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A letter to Bill Gates

A letter to Bill Gates

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The Roanoke Times

To: Bill Gates

We see where Microsoft has announced it’s spending $64 million to open a new branch in Fairfax County that will employ 1,500 people engaged in developing new software.

We’re from down here in the “other” part of Virginia, but we’re thrilled. Your expanded presence in Northern Virginia — we see you’ve had another office there since 2002 — helps solidify Northern Virginia’s growing reputation as not simply Silicon Valley East but, well, Northern Virginia, a global technology hub in its own right. That’s good for all of us. Folks in our part of the state may complain about Northern Virginia getting all the attention but the fiscal reality is that Northern Virginia subsidizes rural Virginia. In Northern Virginia, local governments pay for most of the schools — the state pays for only 8% in Arlington County and 16% in Fairfax County. However, in Scott County, it pays 65%, in Buena Vista, 64%. We like to think we’re proud and independent people out here but the reality is that rural Virginia is on the dole.

Now that’s essentially “trickle down” economics, which is how a lot of the world works. We’d like to talk to you today about something else. You may have had very good reasons for putting your operation in Fairfax County. We see there’s mention of a retail operation “for engaging directly with customers,” and there are certainly a lot of people in Northern Virginia. And, we understand the reality of the labor pool: Northern Virginia has a lot more software developers than you’ll find anywhere else in Virginia.

Nonetheless, we’d like to make the case for you to put your next operation somewhere down here. We assume there’ll be a next one. Microsoft is a growing company; it’s expanded before so it’ll probably expand again. And no, we’re not forgetting the data center you have in Mecklenburg County that employs about 250 people. That’s a big deal in Southside Virginia. It would have been a big deal in Southwest Virginia, too, if that sinkhole hadn’t opened up at the original site you were looking at in Montgomery County back in 2010. So we know you know where we are. Well, maybe not you personally but whoever on your staff winds up reading this.

We’re going to frame this as a personal letter anyway. You run what’s said to be the largest private foundation in the world — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You do lots of good work around the world, so we’re trying to appeal to your well-known sense of civic conscience.

We’ll be honest: We can make the best business case we can for why your next Microsoft R&D center should be in Southwest Virginia and we’ll still come up short. We can regale you about our quality of life, we can tout our lower tax rates, we can talk up all the computer science graduates that Virginia Tech and other schools are producing. But the labor pool in Northern Virginia is always going to be bigger. And Northern Virginia is still going to be home to a lot of companies that you’ll want to do business with up close and personal — even in the Age of Zoom. We get that. We really do.

Instead, what we’re asking is for Microsoft to make a decision that’s not solely based on the business case. You’re a big enough company to do it and not notice on the bottom line. Break the paradigm. Say, “you know what, we could put this expansion in Northern Virginia, but instead we’re going to put it in a part of the country that needs the jobs more.” Think of the example that would set. Your fellow Seattle buddy Jeff Bezos could have done that but didn’t. Amazon could have made a statement and put its vaunted HQ2 in some unexpected place that desperately needs an economic makeover. Instead it went to the places in the least need of major economic development — New York (initially) and Northern Virginia. Now, don’t get us wrong — from a selfish point of view, we’re happier to see Amazon in Northern Virginia than in some other state for the same reason we’re happy to see Microsoft expand in Fairfax County. That whole thing about tax revenues.

Here’s the thing, though: We don’t like being on welfare, which is essentially what we are. We’d rather build a whole new economy to replace the old one that’s been obliterated by a changing economy. We’ve seen enough of government — under both Democrats and Republicans — to know that government’s not going to help us all that much.

One of the few Democrats on the national scene who does spend time thinking about the economic fate of rural America is U.S. Mark Warner, D-Virginia. During the federal tax overhaul in 2018, one of the issues was what the tax rate should be on all the money that American corporations, many of them tech giants, had parked overseas to avoid U.S. tax rates. Warner proposed that American companies be given incentives — such as a lower tax rate — if they invested in the most economically-challenged rural areas such as Appalachia. Republicans rejected that. Instead, we got a smaller version — a patchwork of “economic opportunity zones” that have not produced the results that were promised. Maybe Warner’s bigger idea wouldn’t have worked either, then. Maybe no incentive will work for the reasons we cited — we just don’t have a big enough labor pool in the fields that tech companies need. But what if a major American tech company flipped that problem on its head, and decided to break all the rules by locating in a place where no one expected it to. The labor pool problem would eventually fix itself through an old-fashioned technology. It’s called a moving van. We have plenty of those in rural Virginia already. They just usually go the other direction.

The Roanoke Times

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