A Louisiana transplant is hoping to make Virginia great again, at least as far as its business climate is concerned.
Virginia Economic Development Partnership CEO Stephen Moret stopped in at the county’s Department of Economic Development offices in Loudoun Station last week to learn what one of the state’s, and nation’s, most prosperous counties is doing for Virginia businesses.
Moret was named VEDP’s new head honcho in November, and comes to the position following 18 months as the president and CEO of the Louisiana State University Foundation. Prior to that, he served as the secretary of that state’s Department of Economic Development from 2008 to 2015.
Moret has been making his rounds throughout the state to better understand the needs, wants, weaknesses, and strengths of different regions throughout Virginia. He has laid out a five-point strategy to bring the commonwealth back to its glory days, when it was hailed as the best state to do business.
In 2009, Moret notes, Virginia was No. 1 in three of the top five categories put together by nationwide publications ranking states’ business climates. Since then, “we’ve fallen steadily but not dramatically,” Moret said, pointing to a variety of reasons. There’s been a slowdown in growth, as well as the expectation of growth, the cost of doing business in Virginia has increased, and the perception among site selection consultants and businesses of the state has also declined. Plus, the state is not doing enough to tell its story, Moret said.
“Our advertising budget for economic development in Virginia is literally zero,” he said. “Fairfax County by itself spends massively more than the [entire] Commonwealth of Virginia.”
In Louisiana, by comparison, Moret notes the size of that state’s workforce is half of Virginia’s, yet it has an annual budget of $6 million to $7 million to market itself to the business world.
“I am blown away by what’s here,” Moret said of his new home. “Virginia has a very positive and well-earned reputation, stories we can tell, a workforce that is here. There’s a significant gap between reality and perception. We need to go from good to great and having a meaningful marketing budget is part of that.”
His goals for moving the state from good to great include adding an additional 20,000 to 30,000 jobs per year to the state economy beyond current averages, as well as bringing Virginia’s business climate rankings back into the top tier.
On the organizational level, he said he wants to “put the ‘p’ back in partnership” for VEDP with better collaboration with state partners. He is also hoping to mold VEDP into one of the nation’s premier economic development organizations, he said. Moret said he plans to implement most of the recommendations put forward in a report by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission in November. The JLARC report was highly critical of VEDP’s operations prior to Moret’s hiring, citing shortcomings in leadership, consistency, and marketing efforts.
Moret said he wants to make sure every region in the state “participates meaningfully in its growth” and said Loudoun County has a special opportunity to do that with the extension of the Silver Line, the county’s position as a key player in the global data center industry, and the growth of IT and cybersecurity companies within Loudoun. He also believes the county can be a “big player” in attracting life science and biotech companies.
The important thing for Loudoun, Moret said, is to “think big enough” and plan accordingly. That is especially true for planning in and around the area of the Silver Line, he said.
For the county as a whole, “it’s really just making sure the vision and planning for growth is done well,” Moret said.