This round of tobacco settlement payments will be a boon for far Southwest.
High tech is supposed to revive rural Virginia's waning economic fortunes, bringing worldwide markets, advanced classes, even medical diagnostics to people's homes and businesses, in small towns, on farms and in isolated mountain communities.
None of this is possible, though, without high-speed Internet access. Bringing broadband to, say, the rugged coalfields of far Southwest is a New Economy challenge not unlike rural electrification in the old, manufacturing economy.
This time, the sins of Big Tobacco will help.
The Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission is putting $30 million of the state's most recent tobacco settlement payment into high-tech projects in far Southwest. That amounts to the biggest share, by far, of $38 million the commission is divvying up across tobacco-producing regions in the latest round of investment aimed at diversifying their economies.
It is a much-needed move.
Broadband has made its way into some nooks of rural Virginia, but access is not widespread.
And it is lacking in the places that need it the most, for the very reasons they need it. Sparsely populated and geographically isolated, far Southwest has a lot to gain if it can overcome its physical isolation by doing more business in the virtual world. But a population spread thinly across rugged terrain presents a barrier: Building high-tech infrastructure is difficult and costly, without the returns promised by a large, concentrated customer base.
The $30 million injection of tobacco settlement money, some earmarked for expanding fiber optics to places like Bluefield and Rural Retreat, will bring high-tech opportunities where entrepreneurship alone would not go.
Republican state Sen. William Wampler of Bristol was not overstating the benefits when he said in the Bristol newspaper, "It is perhaps the single most important and strategic investment that this region has seen in some time. It will allow us to compete for a high-tech economy."
And high time.
Virginians eager to find their fortune in the New Economy still largely have to move to Northern Virginia. The Internet is supposed to change all that.