The cover of the Vibrant Virginia book. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Overview:

"Vibrant Virginia" documents what's worked, and what hasn't.

There aren’t many books written about Virginia, particularly the western third of Virginia, but when there are, they sure are doozies.

We have Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” based around her time at what is now Hollins University. We have the novels by Lee Smith (of Grundy) and Adriana Trigiani (of Big Stone Gap) that use Appalachia as their backdrop. We have the nonfiction work of Beth Macy (of Roanoke and, I am obligated to point out, a member of our journalism advisory committee).

The book I’m about to write about won’t compare to those for its prose or its plot. It won’t win any Pulitzers (as Dillard’s book did) or get made into movies or TV series (as work by Trigiani and Macy have been). It certainly won’t make any best-seller list – but it ought to make its way onto the reading list of every local official in the state, particularly those in Southwest and Southside.

“Vibrant Virginia: Engaging the Commonwealth to Expand Economic Vitality,” co-edited by Margaret Cowell and Sarah Lyon-Hill of Virginia Tech, is a series of 15 chapters by “scholars and practitioners” about economic development, with emphasis on rural Virginia. (Cowell is an associate professor of urban affairs and planning; Lyon-Hill is associate director for research development at the Center for Economic and Community Engagement.)

I’m a fan of this book because it presents, with academic grounding, many of the issues that I tend to write about – how to grow a new economy in a part of the country that has seen traditional employers decline and sometimes die outright.

Here are some of the highlights that I learned, and which deserve a wider discussion:

  • 76% of rural localities in the United States didn’t secure a single new economic development from 2014 to 2018 (the time period studied by the Virginia Economic Development Partnerhership). If three-quarters of rural America isn’t seeing any economic development action at all, well, no wonder that a) people are leaving and b) the politics of rural Virginia sometimes turn more strident than polite society allows. (The facts are theirs; the observations here are mine.)Those figures get worse, though:
  • In a typical year, 90% of rural America doesn’t see any economic development announcements.

    Further, this figure isn’t going to get better on its own. The book documents that “site consultants increasingly have favored proximity to major markets (i.e., larger metro areas), as that particular  criterion increased from the eighth most important site-selection factor in  2008 to tied for most important in 2018.” The trends are working against us. “Indeed,  the two additional factors tied for most important in 2018 – availability of  skilled labor and highway accessibility – also tend to favor metro areas,  especially large ones,” the book says. I never said this book was going to be uplifting, just educational. It does serve as a basic economic lesson about scarcity: “While rural leaders in many states often feel left  behind by state leaders, the reality is that there are simply far more rural localities in need of new employment opportunities than there are companies with economic development  projects willing to consider rural localities – especially those located in regions with a small labor force.” That highlights one of the biggest challenges rural communities face: How do we change the outlook of companies that simply refuse to consider us? That’s why we have situations like this: Prince William County is currently embroiled in a big-time zoning dispute over whether to allow data centers in a certain party of the county – while we have many localities in Southwest and Southside that are literally begging for data centers.

The bad news continues. The book says that “forecasts by Moody’s Analytics prepared in late 2020 suggested that Virginia’s rural regions and small metros would take considerably longer to recover than those regions that comprise the urban crescent (i.e., Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, and Greater Richmond). While Virginia as a whole was expected to recover its pre-pandemic employment by mid-2023, rural Virginia wasn’t expected to recover until 2025. This new economic divide made Virginia’s rural development efforts even more urgent than before.” Yes, yes it does.

Now for some good news – finally! The book cites a study that shows urban areas do better economically when the rural areas around them do better – what city wants to be on the edge of a black hole, economically speaking? Conversely, if rural areas do well, where are their residents likely to spend some of their money? The nearest city. And then there’s this: Because many rural areas are so small, it wouldn’t take much, in terms of raw numbers, to make a big difference. “Based on employment forecasts by Moody’s Analytics, virtually all Virginia regions could be positioned for net growth with no more than a few hundred additional jobs on average each year – an addressable gap for VEDP and its partners.” So we don’t need much but we do need that.

Alas, back to the bad news. “Regions that have experienced even small, but sustained, annual declines in employment and population have tended to lose critical anchor institutions over time, such as hospitals and grocery stores while having to close or consolidate public schools. As  these institutions close or consolidate, rural areas become less attractive  for remaining residents as well as for potential new residents.” OK, we don’t need academics or anyone else to tell us that; that’s the lived reality for many rural residents. But it is useful to have others validate why rural economic development is important.

