Rural Virginia is getting its 15 minutes of fame, but will rural communities get what they really need to build a new economy?
The answer to that may not be known for decades yet, but we might get some early answers in this coming General Assembly session. We got a preview of that last Thursday and Friday, when the Senate Finance Committee held its annual retreat in Roanoke. Given the number of other legislators (and lobbyists) who showed up, for a few days the Hotel Roanoke served as a kind of temporary state capital. Even Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin and Lt. Gov.-elect Winsome Sears were on hand for a while.
The highlight – for our purposes – was a panel discussion entitled “Rural Economic Development: Rethinking Strategies for Rural and Economically Distressed Communities.” (You can view the slide presentation that preceded the discussion here.) A cynic might point out that none of the panelists was actually from rural Virginia – all came from agencies based in Richmond – but we’ll let that slide for now. The point is that the economic and demographic issues confronting rural Virginia were front and center before the Senate Finance Committee (and a whole lot of other legislators). These issues have been around for a long time, of course, but now we have a new round of census data to underscore how some problems (such as the out-migration of young adults and the aging of the population that remains) are accelerating. The fact that Youngkin was elected in large part on a super-charged rural turnout conveniently makes him politically indebted to rural Virginia, something he should be reminded of at every opportunity. That means there is an actual opportunity for action. So just what form might that action take?
Here are some takeaways from what I heard:
- There will be a push to reconfigure the tobacco commission to expand its footprint to other economically distressed regions. There was a lot of talk about communities that, by various measures, are considered “double-distressed” and how these aren’t simply rural localities in Southwest and Southside, the region now covered by the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission. Among the others: the Alleghany Highlands, the Eastern Shore and the counties along the Chesapeake Bay – but also cities such as Lynchburg, Roanoke, Staunton, Waynesboro and, well, even Charlottesville, Richmond, Norfolk, Petersburg and Portsmouth.
This is an opinion column so here’s my opinion: This seems a bad idea. I have no doubt that these other communities need help. Some, such as the Alleghany Highlands, Lynchburg and Roanoke, are in the region we’re covering so they’re our communities too, and we want to speak for them. But the tobacco commission seems to be the wrong vehicle. The commission was set up in 1999 to administer an endowment set up by the master settlement with tobacco companies, an endowment that was supposed to be used to create a new economy in tobacco country. To extend that commission into non-tobacco localities seems a breach of faith. A metropolitan-dominated Virginia should not try to help rural Virginia by breaking its promise to others in rural Virginia. If the state likes what the tobacco commission is doing – and there’s much to like about some of its programs – then the legislature should figure out a way to endow an entity to serve the other economically distressed communities. Don’t take the tobacco money and spread it even thinner across non-tobacco localities.
- There will be a push to expand funding for “talent attraction.” The tobacco commission has historically used its funds to pay for infrastructure (it’s paid for more than 3,000 miles of broadband that otherwise wouldn’t exist) and closing deals for companies moving into the region. More recently, the commission has focused on what some call “human infrastructure,” but used to simply be called people. Some cities and states – most recently West Virginia – have launched programs that pay people to move in as a way to reverse population declines. The tobacco commission has resisted that kind of generalized approach, instead preferring to focus on attracting people with certain high-demand skills, such as math teachers and physical therapists and electrical engineering and whatnot. Specifically, the commission will help recent college graduates in those fields pay off student debt if they agree to live and work in the tobacco commission counties – and do 50 hours of community service. (We had a story about this program earlier this fall.)
The way commission executive director Evan Feinman explained it to the Senate Finance Committee: “We’ve moved hundreds of new leaders into our footprint.” This program seems far preferable to West Virginia’s approach because West Virginia could pay lots of people to move in and still not be able to find enough math teachers (or whatever). The tobacco commission’s program checks off several boxes at once: It helps fill those in-demand jobs that are hard to fill in many rural areas, and, by targeting recent college grads, it also helps bring in young adults who can help reverse aging demographics. Further, the goal of the community service requirement is to get the program recipients involved in their communities. Perhaps then they’ll feel invested enough to stay after the official tour of duty is over.
So far, Feinman said, this program has paid for 350 people – and that’s not really a fair measure because the program started at an odd time for many graduates, and then we’ve had the pandemic. Still, it seems successful enough that Feinman says “this is a program we could turbocharge if we had the resources to do it.”
It’s also a program that seemed to excite a lot of legislators. “This is the most innovative idea I’ve heard in 20 years,” said state Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax. Feinman said the biggest problem with the talent attraction program is getting the word out. “We’re not a marketing agency,” he said. I wouldn’t be surprised to see legislators put more money into this program.
Two other points about this:
* Feinman said that the enormous debt that many students graduate with makes it less likely that even those from rural areas will return home. They may want to but they can’t. Yes, the cost of living in rural areas may be lower but so are salaries, so many are forced to move to higher-priced metro areas to earn higher salaries to pay off all that debt. We don’t often think of student debt as a factor that disadvantages rural areas, but it is.
