Something happened recently that you might have missed – or, if you didn’t miss it, you might have thought it was odd.
A group of important entities in Danville – involving local governments, businesses, the nonprofit community – have formed a group to prepare for “serious growth coming from the region’s many economic development successes.”
If your view of Danville is out of date – and, let’s face it, people’s views of most things are out of date – the idea of “serious growth” there might have seemed an oxymoron, much like the old joke about “military intelligence.”
After all, just four years ago, Corey Stewart, then the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, singled out Danville as a place of “boarded-up shops, closed-down factories.” The conservative publication Brietbart was even harsher. In a story headlined “Left For Dead in Danville,” it described the city as “a decomposed industrial hulk.” I wrote at the time for The Roanoke Times that both those accounts were wrong – you can walk around any community and find “boarded-up shops” if you want – but they’re even more wrong now.
Danville was a place that hit bottom two decades ago when textiles collapsed. That was a dramatic fall. Danville has also spent nearly two decades rebuilding its economy and today stands as something of a textbook example of how to make that comeback. The same year that Stewart and Brietbart were bad-mouthing Danville, the Republican governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, was taking two jetloads of state officials to Danville to see what aspects of its revival could be duplicated in his state. Twice now, Site Selection magazine has named Danville as one of the Top 10 micropolitan cities in the country. Alas, Site Selection magazine doesn’t have quite the circulation of Breitbart, and an out-of-state governor quietly doing his due diligence doesn’t get nearly the attention of an in-state political candidate looking for an issue.
So I don’t blame anyone if they haven’t kept up with what’s been happening in Danville, other than some vague recollection that a casino is on the way (scheduled for opening in 2024; here are the particulars on that). Adjectives and words in general are easy to throw around. That’s why I often prefer numbers to tell a story, so let’s look at the relevant numbers for Danville and Pittsylvania County. Here’s why community leaders now see a need to prepare for something that would have seemed preposterous not that long ago – growth.
- New jobs: From 2018 to 2021, there’s been more than $1.1 billion worth of private investment announced in the community; totaling 3,922 new jobs. Now, that includes the casino jobs that aren’t there yet, so if you drop those out, you’re still at $632.5 million in private investment and 2,622 jobs. Many of these fall under the heading of “advanced manufacturing,” a sector that Danville (and Pittsylvania) have specifically focused on. (Amy Trent had this story on a program to reach out to middle schoolers to get them interested in welding.) It’s through advanced manufacturing that Danville is now becoming known. Tom Barkin, the head of the Richmond Federal Reserve, was asked recently about communities in his five-state region that are doing interesting things economically. One of his go-to examples was in Virginia. “I think Danville’s done very interesting things on advanced technology,” he said. He’s not alone. Jason El Koubi, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, also regularly cites Danville as an example of a community that’s busy building a new economy. “Southern Virginia’s economic resurgence is a powerful success story,” he says. “Danville and Pittsylvania County are a model for the power of regionalism, integrating resources, talent and assets to maximize economic development.”
- Downtown becomes a popular living place: Some of the most fascinating transformations over the past decades have come in downtowns. Both Roanoke and Lynchburg, in particular, now have vibrant downtowns where people actually live. That has changed the whole feel of both those communities. Danville is no exception. Its downtown – called the River District – has also undergone a transformation. Starting about 2006, empty upper floors in the River District have been steadily converted into living space. Danville now counts 757 lofts and apartments in the River District, with 350 more on the way. “We really are a mill town without the mill,” says Clark Casteel, president and CEO of the Danville Regional Foundation. “That’s the mindset of a lot of people. They don’t realize the change. They haven’t been down to the River District and seen thousands of people living downtown.” (Disclosure: The foundation is one of our donors, but donors have no say in news decisions. See our policy. You can be a donor and have no say in news decisions, too. Here’s how.) “We can’t build them fast enough,” says city manager Ken Larking. Most new units are pre-leased before they even open.
- Population trends beneath the surface show population growth may already be happening. The 2020 Census found that both Danville and Pittsylvania County had lost population over the past decade, but that’s not the full story. Danville’s -1.1% population loss was the smallest decline its posted over the past 30 years (it peaked at -11.1% in 2010), so the population losses there are slowing down. What really matters is what’s happening beneath the surface of those once-every-10-years counts. For eight of the past 10 years, more people have moved into Pittsylvania County than have moved out, according to migration data from the Internal Revenue Service, and most years those moving in have made more money than those moving out. Pittsylvania’s population losses happen because, with an older population, deaths outnumber both births and net in-migration. Danville’s not there yet – it’s still seeing net out-migration, but the gap is narrowing. In 2017, Danville saw 648 more people than move in. In 2020 (the most recent year available), the IRS says the net out-migration was just 99. The IRS migration data for 2021 isn’t out yet but the Census Bureau estimates are, and the Census Bureau says that in 2021, Danville – for the first time in many years – saw more people move in than move out. (The official estimate is that Danville had net in-migration of 92 last year.)
Historically speaking, this is quite a turnaround. “It takes 40 years to transform a community,” Casteel says. “We’re trying to tighten that timeline.” The numbers above are just some of what has driven the decision to set up the Partnership for Regional Prosperity to bring together community leaders to figure out what comes next. “This is a region that was punched in the face economically and really was struggling and now we’re starting to see real growth, and how does a region that has struggled start to think about that growth?” Casteel asks. “That’s where we think we can be useful.”
Here’s what’s driving this discussion of future growth. It’s not the casino, although there’s that, too. About 20 minutes outside of town in the Berry Hill section of Pittsylvania County is the Southern Virginia Mega Site, a 3,528-acre industrial site waiting for a tenant. In May, Hyundai announced it will locate an 8,100-job electric battery factory near Savannah, Georgia. That Southern Virginia site was a close second, losing out apparently only because the Georgia site was better graded, giving it better “speed to market.” The new state budget ramps up what Virginia is spending on site preparation, so that readiness problem will get fixed. Further, the business website Bisnow reports that Georgia now frets it’s out of megasites: “Georgia’s Key Weapon in the EV Factory Battle Is Almost Out Of Bullets. It’s Working To Reload.” The Danville-Pittsylvania area is one corporate decision away from more growth than it might literally know what to do with.
“It’s just a matter of time before a large-scale business announces in our area,” Larking says. Until now, the changes in the Danville region have been incremental – substantial but still incremental. If someday some other big electric car company (just to cite one possible example of a type of company that is building large-scale plants) decides to locate in Berry Hill, “we would want to be well prepared for that,” Larking says. So the goal here is to start now by initiating some strategic conversations on things such as housing and workforce. Here’s where Larking poses a completely practical question that is still quite amazing, in historical context: “What if we get to the point where we are bigger than we were before?” For a community that’s been losing population for more than 30 years – and in five of the six censuses since the 1960s – that’s a remarkable thing to contemplate. Danville’s population topped out at 53,056 in 1990; the most recent census counted 42,590. On the plus side, Larking says, the city has the infrastructure to support a larger population. “Water and sewer has lots of capacity,” Larking says. “With that being said, a growing community has different challenges.” Part of the reason for this partnership is to prepare for that change in mindset as Danville transitions from a shrinking community to a growing one. “You don’t want people left behind,” he says.
The details are Danville’s to work out but I’m struck by the foresight and intentionality of all this. How many other localities that lost population in the last census are actively making plans, not just to make up the deficit, but to prepare for future growth? Not many, I’d wager – even without a casino in which to place that wager. Maybe the better question is: How many others should?