Former textile stronghold has pivoted to fuel the future of advanced manufacturing

THE GLOBALLY LAUDED COMEBACK STORY of Southern Virginia hinged on taking on a task that many communities attempted, but few have achieved: reinventing its workforce.

For the City of Danville, Pittsylvania County, and the broader area flanking Virginia’s border with North Carolina, tobacco and textiles had long fueled a vibrant economy accessible by major four-lane highways, as well as international airports in neighboring Raleigh and Greensboro, North Carolina.

But after the busy mills that once rolled out comforters and carpeting, and Levi Strauss denim left the area in the early 2000s, the area’s economy lost its momentum.

Without skipping a beat, regional leaders gathered to write their own revival. And now, Danville is a trailblazer of note, attracting capital investment from enterprises both here and abroad. These include Overfinch North America and Harlow Fastec from the United Kingdom, Kyocera subsidiary Kyocera SGS Precision Tools from Japan, and Essel Propack from India.

“When we came to Danville, the decision was instantaneous,” said Jason Wells, Kyocera SGS president. “I can say 100% that the workforce pipeline was like nothing we’d seen in the United States.”

It adds up to Danville garnering the No. 8 ranking on the 2017-18 list of top U.S. micro cities by FDI Magazine. The momentum was also powerful enough to serve as a case study for other states. In August 2018, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson toured the region’s programs with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam.

How did Danville do it? By doubling down on its manufacturing roots. This time, it was future-proofed, led by advanced and precision manufacturing — paired with an open embrace of workforce training on Industry 4.0’s cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, as well as both cloud and cognitive computing. In other words, it wasn’t solely infrastructure and location that would draw companies to the region. It was a high-skilled workforce, one that was methodically reverse-engineered to possess the advanced manufacturing skill sets that employers operating on the cutting edge coveted.

“This area didn’t wake up one day and just decide we wanted to be a home to manufacturing,”  said Telly Tucker, director of economic development for the City of Danville. “We have a long history and we didn’t want to lose that. It’s very much in our DNA.”

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