Southwest Virginia is on track to lose 1,000 residents each year for the next decade, Stephen Moret, chief of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, told attendees of the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum in Wise, yesterday. The region needs to add 250 new jobs per year over and above the new jobs already coming just to stay stable.
Achieving a 1% annual growth rate will require adding three times the number of new jobs each year, he said, as reported by the Roanoke Times. “Yes, it’s a big challenge. Yes we’re up against a lot nationally, but this is something we can achieve if we’re focused enough, aggressive enough, committed enough.”
Moret proposed a six-point plan to jump-start the region’s economy. As summarized by the Times, he recommends:
- Expanding computer science programs at higher education institutions.
- Increasing workforce development training to match business needs.
- Altering Virginia’s tax structure to reduce taxes on technologically advanced manufacturing businesses.
- Offering higher incentives to companies willing to relocate or expand in rural Virginia.
- Spending money to market rural Virginia — something the commonwealth doesn’t currently do.
- Creating mixed-use developments attractive to young professionals as a way to improve quality of life factors.
You can download a copy of Moret’s presentation from Google Docs. The presentation begins his aspirational goals for Virginia and VEDP, then places Virginia’s rural development challenges in a national context, and ends with a few ideas to advance economic development in the coalfield region (i.e., far Southwest Va.)”
Bacon’s bottom line: These ideas all sound reasonable… but five of the six require more money, either directly through higher expenditures or indirectly through tax breaks. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of extra cash floating around, either at the state level or the local or regional levels. Perhaps the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, which has an annual budget of about $30 million, is in a position to fund the workforce training initiatives, incentives and marketing programs. Perhaps the higher-ed sector can reallocate funds to expand computer science programs. But it won’t be easy finding the resources for new initiatives.
The most original idea — indeed it’s such a departure from the usual thinking about rural economic development that it slaps you like a mackerel across the face — is the recommendation to create mixed-use development attractive to young professionals. This notion has much to commend it, not the least of which it doesn’t require subsidies or tax breaks, and is fully within the power of local governments to implement, subject to market constraints.
I would like to expand upon the idea. By my count there are four cities — Bristol, Radford, Galax and Norton — in Southwest Virginia and more than 40 incorporated towns. The towns range in size from Blacksburg (population 44,200) to Clinchport (population 67) in Scott County — both the largest and the smallest in the Commonwealth. Many of these cities and towns have walkable Main Streets or downtown districts capable of supporting mixed use development.
Blacksburg is a unique case. Its vibrant downtown district is an extension of Virginia Tech, an economic powerhouse unmatched elsewhere in the region, and its success cannot be replicated. But I have frequently referred to the example of Abingdon, which I believe can serve as a template for communities not endowed with a major research university. Abingdon has built an attractive, walkable downtown around the nucleus of the historical Barter Theater, the Martha Washington Inn and a stock of historic brick buildings. The town has become not only a place where people want to visit but where people want to live.
Counties, cities and towns need to fundamentally shift their thinking — as embedded in zoning codes, comprehensive plans, and capital spending plans — from subsidizing rural sprawl to creating walkable urban nucleii. Capital spending plans should invest in expanding the grid street networks from their Main Street/downtown cores. And if they have any cash to spare, municipalities should invest in sidewalks and streetscapes (and, if demand exists, cycling lanes) with the goal of making streets more hospitable to pedestrians. But they need to do it right. Place making is a complex discipline, and investments should be guided by the principles of Smart Growth or New Urbanism. Finally, cities and towns need to get comfortable with the idea that mixing offices, retail and residential is a good thing — it’s what more and more people want.
The big challenge is overcoming stagnant or shrinking populations. It’s hard to justify investing in new buildings in walkable, mixed-use districts if there is little demand. That’s where a regional marketing plan could prove invaluable. But instead of spending marketing dollars on trying to attract light industry (as I presume Moret intends), or even young people, who will be a hard sell without abundant jobs, I would suggest spending it on attracting retirees looking for inexpensive places to spend their leisure years. Such a campaign should not aim at retirees generally but (a) emigres who may have sentimental or family attachments to the region, or (b) retirees seeking to live an active, outdoors lifestyle.
By my hasty, back-of-the-envelope calculation, Southwest Virginia has at least 15 communities of sufficient scale to create small, intimate, walkable places where people with significant disposable income might be willing to live. (My list is hardly definitive, and likely would need to be revised, but the guiding idea is sound.) These are the potential nucleii for rebirth. These are where the tobacco commission should be investing in broadband, where the state and counties should be funneling infrastructure dollars, and where institutional assets such as schools, colleges, museums, libraries, community centers should cluster.
Southwest Virginia needs to reinvent itself for the 21st century economy. Light industry, data centers, solar farms, call centers and back-office operations are all part of the equation. But creating places where people actually want to live is indispensable as well. Kudos to Moret for raising the issue.