Nobody Cares about You, Southwest Virginia, and Maybe That’s a Good Thing

Downtown Abingdon, one of Virginia’s great walkable places.

The Roanoke Times tells a hard truth to the readers of Southwest Virginia: “Nobody cares about you.”

Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, says the Sunday editorial, has done nothing to help the counties of the far Southwest whose finances were devastated by the collapse of the coal industry. The Democratic Party in Virginia has “evolved into almost strictly a suburban-urban party that has no natural interest in anything west of the Blue Ridge.”

And the Republicans? After promising to help the coal industry, President Trump has proposed slashing funding for energy research and zeroing out a program that pays to convert old mines into industrial sites. Concludes the editorial:

What’s the takeaway from all this? We’re on our own. We cannot count on either Richmond or Washington to help us. Maybe from time to time one of them will come through with some unexpected grant to help with some piece of infrastructure and we should be grateful. On a day-to-day basis, though, it’s clear that both the state and federal governments have come to a bipartisan consensus: Southwest Virginia doesn’t matter to them.

What is the down-on-its-luck region supposed to do? Businesses need to get more engaged, says the Times. Local government needs to focus more on economic development. Voters need to be more demanding.

The Times is right. Other regions are indifferent to the fate of Southwest Virginia. They have their own problems and their own funding issues. Other regions insist that they’re getting a raw deal from the state. (Talk to a Northern Virginian some time. NoVa may be rich, but its citizens feel short-changed and aggrieved.) And every region pursues its own self interest. The bigger piggies muscle closer to the trough, leaving the weaker piggies behind. It’s Darwinism in a political setting.

Southwest Virginians would be well advised not to pin their hopes on the largess of others. What, then, can they do?

They could start by acknowledging some harsh realities. First, coal is never coming back. Natural gas, wind power and solar power are far cleaner and far cheaper. Economics will dictate than any new electric-generating capacity in the United States over the next decade will be either gas or renewable. Existing coal plants will serve out their economically useful lives, and then they will be phased out.

Second, manufacturing might rebound, but it will never provide the large-scale employment it did a generation ago. Some manufacturing operations may repatriate from overseas back to the U.S., and corporations will continue to invest in plant expansions. But robotics, artificial intelligence and other forms of automation mean that manufacturing processes will create require fewer and fewer jobs as time goes on. The return on investment on traditional economic development strategies — recruiting manufacturing investment — will continue to decline.

Third, the agglomeration economies of the Knowledge Economy will continue to favor metropolitan areas with large, diverse pools of skilled, educated labor over small, semi-skilled labor pools of rural communities. The Roanoke-Blacksburg area, with its access to Virginia Tech, its faculty, graduates and entrepreneurial spin-offs, conceivably can achieve economic escape velocity. But no other city or town in the region has that potential. Meanwhile, young people who succeed in obtaining a college education will continue to emigrate from the region — just like they’re doing in every other rural community across the country.

Making the challenge even more difficult, Southwest Virginia lacks an advantage possessed by other rural areas in Virginia such as the Shenandoah Valley, the northern Piedmont, and the Chesapeake Bay tidewater — proximity to large, affluent metropolitan areas. A location within easy driving distance of big metros will support an economy of resorts, vacation homes, retiree communities and weekend-getaway amenities for city dwellers.

What options does that leave Southwest Virginia? Not many. But the region is not destitute of assets. The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission still has millions of dollars to dispense. The region just has to take care not to squander its limited resources on chimera like new Interstate highways, inter-city rail service, manufacturing subsidies, our outright follies such as government-supported golf courses, convention centers and other long-shot efforts to stimulate development.

I’ve written before about the Aspen model of economic development, built on active outdoor recreation — not just skiing but hiking, rafting, rock-climbing, mountain biking, kayaking, fishing, all-terrain riding, and so on — as well as a fabulous, walkable downtown. The walkable downtown is a critical element of Aspen’s success, and there is no reason that Virginia can’t replicate the formula in many of its small towns.

Call it the Abingdon model instead of the Aspen model. The town of Abingdon in Washington County is one of the most charming places in Virginia, and it is set in an area of great natural beauty. It has become destination that people are willing to travel hours to visit. Abingdon is proof that the strategy can work.