The book singles out Patrick County – where a hospital has closed – as one example of a rural county losing one of those “critical anchor institutions,” and thus becoming less competitive. Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, sponsored a bill (currently awaiting Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s signature) that would make it easier for someone to reopen the hospital. That bill sailed through the legislature but, in case it runs into any difficulties in the governor’s office, Williams might want to have this portion of “Vibrant Virginia” handy to quote from. Having those “critical institutions” enables growth, but growth also enables those “critical institutions” to stay, the book says: “Even a small amount of growth each year would go a long way toward enabling  these critical institutions to remain open, sustaining rural communities for growth opportunities not currently envisioned that could emerge in the future.”

And that’s where the book strikes a more hopeful tone: “Members of the group were encouraged that each small metro area  and rural region in Virginia needs just 100-300 additional jobs annually above forecasts to position every region of the Commonwealth for sustained employment growth. That meant (and means) that rural growth  in Virginia is an achievable, albeit difficult, goal.”

So far, these grim facts may not seem to live up to the “vibrant” part of the book’s title, but stick with it: The book goes on to offer some ways for rural Virginia to become more vibrant, although explaining them sometimes involves citing some more unpleasant realities. One chapter lays out an eight-part plan. Here are the top three:


1. Rural broadband. This seems to be happening, so that’s good.


2. Better marketing of rural Virginia: “Brand rural Virginia as the  most attractive, most competitive location in the US for  manufacturing and other sectors (e.g., business process  outsourcing, data centers, distribution) open to rural  locations.” The book praises the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, which, after some scandals, got reorganized in the last year of the Terry McAuliffe administration. Since then, the book says, “the number of VEDP-generated leads  each year has roughly doubled. That has resulted in more opportunities  for rural areas and smaller metros to compete for economic development  projects. Nevertheless, with a total state marketing budget much smaller than those of top competing states, Virginia’s smaller communities still struggle to stand out in the competitive economic development landscape.” At last November’s Senate Finance Committee retreat in Roanoke, senators heard testimony about how many rural governments simply lack an economic development staff. This book says that, too: “Many rural localities in Virginia do not have a single full-time staff member focused on economic development.” This, of course, is a chicken-and-egg situation: Rural localities can’t really expect to land any economic development prospects if they’re not selling themselves but it’s hard to staff a position that many localities simply can’t afford. With all the money sloshing around Richmond right now, is there a role for some state assistance here?

3. More business-ready sites. This isn’t a sexy detail but an important one. The book says that “in recent years, the lack of a prepared site was one of the most common reasons that rural Virginia communities missed out on high-impact advanced manufacturing and distribution projects. Analysis of competitive project losses by VEDP indicated that billions of dollars in new capital investment and many thousands of new jobs were lost over the last few years primarily due to a lack of prepared site.” Many thousands!

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this, of course. It’s never made its way to the bumper sticker of a political campaign but it’s something that gets talked about a lot among those who are involved in economic development. A report late last year on the coalfield economy documented a lack of big industrial sites – in Southwest Virginia there are just three sites of 100 acres or more. Granted, that part of the state is topographically challenged so it’s hard to find 100 acres or more that can be graded flat, but the problem is a statewide one. The same report noted that Virginia spends $5 million a year on site development. South Carolina spends $43 million, Ohio $50 million, Georgia $66 million. But they’re all dwarfed by North Carolina, which spends $80 million. That’s why former Gov. Ralph Northam’s secretary of commerce said that North Carolina was “the state that keeps me up at night.” In his final budget, Northam proposed $150 million over the next two years for site development and Gov. Glenn Youngkin has made more funding for site development one of his priorities. Both the House and Senate versions of the budget include money for site development, although they differ on how much and how it’s structured. (The Senate proposes to spend $150 million over three years on site development – $100 million in “catch-up funding” out of the current one, then $25 million a year for the two years of the biennium. The House version would spend $150 million in the current budget, then $14.4 million in the first year of the new budget, but nothing in the second year.) Here’s some academic ammunition for more state funding for site development, however it’s structured.

