The darker the county, the greater the percentage of the workforce that is working from home. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

Rural Nelson County has the highest work-from-home numbers in Virginia — and that was before the pandemic. 

Nestled along the Blue Ridge Mountains south of Charlottesville, Nelson has also taken an aggressive stance in installing broadband throughout the county, and plans to connect gigabit-speed fiber to every building that has electrical service by the end of 2022.

“One of the words we throw around a lot in today’s vernacular is ‘game changer,’’’ says Gary Wood, president and CEO of the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative and its wholly owned subsidiary, Firefly Fiber Broadband, which is partnering with Dominion and Appalachian Power to install fiber in 14 counties. 

Internet connectivity is the fourth utility, says Wood, like electricity, water and phone service.

Kevin Bates of Firefly Fiber crew at work in Nelson County. Photo/Andrew Shurtleff Photography, LLC

The U.S. Census conducts surveys every year, and its most recent numbers for 2019 show Nelson County leading the state with 11.8% of its residents working from home. In sharp contrast, the same survey shows Bland County with less than 1% of its population working remotely.

Wood thinks Nelson’s 2020 remote worker numbers “could easily double,” and he estimates 35% to 40% of Nelsonites worked at home during at the peak of COVID.

“Having true high-speed, reliable, cost-effective internet allows people to work from home,” he says. Companies found they could let employees work remotely, and workers like it, he says.

Hamilton Lombard, senior demographer with the Weldon Cooper Center, sees two other factors contributing to Nelson’s remote worker numbers: It’s within one to two hours commuting range to a white collar center, and it has access to outdoor recreation.

Map by Robert Lunsford

“Basically places that are popular for vacations are popular for people who want to work from home,” he says. And he sees the same pattern with other rural counties, like Westmoreland in the Northern Neck with 9.06% remote workers, and Northampton on the Eastern Shore with 8.7%.

Over the past 10 years, Virginia 151 in Nelson has exploded into a craft beverage trail, with wineries, breweries and distilleries dotting the landscape. Blue Ridge Life Magazine co-founder Tommy Stafford doesn’t think that would have happened without broadband along the corridor.

When Devils Backbone opened in 2008, “they were running credit cards on dial-up,” he recalls. “After Anheuser-Busch bought them, they spent money to put in their own fiber trunk.” Now residents flock to the brewery’s parking lot to use its Wi-Fi for business and school work.

Stafford lives in a part of Nelson that doesn’t have fiber, which made it a challenge to send large files to the printer. (The magazine stopped its print edition earlier this year.) His wife, Yvette, sells real estate and processing 40-page contracts is a problem on their satellite connection, he says. 

She’s seen an influx of people wanting to buy in Nelson County, says Stafford. “Yvette has contracts that live or die by the internet.” Not having it, he says, “That’s a deal breaker.” 

John Washburn founded Bold Rock Cider, the second largest hard cider company in the country, nearly 10 years ago with no connectivity except from that of the neighboring Stoney Creek community. “Internet has propelled Nelson County,” he says. “Without it we would never have gotten to be the number two.”

Lindsay Dorrier III, Bold Rock’s senior brand manager, agrees. Having broadband has spurred the company’s digital marketing, operations and communication with partners. “Our spirits launch was this weekend,” he says. “We had a huge, huge response from a simple unboosted post on Facebook and Instagram. We probably could have spent thousands of dollars in marketing to get the same response.”

He offers kudos to Nelson County for its internet push. “It’s much more challenging and expensive when you don’t have local government working on your behalf.”

John Taylor moved full time to Wintergreen in 2005, and he was lead researcher and VP for the National Venture Capital Association until he retired in 2015. Running data for the VC community on DSL was challenging. “It almost got to the point I couldn’t work from home,” he says.

Wintergreen, which is a high-density community, got fiber in 2020, and “It couldn’t come soon enough,” says Taylor. 

He now has a freelance consulting business that works on several projects, including counseling MBA students. Another was a small venture capital group that wanted to bring in other investors. “I was able to do that here,” he says. “I can’t imagine going to [Wi-Fi hotspot] Ski Barn and do that research.”

Taylor worries about school children who don’t have access to high-speed internet, which “particularly harms young people,” he says. “I can’t imagine a student going from Nelson and being able to stand among peers without having the internet.” 

In jobs such as the military or artificial intelligence or big data analysis, “they can’t be walking into a career like that without exposure to powerful computing,” he says. 

Maureen Kelley is Nelson County director of economic development, and “she was the driving force” behind the county’s broadband push, says Stafford.

“We have worked very hard since 2004,” says Kelley. As the fiber gets laid, “we’re definitely seeing a change. We have seen people work from home, liking not having to deal with commutes and childcare during the pandemic,” she says.

Sixty-five percent of people living in Nelson work outside the county, she says. “Those are high numbers, terrifying numbers. If you work outside your community, you’re going to pick up milk, get gas outside the community.”

People in Nelson would rather drive 32 minutes outside the county than have factories or chain hotels there, according to Kelley. “We are very rural. People are used to driving 32 minutes.”

While Realtors and residents like Taylor are seeing demand for houses—and housing prices— explode, Kelley hasn’t seen that reflected in Nelson’s population, which is under 15,000. 

The county continues to see incremental increases in sales taxes, she says, and lodging taxes show “very robust numbers.”

“The goal now is that we don’t suffer from over tourism,” she says, citing Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park, where demand is so great that to hike there is “basically by reservation.”

Another metric that could slow Nelson’s growth is the lack of housing stock and infrastructure. “We don’t have public sewer and water,” she says, “and that can be viewed as a barrier.”

Ernie Reed, chair of the Nelson County Board of Supervisors, says, “Clearly there are people paying attention to the fact we’ve been really aggressive in getting broadband in the county. I think everybody is surprised to see the statistics on work at home.”

His concern is making sure everyone gets connected. “Certain demographics,” he says. “don’t have internet. We can’t leave those people behind. We want to move ahead equitably.”

Whether high-speed fiber is enough to spur growth remains to be seen. Home value appraisals are up, says Reed, but the population hasn’t changed that much and the school population is decreasing. “I can’t really say we see people moving to the county.”

The next step in how Nelson grows is its new comprehensive plan, which will take about a year and a half to complete, says Reed.

“It absolutely is going to grow,” he says. He wants the community to work together to plan how that growth will look. “Unless you plan for it and focus on it ahead of the curve, and have a vision to implement policy, you’re at the mercy of developers and their whims.”

People often say they want to live in rural areas, but don’t because they don’t have jobs there. 

“Having high-speed internet availability has offered a steroid to that growth, a fuel to that ember of people wanting to live in Nelson County,” says CVEC’s Wood.

He advises rural counties that want to install broadband to think large and pull together as a region. “In the old days — two years ago — providers would go to a village where there are 200, 300 homes,” he says. “I think the way to expand is to take a larger bite. That attracts larger companies. They want projects that have a little more scale.”

Nelson is poised to become one of the first rural counties in the state to have universal connectivity, and it didn’t happen by chance. “That’s pretty amazing,” says Kelley, “but it is a mission.”

Lisa Provence is a freelance reporter in Charlottesville.