Big Stone Gap. Photo courtesy of KJPurscell.
Big Stone Gap. Photo courtesy of KJPurscell.

Americans love underdog stories, from “Hoosiers” to “Rocky” to every Cinderella team in March Madness to — well, it’s a long list.

A few weeks ago I told you about another underdog story: the Big Stone Gap micropolitan area, the way the Census Bureau defines the region that encompasses Dickenson County, Wise County and Norton for economic purposes.

Data crunched by the Brookings Institution shows that over the past two decades the Big Stone Gap micropolitan area has succeeded in building a tech-based economy that, on a percentage basis, is bigger than that in the Roanoke Valley. This certainly runs counter to a lot of stereotypes but data is data and there it is.

Now, I’ve got more data to put this in a larger context — and the Big Stone Gap micropolitan area’s economic transformation looks even more remarkable.

Before I bring out the numbers — waiting in the wings for their big introduction, so to speak —  let’s set the stage. 

The Brookings Institution wanted to try to measure just how much our economy is changing. Referring to jobs as “tech jobs” may not be particularly useful because in today’s economy, lots of jobs have a technological element to them. Instead, Brookings used Labor Department statistics to classify jobs by how much technology is involved in them. Even better for our purposes, it has those stats for every metropolitan area and micropolitan area in the country, which lets us measure how quickly — or how slowly — certain communities are seeing their economies evolve. You can view it all in the Brookings report: “As the digitalization of work expands, place-based solutions can bridge the gap.”

I’ve looked at this data twice before, in two different ways. First, we saw how Martinsville has the least digitalized economy of any community in Virginia that Brookings has data for — but it’s also seen its economy go digital at a faster rate than anywhere else in the state.

Next, we looked simply at the “highly digitalized” portion of the economy, because there’s a strong correlation between that and pay. The more digitalized a job is, the more likely it is to pay more. 

In that column, we saw that the Washington metro has the highest percentage of highly digitalized jobs in the state (no surprise there), followed by Charlottesville, with fast-rising Blacksburg now in third place. But we also saw that the community where highly digitalized jobs were growing at the fastest rate was that Big Stone Gap micropolitan area. 

In 2002, Big Stone Gap was tied with Danville and Martinsville for last place in Virginia — just 4% of its jobs were considered highly digitalized. By 2020, Big Stone Gap counted 22% of its jobs in that category, higher than eight other areas (including Roanoke, where the figure is 21%).

For that previous column, local officials attributed the big change to a concerted strategy focused on data centers, hybrid work and, yes, call centers. (They point out that some of the call centers they have are quite specialized, such as one handling computer questions for the state’s information technology network.)

Whatever the jobs, this is certainly a significant change in the economy in that part of Virginia. 

Another comparison:

In 2002, 9% of the nation’s jobs were considered “highly digitalized,” so Big Stone Gap’s 4% figure then was less than half.

By 2020, 26% of the nation’s jobs were considered “highly digitalized.” Big Stone Gap’s 22% figure was below that, but getting a lot closer. 

Now let’s broaden the frame. We know how the Big Stone Gap micropolitan area measures up against the rest of Virginia on this score (quite well!) but how does it measure up regionally? In other words, rather than compare and contrast Big Stone Gap with other parts of Virginia, whose economies are quite different, let’s compare and contrast it with other parts of Central Appalachia, whose economies would be more similar.

I asked Brookings for data and the D.C.-based think tank was happy to oblige (shout-out here to authors Mark Muro and Sifan Liu). I wanted to look at eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky and all of West Virginia — the first of which is close by, the latter two of which also have had economies based on resource extraction plus the same topographical challenges that Virginia’s coal counties face.

This data covered 20 other metros and micros, an accidental but convenient round number. We already had data for Bluefield, which straddles the state line, so that makes 21. 

The first finding: Not a single one of them started as low as Big Stone Gap did, with just 4% of its economy being highly digitalized in 2002. Some were close — Glasglow, Kentucky; Greeneville, Tennessee; Middlesborough, Kentucky; Morristown, Tennessee; and Mount Sterling, Kentucky, were at 5%. But not a single one was at 4%, as Big Stone Gap, Danville and Martinsville were in 2002.

The second finding: By 2020, only five of these areas had a higher percentage of highly digitalized jobs, and they are the ones you might expect: the region’s biggest cities and/or college towns. While Big Stone Gap weighs in at 22%, the West Virginia state capital of Charleston is at 24% while Johnson City and Knoxville,Tennessee, are at 25%. So is the Richmond-Berea area in Kentucky (home to Eastern Kentucky University and Berea College). Morgantown, West Virginia, leads the pack at 28%. 

The Big Stone Gap micropolitan area has a four-year college, too (the University of Virginia’s College at Wise), but with an enrollment of 1,780 it obviously doesn’t have the economic impact on its region that the University of Tennessee (33,805) does in Knoxville or West Virginia University (24,741) does in Morgantown. My point: We would expect a college town to have a lot of highly digitalized jobs. We would not expect that of a community in the heart of coal country, yet Big Stone Gap now does. 

Big Stone Gap started out behind every other metro or micro in Central Appalachia but has now eclipsed all but a predictable handful of them. That sure sounds like a success story to me.

* * * 

For those of you who like to see the data, here it is. 

Here’s how the growth of tech jobs in the Big Stone Gap micropolitan area compares to others in Appalachia that were rated close to it in 2002. Source: Brookings Institution data.

First, here’s a comparison of how Big Stone Gap’s percentage of highly digitalized jobs has changed, as compared to the localities that came closest to it in 2002. You’ll see that Big Stone Gap has now passed them all. For bracketing purposes, I’ve included Morgantown, Blacksburg and Roanoke. You’ll see once again how Blacksburg and Roanoke started in the same place, but Blacksburg has pulled away — and that Big Stone Gap has now surpassed Roanoke on a percentage basis.

Source: Data from Brookings Institution.
Here’s how the Big Stone Gap micropolitan area compares to some of the bigger places in Central Appalachia. Source: Data from Brookings Institution.

Here’s a chart that shows Big Stone Gap in comparison to some of the bigger places in Central Appalachia. Yes, that’s a lot of lines. (Be glad I didn’t include them all!) What you’ll see, though, is that Big Stone Gap started out in last place and now ties Bristol-Kingsport and Parkersburg, West Virginia, and exceeds all the others listed below it. 

Bottom line: However you measure it, Big Stone Gap’s economy has transformed, and done so at a faster pace than almost any other place in Central Appalachia except for college towns.

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