This book came out before the budget did, but a close reading suggests it would align more with the more consistent Senate funding than the bigger, but less consistent, House funding becuase the implication is this needs to be an ongoing budget item, not just something in this budget. “Vibrant Virginia” says: “A fully funded site development program for Virginia would require roughly $20-30 million annually plus matching funds from localities” – four to six times what we’re doing now. “The return on investment would be substantial: thousands of additional jobs and billions in additional capital investment each year that would be secured with a more competitive portfolio of prepared sites in place. More specifically, VEDP has estimated a robust site development program as described here would result in approximately 28,000 to 49,000 additional direct jobs in manufacturing and supply chain projects over a decade, which collectively would yield roughly $128-272 million per year in new state general fund revenues. Most of these wins would occur in and/or directly benefit Virginia’s rural regions and localities.” I realize the state budget is often an insider’s game but Youngkin ought to be talking up site development at every opportunity to show what he’s doing for rural Virginia. (Of note: The House budget limits the site development money to sites of 200 acres or more. I realize the intent here to create large scales for potential business, but that size requirement also rules out much of Southwest Virginia, where it’s difficult to impossible to assemble flat tracts that size. If Youngkin really wants to help Southwest Virginia, he will make sure that provision gets massaged to make some allowance for Southwest’s beautiful but unforgiving topography.)

Parts four to eight are more technical – you can read the book for the details on those. I’m not giving away everything! But I will point out that Republicans who are skeptical of anything emanating from the great ivory towers of academe will find reason to like at least one of those other points: “Encourage state and local leaders to work together in a bipartisan fashion to make state and/or local tax changes to ensure that Virginia’s tax burden rankings for new, job-creating investments (either expansions of existing firms or new firms) are no worse than those for existing firms.”

Now, a lot of those things are easier to say than do – many things in life are – but at least there’s a checklist.

Elsewhere, the book expresses some skepticism about the prospect of remote workers transforming the rural economy. “Unfortunately, while there likely will be a large, permanent increase in remote work, much of it may be a hybrid form where workers continue to travel to the office regularly even as they work from home more frequently than in the past. Accordingly, new rural growth opportunities associated with remote work may not be as large as many had hoped during the pandemic.” (I’ve written about this, too, and also expressed some skepticism.) On the other hand, the book says some places within easy drive of a major metro may, indeed, benefit more disproportionately from remote workers – and singles out Danville, with its proximity to North Carolina’s Research Triangle, and Harrisonburg, with its proximity to Northern Virginia, as examples.

Another chapter in the book talks up the importance of building industry clusters – in other words, regions ought to specialize in certain fields to help beef up supply chains and create spinoff businesses. Again, something we know but here’s some more documentation. The book looks at some specific examples. On the plus side, how the Lynchburg to Roanoke to New River region has tried to leverage universities to grow entrepreneurs, particularly in the life sciences. On the other hand, the book says: “It can also be more difficult for smaller or more rural entities to serve as anchors. In the Alleghany Highlands, Dabney Lancaster Community College has tried to spur a focus on unmanned systems through support of an incubator and a workforce training initiative. The results have been mixed, largely due to a gap in the amount of resources available and needed in the mostly rural region to truly compete and cultivate such a technology-intensive industry sector in the absence of larger private sector companies or major research universities.”

Elsewhere, the book looks at how the Shenandoah Valley Airport in Augusta County has enabled economic growth there and how revitalizing downtown has made a difference in places such as Farmville and South Hill.

Finally, though, there’s this: The authors of one section wonder how much of the rural-urban divide is self-imposed. Certainly there are objective measures of dollars and cents that divide metro areas and rural areas economically. But maybe there’s more to it than just the economy? “In the authors’ experience working in one hard-hit rural southwest/southside Virginia county [Patrick County], the often alleged rural-urban divide cannot be understood in purely economic terms,” write Max O. Stephenson Jr., Lara Nagle and Neda Moayerian. “Rather, it is also a self-imposed social divide in which some (though certainly not all) people living in rural areas that are no longer producing a commodity the market values or that can compete globally (flooring and furniture products in Patrick County, for example) have elected to blame others as creators of that condition rather than address it head on and mobilize their populations and employ their governments as the vehicles and arbiters of common claims directly as they do so.”

Those authors use the term “social imaginary” – a sociology term that refers to the narrative we perceive unfolding around us, whether it’s real or not. “For residents in southwest/southside Virginia and throughout the state, the social imaginary is a powerful driver that underpins their shared understanding of how they belong and how they can create change through their individual and collective stories.

In non-academic language: Stop blaming somebody else for all your problems. Show some initiative and fix them yourself.

Studying some of the examples in this book would be a fine way to start.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.