The Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, created to spark development in southwest and Southside Virginia, spent $142 million in the last fiscal year to change the landscape of the state's rural communities hurt by manufacturing and agricultural job losses, according to the panel's most recent annual report.
The commission, which will meet in Richmond on Tuesday, uses part of Virginia's share of the $206 billion national settlement against the tobacco industry to target communities that have the highest unemployment rates. About half of Virginia's $4 billion goes to the commission.
It also works with tobacco growers affected by programs that limited and stabilized the amount of tobacco they produced. Farmers are expected to receive about $479 million by 2012 for what the commission calls "cataclysmic and historic" losses.
Since its creation in 1999, the 31-member panel chaired by Del. Terry G. Kilgore of Scott County, has approved more than 1,480 grants for agribusiness, education, research and development, economic development and other special projects.
In fiscal year 2011, it approved 154 grants totaling about $142 million, including $25 million to help build industrial and commercial "mega-sites" to attract new businesses, about $36 million to fund energy and biotechnology research, and nearly $5 million to help software maker Microsoft Corp. invest up to $499 million and create a data center in Mecklenburg County.
Other grants include a $4 million grant for the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, a 50,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility in Prince George County that will bring together researchers from Virginia universities and global manufacturing companies. The commission also approved $2.1 million to help consulting and technology services provider ICF International open a $15 million operations center in Henry County that will create 539 jobs.
More recently, the commission approved $850,000 in funding to help online retailer Amazon.com Inc. invest $50 million for a distribution center in Dinwiddie County, creating more than 350 jobs.
In addition to the incentive funds, the commission's funding to buy land for the county's commerce park in 2005, make road improvements and prepare the site for businesses to move there were "absolutely key" in bringing the project to Dinwiddie County, said Greg Reid, the county's director of economic development.
"Had it not been for the tobacco funding avenue, don't know that we would have what we have. And that applies really throughout the tobacco region," Reid said.
While some praise the commission's contributions to help close business deals and improve conditions in Virginia's tobacco communities, the commission's work hasn't come without controversy in recent years.
A study by the General Assembly's investigative arm says the commission signed off on millions of dollars in economic development projects with a sketchy understanding of them, and some yielded little or no benefit in the state's poorest region.
The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission said in June that there was no way to measure outcomes for nearly 90 percent of the grants issued by the commission. But Southside and Southwest Virginia -- regions of the state hit hard declines in tobacco, textile and other manufacturing industries the past 20 years -- clearly benefited from Tobacco Commission support for scholarships, job training and the deployment of high speed Internet, according to the 180-page report.
And in 2010, former Virginia Finance Secretary John W. Forbes received a 10-year prison sentence for defrauding the commission. Forbes, who served on the commission while finance secretary between May 2001 to January 2002, obtained a $5 million grant for a literacy foundation he created. Forbes pleaded guilty in August 2010 to using $4 million for personal expenses.
Following calls for greater oversight, legislation that passed last year and goes into effect in July will allow the state Inspector General to review the commission's work to make sure its goals are "lawfully achieved" and investigate allegations of fraudulent, illegal or inappropriate activities concerning the panel's funds, according to Gov. Bob McDonnell's office.
Kilgore did not immediately provide comment on Monday regarding the commission's work.