Rural Virginia Town Goes High-Tech, Draws Obama

By: AP
By: AP

ROANOKE, Va. - The southwest Virginia town of Lebanon got an economic boost when two high-tech companies moved in — making it an attractive site for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama to bring his messages of hope and change.

Many in economically distressed rural southwest Virginia earn a living mining coal or farming. But Lebanon's success at attracting high-tech industry has landed it in the Democrats' campaign spotlight.

Former Gov. Mark Warner cited the success of the town of about 3,500 in his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. And Obama planned to campaign there Tuesday afternoon.

The region is not Obama territory.

Voters overwhelmingly chose Hillary Clinton in Virginia's primary, and southwest Virginia has tended to go Republican in presidential elections.

But Warner, who is running for Senate, carried the rural area for the Democrats when he ran for governor in 2001. And Warner persuaded CGI and Northrop Grumman Inc. in 2005 to locate in the coal-mining region.

The two companies moved to the region as a less expensive way to do business without sending jobs overseas. Amid the rolling farmland, Northrop Grumman operates a call center and backup data center for Virginia's state government across from Canada's CGI Group center, which employs software developers, analysts and consultants.

"Now, some folks look at towns like Lebanon and say: 'Tough luck. In the global economy, you've lost," Warner told Democrats at their Denver convention. "But we believed that we shouldn't, and couldn't, give up on our small towns and expect the rest of the state to prosper."

Now Obama is trying to take a page from Warner's winning strategy in Virginia.

At a town hall-style meeting at the local high school, Obama will talk about his plans for turning the economy around and ending the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

Keith Brown, a southwest Virginia native who moved back to the region from Cincinnati to take a job as a software engineer with CGI Group Inc., said he would like Obama to stop by his workplace.

"I want the political people to see what the hope is," Brown said. "We're making it work, and we're seeing the future."

Former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, co-chairman of Republican John McCain's campaign in Virginia, said Obama is "out of touch" with the region. McCain is more committed to having coal as part of the nation's energy future than Obama, he said.

McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, will campaign in northern Virginia on Wednesday, but so far haven't scheduled a visit to the southwest. This will be Obama's fourth stop in western Virginia.

"Obama does four fly-bys," said state Del. Chris Saxman, another McCain campaign co-chairman. "Will that have staying power? My guess is not."

The high-tech industries in Lebanon are attracting politicians for now, but the town is hoping those industries attract more investment by businesses in the future.

Tony Dodi, Lebanon's mayor, said the new centers have prompted inquiries from similar companies, but no firm commitments. Educational opportunities for residents have improved, though, with new information-technology training programs offered at nearby colleges.

"It has energized our young people," Dodi said.

Obama hopes to capture some of that energy.

The Democrat's campaign has been targeting traditionally red states such as Virginia, which last voted for a Democrat for president in 1964. The rural areas could be a factor if the two candidates split the state's population centers.

Dodi said residents would be there to hear Obama's message. The 2,000 seats in the gymnasium were spoken for by early Sunday.


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