Major economic conference highlights region

Gov. Glenn Youngkin introduces the Accelerate Southwest Virginia initiative during the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum at UVA-Wise.

By A.J. Kaufman, Managing Editor
Photos by A.J. Kaufman and Mark Robertson-Baker

Just before Memorial Day weekend, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise held its annual Southwest Virginia Economic Forum. The theme for the ninth gathering of more than 300 attendees was “A Region on the Move.”

Inside the capacious David J. Prior Convocation Center, discussions transpired on the economic priority of retaining talent and developing the next generation of leaders across the Appalachian Highlands.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin journeyed to the region and served as a keynote speaker. The businessman-turned-politician is the first governor to attend and participate in the economic development event. Through roughly 25 minutes, Youngkin discussed the impactful work happening across Southwest Virginia and its overall role within the state. Speaking of a “rural renaissance” in the region, he opened by enthusiastically introducing the Accelerate Southwest Virginia initiative.

“This shared mission means we will unleash the unbounded potential of Southwest Virginia and equip this region with the tools it needs to race forward in this next decade of economic development,” Youngkin said to applause.

The multi-faceted endeavor will focus on economic development, bringing down the cost of living, housing projects, education opportunities, and fortifying infrastructure. Youngkin chose these areas after they continually were raised during his spring listening tour and roundtable discussions with Southwest community leaders, including at Wise.

“This is all about locking arms; this is all about focus, and this is all about results,” Youngkin explained. “We in fact have the most amazing collection of collaborators that anyone in the commonwealth of Virginia could imagine. On top of that, we have unbounding potential, and there is a mindset that already exists in Southwest Virginia to go, to get things done, and to make sure we are achieving results, as opposed to standing around talking.”

The governor said a partnership with the Tobacco Commission includes a $10 million “money tree” loan to support development projects in the agricultural, mining and manufacturing sectors.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin answers questions from the press after speaking in Wise, Va.

“We need to run at the speed of business, not at the speed of government,” he emphasized, while boasting of the recently-signed budget to help working families and prodigious job growth witnessed during his tenure. “We need to go faster and accomplish more. There are no more powerful words in the English language than ‘you are hired’…and it’s a phrase that has been echoed more and more across the commonwealth.”

The governor touched on broad issues like supporting police, mental health, housing, and economic development to regional ones, such as broadband investments, the pursuit of an inland port, and infrastructure improvements along the critical I-81 corridor to better connect Southwest to what he deems “the international marketplace.”

“What economic opportunity needs is a holistic push, and we have to address that on all fronts,” the governor concluded. “When we get multiple levers pulled at the same time, then we can move mountains. That’s what Accelerate Southwest Virginia is all about. There’s a great plan in place. We gotta get moving.”
Youngkin answered several questions from local media after his remarks, where he reiterated the need to accelerate his goals, specifically massive funding dedicated to I-81 construction projects over the next decade.

Economist Chris Chmura delivered a State of the Region address earlier in the day. She expressed concern about rising interest rates, housing prices and availability, as well as keeping younger people in the region. Chmura also analyzed wages, migration and encouraged creating an environment for higher wage jobs, including the new Hard Rock Casino in Bristol, which she noted will bring in money from outside the area.

Economist Chris Chmura

A discussion on “Overcoming Barriers to Systemic Change” transpired between John Wilson, Appalachian Recovery Care (ARC) market president, and Dana Cronkhite, economic development director for nearby Dickenson County.

Cronkhite believes the region needs to continue diversifying its economy and provide options for young people who want to stay in Appalachia. Partnering with ARC, Cronkhite claims Dickenson is the only county in Virginia using a substance abuse center — Wildwood Recovery Center in Clintwood — as an avenue for economic development.

Dana Cronkhite, left, and John Wilson, center, engage in a discussion about mental health and substance abuse, moderated by Randy Rose, UVA-Wise associate vice chancellor for community and economic development.

Wilson discussed the expanding ARC into Virginia, and how problems with a workforce often are tied to substance abuse disorders.

“Data shows the two biggest predicates to success and long-term recovery are length of treatment and vocational opportunities after treatment,” he said, then noted that three in four unemployed people are taking prescription pain medication, and Southwest Virginia is a leading area for opioid prescriptions. With the labor participation rate directly related to the opioid crisis, Wilson claimed this causes “a direct correlation between the lack of labor participation and your legal opioid prescriptions.”

The duo agreed that improving the local quality of life can improve an economy.

Del. Terry Kilgore and Sean McMurray

During a midday session, Dels. Terry Kilgore, Israel O’Quinn and Sen. Travis Hackworth joined Wise Chancellor Donna Henry on a legislative panel focused primarily on areas from housing, child care to regulations, taxes and higher education.

They commended the creative approach of the United Way’s Workforce + Child Development Center in Abingdon for being “one of the best models across the whole state.”

They noted the appeal of the Appalachian Highlands, from outdoor tourism and cost of living to low crime and other educational resources. Hackworth also advised business leaders to be open to different ideas and industries.

“Folks are looking to rural America to relocate,” Kilgore said, noting after the COVID-19 pandemic, people realized they didn’t have to live in large locales and it “opened up opportunities.”
Dan Schawbel, a bestselling author and managing partner of Workplace Intelligence, was the featured afternoon speaker. He spoke of generational differences in leadership, learning and work styles.

The event also held a panel on Community-Based Funding Solutions, featuring Wellspring Foundation Executive Director and former Johnston Memorial Hospital CEO Sean McMurray.

The group spoke about the changing nature of philanthropy and an emerging model of “impact investing” that revolves around community impact and benefits as part of their return on investment. This localized style brings investment dollars back home. Wellspring continues with their vision of leveraging collaborative partnerships to promote a thriving region.

Former WCYB news anchor Julie Newman — now PBS Appalachia general manager— emceed the conference

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