Rockingham is the #1 livestock county in Virginia, with more cattle than any other Virginia county - and 25% of all dairy cattle in the state. In 2005, there were more cows (116,000) than people (71,251) in Rockingham.1
One major employer in the county is Merck, which manufactures a cervical cancer vaccine (GARDASIL) near Elkton. Just south of that plant is the only Coors brewery on the East Coast. The rural beauty of a county within a half-day's drive of the National Capital also makes Rockingham an attractive location for companies that seek an attractive environment for employees, in addition to standard financial considerations.
On December 14, 2006, the governor announced that SRI International' "Center for Advanced Drug Research" would be located north of Harrisonburg, near James Madison University. The international think tank located its drug research center far away from a major research university (though obviously JMU is gaining a reputation...), and away from the policy makers in Washington DC. SRI would be a big fish in any Virginia community - why choose such a small pond?
SRI could have chosen to locate at the Innovation business park in Prince William County as a companion to the American Type Culture Collection, George Mason University's Science and Technology Campus, and the proposed Eli Lilly insulin manufacturing facility (which was never built). SRI could have opened a campus in Loudoun County near Dulles airport, closer to the National Institutes of Health and the Bethesda (Maryland) biotech operations. The state government would have provided the same $19 million subsidy if SRI had located on Broad Street in Richmond as part of the Virginia Commonwealth University's biotechnology park - or near Blacksburg, where Virginia Tech seeks to meld bioscience with agriculture to foster "pharming."
In the news release, the CEO of SRI International said:2
The "high quality of life" may have been the key factor. Rockingham has scenic beauty, quality schools, and far less traffic than urban Virginia - though SRI employees will have to watch out for horse and buggy carriages that clog the roads near Dayton every Sunday as the Menonnites return back to their farms from church services.
Another factor may have been the presence of Merck, which has been in Elkton since 1941. The Stonewall Plant, producing vitamins B1 and B2 and pantothenic acid, was far from the Merck facility in Rahway NJ, and led to the site being called "Vitamin Valley." Merck has expanded its Rockingham County pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities several time, most recently when the company announced in 2016 that it would invest $168 million to upgrade its bioprocessing capabilities.3
Virginia has developed a bioscience cluster in the rustic Shenandoah Valley. It offers a different quality of life, far from the traffic jams on Maryland's I-270 Bio-Science & Tech Corridor. At the same time, Elkton is close enough to for someone to attend a bioscience meeting in the DC area a return home that evening, and of course there is easy access from Rockingham County to all the information in the world that is shared via the Internet.
Merck (site circled in yellow) has provided manufacturing jobs in Rockingham County since the Stonewall Plant opened in 1941
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online