an aerial view of Norton. Courtesy of LPRIFA.

In 2021, Boston Consulting Group stated that the new global business environment “presents leaders with two challenges: how to manage remote working conditions amid the uncertainty of today, and how to prepare for and optimize the hybrid working models of tomorrow, in which fully in-person and remote work will be two ends of a fluid spectrum of options. The former is a necessity; the latter, an opportunity. Hybrid work models, done right, will allow organizations to better recruit talent, achieve innovation, and create value for all stakeholders. By acting boldly now, they can define a future of work that is more flexible, digital, and purposeful.”

Also in 2021, Richard Florida and Adam Ozimek shared this comment in The Wall Street Journal: Smaller cities, suburbs and rural areas must also up their games in other ways. Apartment buildings and condominiums can add workspaces and conference rooms for remote workers to book as needed. Underoccupied suburban malls, abandoned space in office parks and lagging rural town centers can be retrofitted as remote-work hubs. 

The overall shift to what many call a hybrid or elastic workplace, in which employers and workers can strike a new definition of productivity and performance, is not location dependent, either. This shift has ignited a major opportunity for rural Virginia. The deals struck in the past to get the jobs to Virginia’s rural regions have been made using tax incentives with an expiration date, which gives large companies little reason to imbed in rural Virginia – and makes it easier for companies to leave for more lucrative incentives or even offshore. The global pandemic accelerated not only the workplace shift but the terms of engaging private enterprises to consider investments in the nation’s rural regions.

Before we knew what was coming – before the shift in workplace design and operation was upon us – InvestSWVA, a public-private business research, attraction and marketing campaign for Virginia’s Southwest, was initiated. Launched in September 2019 under the umbrella of the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and backed by private industry, the campaign was born out of a mandate from the senior legislators of the region: produce wins by welcoming new business-centric ideas and leveraging industry relationships. To the legislators, this meant taking economic development into their own hands by demanding an aggressive lead generation operation from a private firm and emphasizing performance metrics. 

Also during the past two years, local governments in the Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority (LPRIFA), including the City of Norton and the Counties of Dickenson, Lee, Scott and Wise, have stepped up to embrace this mandate. They’ve joined the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission in pursuing unconventional ideas, in a coordinated fashion, to attract new industries to a region on the cusp of transformation.

The result of one such idea is Project Fuse, whose purpose is to build industrial and community relevance in hybrid workplace strategies, using the distinct advantages of the LPRIFA localities.

Project Fuse began with research that helped to catalog the region’s assets: quality of life, robust educational resources, a dedicated workforce, high speed internet, affordable real estate, and availability of grant dollars to pair with private investment. A new strategy we are introducing: a focus on relationships and working with industries and companies on their terms. The LPRIFA Fuse Playbook amplifies the region’s set of advantages and illuminates its assets, by outlining the action set to make Virginia’s Southwest a destination of choice for companies defining the new American hybrid workplace.  

As Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin stated in Virginia Business, shortly after his election, “the workplace has changed. For so many industries, their employees can live remotely. This is a great opportunity for us to leverage and market the great quality of life that exists in Virginia. …One of my big initiatives is personally to be engaged with those areas in Virginia that could benefit the most from a focused economic development effort. That is a promise that I have made … to make sure that many of these more rural areas in Virginia are going to get attention from me as governor.”

While companies are inventing new workplace and management templates, rural areas like Virginia’s Southwest Region can develop a new type of workforce at ease in a more diverse economic model – and form a new live-work environment that suits a new type of worker and an equally new breed of employer.

At the same time the region addresses shifts in energy, agriculture and manufacturing – and is inviting technology companies to start or expand in the region – its leaders must seek private sector partners who have a desire to shape a new economy that includes knowledge work and workers.

This is the first of a two-part commentary on economic development. Duane Miller is Executive Director of the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission. Will Payne is Managing Partner of Coalfield Strategies and leads InvestSWVA. The LPRIFA Fuse Playbook will be released in tomorrow’s part two, entitled, “Building Zoom Towns”. 

Duane Miller is Executive Director of the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission.

Will Payne is Managing Partner of Coalfield Strategies and leads InvestSWVA.