Photo Above: Melinda Thayer Leland of Virginia Highlands Community College outlines recommendations during the Aug. 3 stakeholder meetingin Marion. Photos by Scott Robertson
By Scott Robertson
Following a whirlwind August and a Sept. 7 board meeting in Wytheville, GO VA’s Region 1 (GO VA 1) staff is sending the region’s Economic Growth and Diversification Plan to Richmond for review and approval by the state GO Board Sept. 12.
The statewide organization mandated the creation of such plans by each of the nine regions in the Commonwealth to, “identify economic opportunities, needs, and challenges, establish priorities among those opportunities, and outline needed enhancements where GO VA grant funds can support collaborative programs between at least two or more localities that will lead to the creation of additional higher paying jobs.”
As a first step in creating the 167-page Region 1 plan, 19 different strategic plans, economic blueprints, and similar products from across the region and labor shed were studied at the outset. A consultant – Chmura Economics and Analytics – was engaged to analyze the region’s demographics, workforce and economic data to pinpointing strengths, weaknesses and potential industrial gaps.
In addition, a citizen survey was opened online, while at the same time, regional meetings were held in each of the three Region 1 planning districts to discuss ideas and strategies for addressing the economic challenges facing the area.
The citizen survey heralded the overall sense of urgency for an economic reset in Southwest Virginia as it showed that a quarter of the people living in the region are considering relocation, primarily due to economic conditions. Such an event would only exacerbate what is already considered the gravest challenge facing Southwest Virginia – a dwindling population.
Each regional conversation built upon the previous one, resulting in six strategic goals that the participants believed should be considered in formulating the Growth and Diversification Plan:
1. Strengthen existing leadership and foster next generation leadership.
2. Cultivate entrepreneurs, and support and diversify existing businesses.
3. Develop regional collaboration for workforce and education (including K-12) and expand, market and grow regional educational resources.
4. Leverage broadband infrastructure to promote the ability to work remotely and grow information technology (IT) infrastructure and technology hubs.
5. Create a new identity for the region as a “culture of wellness” and promote the region’s high quality of life, assets, and amenities through marketing and telling positive stories of the region.
6. Coordinate and focus workforce programs to align with industry and economic development targets.
Analysis of all the input led to the creation of a short list of industries that a draft of GO VA 1’s plan says, “could signal a new age of high wages, job opportunities, and an evolving, lively Southwest Virginia economic landscape.”
• Advanced Manufacturing
• Agriculture and Food Manufacturing
• Information and Emerging Technologies
• Energy & Minerals
In addition, the plan offers some specific strategies for each initiative that would support existing local companies and entrepreneurs while promoting investment and location of prospective industries.
• Talent Development: Education, Workforce and Leadership Capacity
• Entrepreneurship and Innovation
One key foundation to the GO VA 1 plan is, “strategic investments in developing a workforce with industry-recognized credentials and meaningfully engaging employers in the workforce conversations.” Other keys include cultivating innovation and building the region’s capacity for leadership.
“Southwest Virginia’s challenges are complex and multi-faceted and require resourceful solutions,” the draft plan says. “By utilizing elusive qualities such as the aforementioned innovative thinking and leadership development, the results needed for an economic resurgence in the region are achievable.”