RICHMOND, Va.,  – Governor Ralph Northam said that promoting economic development was his administration’s number one priority, addressing a packed house at the annual Rural Caucus Reception and Dinner on Feb. 7.

The ultimate goal said Northam, a native of the Eastern Shore, is to return Virginia to its former ranking as the top state in the country to do business. Reaching that goal will require boosting economic growth across the entire Commonwealth – including rural Virginia.

“If I have anything to do with it, we need to be back at number one,” said Northam “And we can make that happen if we work together.”

Hosted by the Virginia Rural Center and the Virginia Association of Counties (VACo), the annual Rural Caucus Reception and Dinner assembled nearly 200 business and government leaders from across the state, including administration officials, General Assembly members and local elected officials.

Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax was also in attendance, as well as key members of Governor Northam’s cabinet, including Dr. Daniel Carey, Secretary of Health and Human Resources; Dr. Megan Healy, Chief Workforce Development Advisor; Esther Lee, Secretary of Commerce and Trade; and Bettina Ring, Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry.

Northam citied workforce development, broadband internet access, the opioid crisis and health care as some of the key challenges that will need to be addressed to spur economic growth in rural areas of Virginia.

“The first thing I believe we need to do is recognize that no region in the commonwealth should be solely dependent on one industry,” said Northam. “We need to – with some urgency –diversify our economy, and we need to realize that the jobs of the 21st century are much different from when I was growing up.”

Stressing the need for workforce development, Northam called out the G3 program, which stands for “get skilled, get a job and give back.” Northam said the program “allows individuals to go to our community colleges without incurring any debt, with the understanding that once they become certified, they will give back a year public service, with pay of course.”

The goal is to “keep open the pipeline from the school to the workforce,” Northam said.

The G3 program and other initiatives aim to help stem the tide of youth leaving rural areas in search of better paying jobs. “I like to tell people that I grew up in rural Virginia,” said Northam, who was raised on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. “But what I don’t hear, and what I regret, is enough people who say ‘I live and work and raise my family in rural Virginia.’ We need to work together to change that.”

To resounding applause from the room, Northam also stressed the critical role that universal broadband access must play in economic development. “When we talk about helping businesses grow in VA and attracting new businesses, in 2018 if we don’t have access to broadband, our hands are tied,” said Northam. “We need to make that happen hopefully in the next couple of years during my administration.”

In closing, Northam pledged to continue the spirit of collaboration. “So let’s all make sure we work together and have as our goal to bring up all of Virginia to include rural Virginia,” concluded Northam.