Photos by Tim Cox
By Jeff Keeling
“Don’t be cynical. Be an optimist with concerns,” U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) Deputy Assistant Secretary Matt Erskine told more than 300 people gathered at the University of Virginia at Wise May 12. Erskine was among several speakers at the 2016 SWVA Economic Forum, and like his counterparts from business and industry, he emphasized the importance of several key themes, including regional cooperation, innovation, and promoting the positive qualities of the region’s people.
“This region faces many challenges, and while these challenges may seem overwhelming, I believe they are not insurmountable,” said Erskine, who visited Southwest Virginia numerous times as deputy secretary of commerce and trade during now Sen. Mark Warner’s governorship.
While Erskine and his fellow speakers struck a positive tone, they also acknowledged the region’s critical need for effective strategies that will yield a better-prepared work force and new jobs. The forum’s program included a two-page spread with some unvarnished demographic information: a 7.6 percent regional unemployment rate that is 72 percent higher than the state’s 4.4 percent rate; a 19.8 percent poverty rate that is 80 percent higher than the state’s 11 percent; and a median household income just 53.6 percent of the state average. In addition, it noted only about 40 percent as many people in the region have bachelor’s degrees compared to the state average, and just half as many have post-graduate degrees.
Participants in the forum had driven on roads over mountains whose coal deposits once yielded many more jobs than they do today, past fields once sown in tobacco. They were academics, economic developers, businesspeople, government officials, non-profit leaders and activists. They had one primary objective in view: start the ball rolling toward economic revitalization in a region that, while hard hit by coal’s decline, has unique opportunities for growth and development.
The forum came four months after a 26-member planning committee began working on an event that could unite the almost 50 individuals and organizations focusing on economic development in Southwest Virginia.
“I firmly believe we have the pieces to move our region forward,” UVA-Wise Chancellor Dr. Donna Henry said in her introductory remarks. “We just need to work to make it happen.”
The good – A company and ‘a new type of workforce’ grow in Norton
“It’s virtually impossible to list all the assets of this region,” Dan Minahan told forum attendees after following Henry to the podium. The Dante, Va. native opened a “customer contact center” for Crutchfield Corp. in 1998 and directs the electronics retailer’s Southwest Virginia operations. On the strength of the local people’s work ethic, flexibility and adaptability, Minahan said, the Norton center has grown from 16 people to 102 people over 18 years.
When coal was still going strong, Crutchfield looked to the future, getting T-1 infrastructure connected, Minahan said. From that has grown a broadband strength that allows telework, and about half the Norton workforce does its thing from home part of each week. As the nationally-recognized Appalachian work ethic has helped carry the center to an esteemed place in Crutchfield’s operations, Minahan said, management has focused on improving health and wellness in its workforce.
It’s all part of what Minahan called the transition toward a new type of workforce for the area. “It might be a little smaller than in the past, but it’s a lot more sophisticated in many ways,” he said. “Our job going forward is to connect the dots of our assets.”
Don’t just connect the dots – connect the players
Southwest Virginia is just the type of area where the EDA can help improve economic conditions, Erskine told the group, but to maximize EDA involvement, leaders need to put turf battles aside. Established in the 1960s, the EDA remains the only federal agency whose mission is exclusively focused on economic development, and it aims to improve economic growth, job creation and quality of life, “in areas experiencing economic distress,” Erskine said.
The EDA invested $1.7 million in Scott County when the Crooked Road Technology Center in Duffield was built, and the leveraging of that money continues to pay dividends, Erskine said. The agency also recently entered a joint effort with the Appalachian Regional Commission tailor-made for areas such as Southwest Virginia, as it “represents our continued focus on assisting communities dealing with the downturn of the coal economy,” Erskine said.
But to beat out competitors in EDA funding cycles – where demand exceeds supply by five times – collaboration, coordination and sustained partnerships are essential, Erskine said. They must exist across all levels of government and through the private sector, education and non-profits.
He commended the progress toward regionalism made so far but said more needs to be accomplished. It’s an effort, Erskine said, that won’t work without buy-in from business.
“I have seen a bunch of times how committed business leaders step up and help drive regionalism,” he said. “In those cases where the CEOs stepped up, CEOs and business leaders only did so because they had confidence that the regional partnership was real, and that individuals, and individual municipalities, put aside turf and were committed to a true regional approach.”
What site selectors want
Consultant Didi Caldwell, who has assisted companies with site selections totaling more than $15 billion in investment value, told the group people were the new “P” in economic development marketing. Southwest Virginia stands in fairly good stead in terms of place, price, product and promotion, the traditional four “Ps” of marketing, she said. The area is cost-competitive, has available sites and can continue honing its promotional message. But with the global economy moving into knowledge-based jobs, high-tech manufacturing, 3-D printing and other new technologies, the workforce will need to transition its skill set.
Caldwell said the area can focus on several areas in that regard – retraining displaced workers in the short term, recruiting people to move to the area in the medium term, and implementing “next generation” K-12 education in the long term.
Where from here?
Following a robust, panel-led question and answer session and a keynote speech from “dean of the futurists” the DaVinci Institute’s Thomas Frey, participants spent the afternoon discussing specific issues in eight different breakout sessions. Three to four top ideas from each group were shared at the end of the day in a large group session.
The topics all turned back toward three goals Henry had listed in her introductory letter:
• Inform and educate regarding past and present economic conditions and current initiatives underway in Southwest Virginia;
• Generate creative thought and spark new ideas and strategies for the region; and
• Encourage collaboration and unify current similar initiatives in order to spark and ignite action while leveraging the passion for Southwest Virginia.
Six action teams will begin meeting immediately in the areas of Youth and Education, Health and Wellness, Entrepreneurship, Business Support and Attraction, Regional Marketing, Communication and Messaging, and Agriculture and Natural Resources. In August, a follow up meeting at UVa-Wise will include team reports. Initial work is available at uvawise.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/action-teams.jpg.
The whole process left Powell Valley National Bank CEO Leton Harding Jr. encouraged. PVNB was a founding sponsor. The turnout exceeded expectations, and, he said, “indicated to us the deep level of concern but also commitment to the future of the region.”
The working groups and their follow-through will be the true game-changer out of the one-time event, Harding said, adding that he’s impressed by how many younger attendees had already signed up for those groups within a few days of the event. Their understanding of technology and the vistas it could open for the region will be key, he said.
“If you’re more of a traditionalist in terms of economy and economic viewpoints and what resources are and what jobs are then maybe the glass is half empty. If you’re a younger person who sees things such as 3-D printers and bandwidth and apps as having economic value, perhaps you see the glass more half full.”