Andrew Dehan wrote for Rocket Mortgage, in 2021: “The term ‘zoom town’ is a play on the old term boomtown, which referred to towns and cities that experienced large growth due to oil discovery. The ‘zoom’ in zoom town refers to the virtual conferencing software, Zoom, which many remote workers use. So instead of oil, zoom towns are communities growing due to increased remote work opportunities. This shift toward remote work has resulted in changes in housing market trends. With fewer people having where they live dictated by their jobs, they’re freer to live in areas of their choosing, as long as there’s broadband internet access.”
For rural areas like Virginia’s Southwest, the emergence of zoom towns is a call to take a fresh, aggressive look at economic development efforts. The iron is hot: Governor Glenn Youngkin has established a priority of re-focusing economic strategy setting in the Commonwealth’s rural localities.
In one sector of the southwest region, the Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority (LPRIFA), including the City of Norton and the Counties of Dickenson, Lee, Scott and Wise, has identified seven essential actions for such redirection. Under the auspices of Project Fuse, research indicates that the strengths of the LPRIFA localities and their alignment with the priorities of employers and workers are valuable: affordability, arts and heritage-based entertainment, variety in outdoor recreation, close access to small cities, small primary and secondary class sizes, higher education institutions, minimal traffic, continuing professional education, growing housing options, aggressive broadband installation and a robust industrial and agricultural mindset.
Action 1: Invite companies to build with the region, not just in it. The center of influence in economic development has shifted from conference- and association-based marketing around site competitiveness and tax incentives alone. Economic development strategies now address how to connect with corporations over purpose, strategy and cost effectiveness. Besides finding tax-positive situations and the ability to plug-and-play within months instead of years, companies must now consider building new workforce sectors in places new to them – and they can do it because of changing worker expectations and the reach afforded by contemporary technology.
Action 2: Move downtown. Use existing downtown properties – publicly and privately held – for two purposes. First, create coworking and meeting spaces that companies or the newly self-employed can use as hubs. Second, ensure the design of such spaces enables communities to use them as anchor projects for revitalizing their downtowns.
Action 3: Plan community design around worker and employer lifestyle priorities. As companies tailor employment packages for sought-after employees, two aspects of remote work are taking hold: hiring new employees already in locations remote to the companies, and full-on relocation of employees to smaller cities and towns. Communities must be able to present affordable housing and entertainment options.
Action 4: Deliver universal connectivity ahead of schedule. LPRIFA’s broadband expansion is already strong and scheduled to reach universal status by 2024. Meeting this milestone ahead of time would give employers a reason to consider putting hubs of every size into the region – and attract companies to participate in coworking spaces as a long-term strategy or as a way to park in communities and test the water.
Action 5: Help companies erect barriers to talent attrition. A robust academic presence in the LPRIFA affords the promise of ongoing continuing education – a resource for employers, a perk for employees. LPRIFA localities and their education partners have the template that incorporates group corporate training programs, for companies located here, and promotes individual programming for employees who happen to live in the region.
Action 6: Invite regional business leaders to help set a regional positioning campaign that includes relationship building. For corporate powerhouses seeking ready access to researching and communing with entrepreneurs and rural customers, access to already-established companies with dynamic business leaders is a boon. It helps new entrants to the region shorten their learning curves and build networks of support after deals are signed – and it helps the region to deliver its promises.
Action 7: Invite ambitious private sector players, of all sizes and shapes, to help strengthen the regional economy without changing its character. In a region that has excelled, due to work ethic and vision, for more than a century in energy production, manufacturing and agriculture, it is tempting to stay with the known quantities. There is no question that the legacy strengths of Virginia’s Southwest are vital and part of its commercial future. However, they will become stronger if the ecosystem expands its own horizons by forming partnerships with new types of companies that seek both to offer intriguing employment options and to contribute to their communities.
The global business community seeks options for attracting the employees they want and managing their costs within the post-pandemic scenario of elastic work models. For the leaders of economic development initiatives in Virginia’s Southwest, the mission must be to present the region as a strong partner for implementing hybrid workplace strategies.
Virginia’s Great Southwest can be an answer, a resource, and the place to be.
This is the second 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. To download a copy of The LPRIFA Fuse Playbook, visit https://www.investswva.org/project-fuse. Part 1: It’s time for a new playbook.