Virginia’s hometowns are ready for their close-ups, Mr. DeMille. Unlike Norma Desmond, however, our places of origin are actually propelling themselves into a new age.
As reported by Cardinal News and many other outlets last week, Big Stone Gap was in the spotlight again, courtesy of a collaborative public-private effort (the town of Big Stone Gap, the LENOWISCO Planning District’s Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority, InvestSWVA and the region’s legislators) to bring jobs to Virginia’s Southwest. What you heard among the gatherers was not only celebratory anticipation of what’s next but the connection between stories from one hometown with the stories of people from other parts of the state, the nation and the world, all of whom decided to become a part of this American story. It’s a tale of contribution and participation from the standpoint of creating jobs and stoking worker satisfaction.
Nasser Chanda is the CEO of Paymerang, a Richmond fintech company which is locating and hiring in Big Stone Gap, without taxpayer-funded financial incentives, as part of its distributed employment model. Chanda was born in Pakistan and emigrated to Canada as a child with his parents. While he was growing up, his family experienced the twists and turns of entrepreneurship, and as he learned about America, he saw the country as a place he could be. This happened for him. And when he heard the stories about how Big Stone Gap came to be, and the twists and turns of its journey, he immediately connected the dots between his experience, Paymerang’s success, and what could happen as a result of Paymerang’s arrival in this Virginia hometown. Chanda’s wheels were turning, which is the classic sign of an entrepreneur and an executive who knows that all business begins with people, communities and market opportunity.
Brilliance is not too lofty a concept or too big a word for what is happening in the places where many of us grew up. A strong percentage of our towns are emerging from collective disappointment and even sadness, thanks to folks both in leadership and the ranks sharing a priority to use taxpayer dollars to stabilize through reinvention. This alone is worthy of commendation, but the hometowns are doing three things that earn the descriptor of brilliance. First, they are letting themselves experience distress but not swim in it. They are accepting that things have changed. Second, they are looking at the trajectory of history, seeing how our forebears navigated the twists and turns and centered themselves in ingenuity and grit. Yet they are not longing for the past. Third, they are fighting the tendency to rely on the wealth of others or to create meaning for themselves by redistributing wealth; they are emphasizing that the role of community and government leaders is to work with the private sector to create jobs that enable people to achieve a level of self-worth and to gain a perspective on life beyond themselves.
Virginia’s rural communities will succeed not by looking for ways to grab and rely upon abundant taxpayer dollars to maintain a status quo but by recognizing that growth and stability only result from a robust private sector. There is a critical role for government leaders, nonprofit agencies, charities, academic institutions and economic developers in this, in setting a foundation for achievement, not dependency, and in solving problems and then moving on to the next. It requires a steadfast mindset of stewardship around one key value: our hometowns and their leaders are the first trustees of taxpayer investment and performance, and their partnership with entrepreneurs and businesses must laud the glory of work and set the stage for inviting all of us to play a role.
Mary Trigiani, a frequent contributor to Cardinal News, is a veteran business executive and grew up in Big Stone Gap.