* Petersen also broached an idea I raised in a column this fall: Those 7,000 Afghan refugees waiting at Fort Pickett to be resettled represent an opportunity for rural Virginia. “A lot of them have experience working with DOD [Department of Defense], the Army,” he said. In other words, many of them have valuable skills that many rural communities could use.
- Many rural communities don’t have very good economic development programs. Most economic development projects are lured by local communities, who then seek state assistance, rather than the state bringing in prospects and turning them over to locals, Feinman said. But the quality of local economic development officials, and the resources available to them, “is very up and down across rural Virginia.” Cassidy Rasnick, deputy secretary in the Office of Commerce and Trade, said many local governments are understaffed for economic development: “We see a lot of county administrators doing economic development – the way they’re also doing planning and zoning and filling potholes.” If the state really wanted to help rural economic development, it would help localities pay for a certain level of effort that right now many localities can’t meet. “We’re talking a relatively small amount of money compared to what this body normally deals with,” Feinman said. “That would go an extraordinarily long way in some of these places. The county administrator filling potholes – that’s real, that happens.”
Another example: Some localities don’t have enough money to pay for the courtship of economic development prospects. “It’s maddening to think a company might be interested in a community and the community says you’ll have to fly yourself here because we can’t afford to charter a plane,” Feinman said. Other states simply have a lot more resources for economic development, particularly in rural areas. “Del. Nick Rush once said if we’re trying to get a project in Southwest Virginia, and it’s competitive, it’s not a fair fight,” said Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball.
4. Rural Virginia needs more ready-to-go industrial sites. This isn’t a sexy, headline-grabbing topic, but it’s a very practical consideration where Virginia – especially rural Virginia – often comes up short. “We don’t just need megasites, we need sites of all sizes,” Rasnick said. “The question is, are they ready to go to market? I’ve never seen speed to market be as important as it has been in the past 12 months.” Ball said that in the final budget he’ll present before he leaves office, Gov. Ralph Northam will propose “a substantial increase” in state funding for site preparation. “We’ve not done a lot of funding sites,” Ball said, and that needs to change. “The state that keeps me up at night is North Carolina and they’ve spent a lot more on sites than we have. . . Critically for Southwest Virginia, you’ve got to have sites. That’s what makes this go.”
5. Broadband will make a big difference for rural Virginia – but don’t think broadband alone is enough. State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, asked how his part of the state could attract more remote workers. “I will definitely be for that,” he said. (Of note: His district currently has the lowest percentage of remote workers in the state. Bland County is the absolute lowest; just 0.66% of Bland’s workforce classifies as remote workers. In Buchanan County, the figure is 1.36%. In Dickenson, 1.37%. By contrast, Tazewell is a veritable hotspot at 3.58%, but nowhere close to, say, Nelson County, where nearly 12% of the workforce is working from home.) Feinman cautioned that rural communities shouldn’t think of broadband as the solution; it’s only part of the solution. Broadband doesn’t put rural Virginia ahead, it merely pulls it even. “There are a lot of beautiful places in the world and a lot with broadband,” he said. In a world where everyone has broadband, communities will have to figure out a way to differentiate themselves. He used that to make another pitch for the talent attraction program. “We can take advantage of the student debt problem,” he said. “There are lots of talented people who owe tons of debt.” Right now, “going to a rural area is an impediment” for them. But if moving to a rural area became a way to pay off that debt, then things might change. The 350 people the tobacco commission has moved into its footprint is nice, he said, but what if that figure were 10,000?
6. Cooperation between local governments matter. The economy doesn’t recognize local borders. Ball singled out Pittsylvania County and Danville as examples of two localities that cooperate quite well. They have very different politics – the former votes Republican, the latter Democratic – but they have figured out that their economies are linked. “Whenever we’ve worked companies in this country or overseas they’ve always been there together,” Ball said. Other communities – he didn’t name them – don’t work together that way, but need to. “I can see very quickly walking into a room” whether officials from different jurisdictions are inclined to cooperate, Ball said. “That has to happen to be successful.” Later in the program, Rasnick singled out Bland County and Wythe County as two localities that have worked well together, with Bland contributing to projects in Wythe in return for revenue sharing – on the very correct theory that some workers from those Wythe companies will live in Bland.
I’m often a Cassandra, warning about grim things about to happen – and faulting legislators from the urban crescent for not paying enough attention to rural Virginia. I heard something different at the Senate Finance retreat. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to do something and make considerable investments, not just in the sites, but other areas,” said Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William County. “I think this is an all-hands-on-deck effort.”
Let’s hope so. But let’s also hope the solution isn’t to take money pledged to tobacco commission counties and start spending it somewhere else.