Sales, business support operations to begin in February

NORTON, Va. (WJHL) – Internet provider Earthlink plans to bring 285 jobs to Southwest Virginia when it opens a $5.4 million “customer support center” in a Norton business park.

The Atlanta-based company will begin operations at a temporary site in Wise County early next year and expects to reach full employment within a few years. Some of the jobs, which economic development group Invest SWVA’s Will Payne said will pay a competitive wage, are being “reshored” from overseas locations.

State Senators Todd Pillion and the late Ben Chafin, along with delegates Terry Kilgore and Israel O’Quinn, began discussing the possibility of a center at the location in November 2019 with Earthlink CEO Glenn Goad.

Goad said he was proud to be bringing the 30,000-square-foot center to the region’s 200-acre “Project Intersection” development near the U.S. Highway 23 and U.S. Highway 58 junction.

“We look forward to a long partnership with this community and the employees who will become part of Earthlink,” he said in a news release.

Earthlink CEO Glenn Goad speaks Sept. 14, 2021 at the announcement that his company is bringing 285 data center jobs to Norton, Va.

Pillion (R-Abingdon) was involved from the beginning and told News Channel 11 Tuesday he and his legislative colleagues have realized they’ve got to be involved in economic development at a deep level.

“As big as the state is we don’t always get the attention in Southwest Virginia that we want,” Pillion said. “That’s why we thought it was important for us to enlist Will Payne and his team to do the economic development along with us, recruiting and landing these projects.”

The project is receiving several incentives, including a $686,500 state grant from the Commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund’s “New Company Incentive Program.”

It’s just the second such company to qualify for those funds, which require meeting “statutory investment and employment requirements” in certain industries that are establishing their first presence in Virginia. The other also came through InvestSWVA’s work — eHealth Technologies, which last December announced 160 jobs were coming to Scott County.

The project also received a $62,500 grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and it could receive benefits from the state’s enterprise zone program and its major business facility job tax credit, depending on job creation.

Pillion said he’ll be keeping close tabs to see whether Earthlink delivers as promised.

“They have different benchmarks that they have to meet for the incentive package that we offered them, so we’re excited that they’re up for that challenge,” Pillion said.

Earthlink bills itself as offering “fast, secure and reliable” internet to more homes and small businesses than any other internet service provider.

After legislators’ initial discussions, Invest SWVA, a public-private economic development partnership, got involved along with the LENOWISCO Planning District.

“This announcement is the culmination of a lot of hard work and effort by local and state leaders, the Earthlink team and many others,” LENOWISCO’s director, Duane Miller, said.

The group worked with the company for nearly two years to finalize the deal. Pillion said it’s part of “an all of the above and below approach” to recruiting jobs to a region that’s been terribly hard hit by the decline of coal.

“We’ve not only lost coal jobs but we also have lost people,” Pillion said.

“The average coal miner was making about $80,000 and those jobs weren’t replaced one for one when the coal industry started its demise.”

While the positions at Earthlink aren’t “one for one” salary-wise, or even really close, Pillion said leaders aren’t turning their nose up at the opportunity given the area’s population decline and loss of jobs as coal declines.

“The census numbers are terrible for Southwest Virginia and we have to turn that around,” he said.

“We know that we have some challenges here, and we believe that a good-paying job is something that can change a life and that could help with things from addiction to mental health to all of the above – to just being happy where you are.

“We’ve had conversations with Earthlink about some of the challenges with their pay scale, and they assure us that a starting point is something that is only that and it can be accelerated very quickly with a little bit of work,” Pillon said.

Payne said the region’s unusually low job turnover rate helped seal the deal as Earthlink’s leadership considered where to do this project. He said Invest SWVA and other leaders will work with community colleges to recruit.

Pillion said he and colleagues will continue working along with local economic developers and Invest SWVA to try and bring more companies.

He said they are trying to get as many tax incentives and other advantages to recruit data centers.

“While data centers don’t employ a lot of people they employ a few people, and if you can get one you can get a cluster of data centers, so that’s one of the major projects we’re looking at.”

Leaders are also not abandoning the energy industry, Pillion said. They’re just looking at it differently.

“We announced a huge 1,200-acre solar development yesterday that will provide some jobs and … it’ll also provide tax revenue for the counties that it’s going to be located in,” Pillion said.