and economic security.

A push for more international trade, for example, has made it possible to foster better conditions for economic development and prosperity in parts of the Commonwealth that desperately need it. For decades the state has been looking outward, to Europe, Asia, Canada, and Latin America, for business opportunities.

A few days ago, for example, Governor Bob McDonnell launched the Going Global Defense Initiative. The effort is spearheaded by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership to help defense contractors of all sizes grow sales through exports. The project was created, in part, to help companies offset the impact of federal budget cuts that are expected to continue through at least next year, possibly longer.

A friend in Miami, Florida asked me about the initiative, commenting that he was surprised with the angle. “Virginia exports what to where? I thought it was mostly ag and high tech?” That is a very common reaction if your not from the area or have spent an appreciable amount of time working in the region. Agriculture remains, and always will be, an important sector of Virginia’s economy, wines included. However, the economy is very diverse and in addition to he tech boom of recent years, Virginia can lay claim to much more, including a growing outer space economy.

From the time colonists set foot here Virginians have looked inward but always outward.  Virginia can probably lay claim to being the nation’s first international business hub that dates to the colonial era (remember that Virginia was founded as a trading company in 1607 — so, technically, we beat out our New England cousins by many years). From a business standpoint, with the exception to traffic in Northern Virginia, what is not to like about Virginia these days? The state has one of the best educated and hardest working people in the nation. It is also a great place to invest. The state has enjoyed a triple AAA bond rating since 1938. Yes, you read right. 1938.

Foreign investment touches every region of the state and is growing.
Foreign investment touches every region of the state and is growing.

International business is a state-wide undertaking and goes well beyond the port cities and the urban core of Northern Virginia. For example, in 1991, the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center was established to bring degree programs and economic development opportunities to  economically challenged Southwest Virginia. Among other great programs, the center offers study abroad and student exchange programs in Mexico, Germany, and China.

The state also maintains a European trade office in London.  According to state government sources, Virginia is believed to be the only state to maintain a dedicated agriculture trade representative in Europe. These efforts appear to be paying off. There are currently approximately 700 international companies doing business in Virginia. According to Virginia’s export office, in 2010, Virginia manufacturing companies sold $18.6 billion in exports and firms exported an estimated $13.8 billion in services. That number continues to grow.

As Bacon Rebellion says, poverty stinks. A lot of work remains to be done because there are a lot of families in need throughout the state. However, Virginia has done an excellent job to ameliorate the effects and create conditions so people an lift themselves out of it. Virginia is a great example of trade and international business creating opportunities for folks throughout the region. Even in unexpected places deep in the state away from the Northern Virginia area. Hopefully there will be more of this. It will help bridge the NoVa rest of Virginia divide. More on this latter point for another post.

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