Virginia’s rural communities face a hard slog maintaining their local economies in a globalizing world in which their traditional advantages, cheap land and labor, are no longer competitive. That slog looks even harder when leading thinkers are so bereft of fresh ideas. The utter failure to think beyond the conventional wisdom was on full display, as can be gleaned from this report by Virginia Business, at a conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond about rural economic development in the Fifth District, which includes Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas,
There’s nothing wrong with the conventional wisdom as far as it goes. Yes, rural areas need to fine tune their workforce training programs. Yes, rural communities need better broadband access. Yes, rural areas need to retain local anchor institutions like hospitals, banks and colleges. Yes, above all, rural communities need to do a better job of retaining their college-educated youth.
“Changing the prospects of a town, it seems to me, starts with aligning the mindsets of the people in that town,” said Richmond Fed President Thomas I. Barkin. “And a great metric is whether the kids who grow up and go to school there choose to come back.”
Yes, yes, yes — but how?
Any analysis of “rural” economic development starts by acknowledging that rural areas vary widely in their potential. Some have resources (timber, coal, gas, oil, minerals, agriculture), and some do not. Some are located near major metropolitan areas, and some are remote. Some have recreational potential (waterfront, sailing, mountains, hiking, biking, kayaking, etc.), and some do not. Some are blessed with cultural and historical resources, and some are not. Some have interstate highway access, other are off the beaten track. Some have attractive communities for urban refugees to live in (think Abingdon, Lexington or Staunton), others have small towns in desperate need of revitalization.
Each community needs to conduct a SWOT analysis of itself and develop its economic development strategy accordingly.
The model is Virginia’s northern piedmont where groups like the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Journey Through Hallowed Ground have identified the region’s strengths, formulated a rural/small-town vision for the future, and mobilized resources to advance that vision. Every rural community leader in Virginia needs to visit those two organizations to see what they have done.
In a similar vein, the Shenandoah Valley should build a strategy around (1) its close proximity to the Washington and Richmond metropolitan areas, (2) its rich historical and cultural heritage, (3) its interstate access, (4) its vibrant small cities and towns, (5) its vibrant agricultural industry, (5) and its abundance of small colleges. The Valley is perfectly positioned to lure urban refugees from the Washington rat race who would find the communities there to be inexpensive, slower-placed places to live while still supporting a lively cultural scene. A goodly percentage of these refugees would start lifestyle businesses that would add welcome diversity to the economy.
Communities bordering the Chesapeake Bay can play on their access to the water and sailing. The region can build an economic base around water-based recreation and retirement.
The New River Valley is unique among rural (or formerly rural) regions in having a national-class research university at Virginia Tech. Needless to say, the economic development strategy of fast-urbanizing Montgomery County will be very different from, say, neighboring Floyd County.
There’s not much left of the extraction-based economy of far Southwest Virginia, although there may be a lingering future for metallurgical coal mines (serving the steel market, not the electric utility market) and gas drilling. The good times for those industries will never return, and local leaders are wise to look to other models for development. The sad reality is that the paucity of interstate access, flat land to develop, and the lack of a manufacturing-oriented workforce will make diversification issues a challenge. Local leaders need to acknowledge this reality and think about how to shrink gracefully. Meanwhile, they are right to develop the recreational potential of the region’s rivers, streams, mountains, and gorges, which are spectacular.
Southside communities, which have seen their mill-town economies hollowed out, face similar challenges as the Southwest — without the advantage of the mountains’ natural beauty. But they do have an advantage in being less remote. Some may look to North Carolina’s Research Triangle and Tri-Cities metros for collaboration and partnerships.
Many rural “industries” of the future are likely to be non-traditional — solar farms, hemp cultivation, supplying fresh produce to urban markets, or ideas no one has conceived of yet. Each community needs to find its own mix — and the process of discovery will likely be improved if it is led by private-sector entrepreneurs dipping their toes into many markets rather than by public bodies making big bet-the-farm bets on mega-projects.
Local governments can do two things: They can strive to serve a stagnant or shrinking population base more efficiently with limited tax revenues, and they can marshal their limited resources to foster islands of urbanism — compact small towns with vibrant main streets — where professionals and young people can see themselves building a life. Above all they need to avoid the temptation of “betting the farm” on risky schemes.