Danville and Pittsylvania County are expecting dramatic growth in coming years, bringing significant changes to the area. According to its residents, the region is ready for some of these anticipated changes, like increased tourism, and unprepared for others, like rising demands for broadband, child care and housing.
At four events between December and April, residents could participate in The Big Sort, an exercise that asked them to weigh in on trends that the region can expect to see in the next 20 years.
The workshops — two each in Danville and Pittsylvania — were organized by the Partnership for Regional Prosperity, an organization focused on how to prepare for the growth in the region.
On Wednesday, the community learned the results of the workshops. These results identified the region’s level of preparedness for each trend, according to the opinion of the participants.
“This is good information that can feed into something like an updated economic strategic plan or an action in public policy,” Beth Doughty, manager for the Partnership for Regional Prosperity, said at Wednesday’s event.
With this information, the partnership will help the community focus on three weak areas: child care, infrastructure and housing. The organization plans to initiate collaborative conversations and identify resources for the city and county.
“The Big Sort exercise helped leaders and residents get their heads around what might be coming in the future,” Doughty said. “The Danville and Pittsylvania County region is experiencing unprecedented success in economic development and is seeing growth, and change has to come with that to accommodate that growth.”
About 150 people participated in the sorting process, organized into 37 teams.
At each workshop, residents were put into teams of between three and five people. Each team got a deck of 47 cards describing trends that are expected to shape the future of the region, including society, technology, economy, environment and politics. For each trend, teams answered two questions:
“How certain are we that this trend will occur by 2042 in Danville and Pittsylvania?” and “How much impact will this trend have on the future of Danville and Pittsylvania by 2042?”
Then, teams placed each card into a quadrant of their game board based on its degree of certainty and level of impact.
The exercise encouraged teams to think like futurists, not like historians, Doughty said.
Teams also ranked the region’s readiness for each trend on a scale of 0 — least ready — to 10, most ready.
The results were compiled, analyzed and then shared with the community Wednesday at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research.
The Big Sort results can tell the region which issues to focus on and prepare for, Doughty said. Twelve trends were ranked “high certainty/high impact” by at least half of the teams.
Of those 12, residents think the region is better prepared for the following five, which ranked above the median in terms of regional readiness:
- Increased sales tax to fund capital school projects
- Increasing interest in entrepreneurship
- Growing investments in public education
- Increasingly sophisticated manufacturing
- Increasing tourism economy
“These high-readiness trends are really evidence of the work that’s been done in the region to improve the economy, make progress and be on the precipice of unprecedented growth and prosperity,” Doughty said. “But the lowest readiness is the flipside.”
The other seven trends ranked below the median in terms of regional readiness:
- Rising minimum wage
- Rising telehealth for mental health
- Rising broadband demand
- Increasing cyber security needs
- Improving water and sewer infrastructure
- Rising pressures to address child care
- Rising demand for new housing
These problems aren’t unique to Danville or Pittsylvania County, Doughty said.
“Many, many large and small communities in the region are looking at exactly the same issues,” she said. “The problem is no one has really come up with a solution.”
Leaders should pay attention to these trends now, Doughty said.
“The growth and prosperity that this region can see on the horizon, it makes it all the more important that these issues receive attention so that you can achieve what is right in front of you,” she said.
The region has already started to feel the effects of some of these trends, like a soaring demand for housing in both the city and the county, and a need for extended broadband, especially in the county.
The Big Sort analysis also compared perspectives between city and county stakeholders.
“Both groups agree that the top forces include trends in broadband, manufacturing, housing, water and sewer infrastructure, and cyber security,” said the Big Sort analysis report.
But there are slightly different perspectives when it comes to the region’s readiness for certain trends.
At the two workshops held in Danville, more than half of the teams thought that the region is more ready for the impact of trends in manufacturing, housing, tourism economy, public education investments, entrepreneurship and airport infrastructure.
Danville residents also think that the region is less ready for trends in educational attainment.
But at the workshops in Pittsylvania, more than half of the teams thought that the region is better prepared for the impact of trends in minimum wage, telehealth and e-commerce, and less prepared for child care demands.
“Both perspectives agree that the region is relatively well-prepared for the impact of increased sales tax to fund school capital projects,” the report said. And both perspectives also “agree that the region is relatively unprepared for the impact of trends in broadband, water and sewer infrastructure, cyber security, and especially housing demand.”
Doughty said there were fewer differences in opinion between the city and county workshops than she anticipated.
“I actually thought there were going to be more [discrepancies], but there weren’t in the hot-button issues,” she said in an interview after Wednesday’s event. “I was surprised that there really was largely a lot of agreement.”
Additionally, county residents could attend the workshops held in the city, and vice versa, she added.
“Participants could’ve lived in one place and worked in another, so that part of it is not scientific,” Doughty said. “And while public policy is individual, you should always look at a region as a region. You live in one place, you work in another, you shop in another.”
Regional leaders should use the workshop results to inform their next steps, the Big Sort report said, because it’s crucial for communities to be forward-thinking if they want to prepare for the future.
“Regions work better when they’re operating with foresight and empowering stakeholders to pull in the same direction,” it said. “The insights from these community exercises can inform the development of the next strategic plan for the region, which can serve as a guidance system and help align stakeholders for era-defining efforts.”
To aid initiatives in child care, infrastructure and housing, the partnership will “focus on the doable,” Doughty said at Wednesday’s event. It will research, share information, convene community conversations, promote collaboration and align resources within Danville and Pittsylvania, she said.
“The partnership is a convener, it’s a facilitator, it’s an engagement specialist,” Doughty said. “And these issues, child care, infrastructure, housing, don’t exist in silos. They’re complicated, often with people on different sides of the issue.”
The Big Sort is the first step in research toward solving these problems, she said. And the partnership needs the help and participation of the community to move forward.
“The results of this research point in a direction,” she said. “They’re not an answer.”
City and county leaders said in a news release Wednesday that the results of the Big Sort are useful in discerning a direction for future efforts in the region. The workshops provided “valuable information on how this community sees itself,” said Danville City Manager Ken Larking.
The results also call for collaboration between various organizations, including the Partnership for Regional Prosperity, as well as between the city and county.
“This not only gives direction to the partnership, but to local governments and community agencies who will work together to help create the future our region desires and deserves,” said Stuart Turille, Pittsylvania County administrator.