Wise County is another innovative community, exploiting its investment in broadband to recruit data centers. Data centers don’t support many jobs, but they do pay taxes that broaden the tax base. The county also is exploring opportunities to supply green energy to the data centers. Regional authorities should map the electric transmission grid, enact solar-friendly zoning ordinances and comprehensive plans, and encourage solar developers to consolidate properties capable of hosting utility-scale solar farms.

America is a big place, and while most rural areas (outside the fracking hotspots) are hurting. But some communities are faring better than others. Some are doing innovative things. Southwest Virginia can learn from the example of others. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing that no one else cares about the region. In the long run, dependence and handouts accomplish less than resilience and self reliance.

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16 responses to “Nobody Cares about You, Southwest Virginia, and Maybe That’s a Good Thing”

  1. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

    There is a lot of environmental damage left behind from coal mining that needs to be taken care of so the Aspen model can work. Unfortunately, the rest of the state/nation are not likely to acknowledge their benefits from the mining that caused the damage or to help fix what bankrupt (often on purpose to avoid environmental and retirement expenses) coal companies left behind.

    Sadly, rural areas are being sacrificed in the United States since folks in other areas have other ideas about spending money and want to forget what rural areas have contributed to allow them to grow to be the successes they are today.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    So many points, Where to begin?

    First, it is not exactly news that coal mining has been badly slumping. It has been since the 1980s. Gas com petition is the major reason. Another is that coal companies have found it cheaper to engage in devastating mountain top removal practices than dig more deep mines, especially when the coal seams are so thin. And, big companies like ALpha Natural Resources and Patriot have ben in and out of bankruptcy in ways that will stick taxpayers with the bill for their msesses.

    The feds have been trying to help Appalachia since the 1960s through the Appalachian Regional Commission, which has scored some important successes, albeit quietly. The Trump Administration wants to eliminate at ARC. Yet during the campaign Trump made all kinds of ridiculous promises to the coal fields. (How come we don’t see Trump mentioned more often in this blog?”

    The suggestion of data centers replacing coal jobs has been around for decades. You have a ready, cheap and hard working labor force. But data centers are notoriously unstable and can shutter up and move in very quickly.

    Broadband is also scarce in many places, yet when a public entity wants to bring it in when big firms refuse, the Free Market crowd starts to scream. So, many mountain folk won’t get broadband (just like thousands won’t get Medicaid through an expansion).

    So, there’s lots of hand wringing on this blog, but when realistic solutions get pitched they are often shot down.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    WOW! Bacon is ON HIS GAME this morning! Congrats!

    First – stop whining about the Federal and State government not coming to your rescue!

    second, stop whining about the opportunist businesses that came to feast first on your forests, then on your coal and then left … that’s done and over – move on…

    three – acknowledge the things the Feds and state ARE doing for you right now:

    1. – education – that old LCI .. in the Constitution that requires NoVa and others to put their fair share towards educating your kids! Use IT – wisely! Ditto Community Colleges.

    2. -Health care – make no mistake – Medicare , MedicAid, and Social security disability are major infusions of cash into your region.. not enough by some standards, but real money going into your economy from paid-for health care providers who then do spend that money in the local economy.

    3. – National Forests – the Feds DID come in and buy up deforested mountains to restore and bring back to health and now does attract hikers, hunters, etc.

    Ditto ARC and Tobacco fund.. as related by Peter.

    4. – blown off mountaintops – convert to solar.. and wind and don’t be whining about the “impacts” to scenery – not after you’ve had forests clearcut and mountain-tops blown off! You got lemons – make lemonade.

    5.- get yourselves an internet – that reaches more folks.

    6.- build communities with amenities that retirees with pensions will find more appealing than hellhole urban areas and storm and sea-level threatened coastal areas!

    It won’t happen overnight – it will take time – but stop blaming government and for GAWD sake realize that Mr. Trump is a lying idiot.. who wouldn’t know how to fix rural America if his fat fanny depended on it.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    oh and Hillary’s fat fanny was not any smarter nor Obama… just to keep things equal here with the caveat that neither of them were making idiotic promises to “bring back” stuff that will not come back.

    But neither did they promote the truth much less a hope for the future – and so left the field to those who knew lying would work just fine.

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Excellent article Jim. A few things come to mind:

    I shall never forget my day spent driving the coal country outside Bluefield Va and W Va in 1968 – the economic devastation. Yet Roanoke and Virginia Tech back then were wholly different. This left behind business in America has been going on a long time, irrespective of all the false reasons we conjure up.

    Now however forces are at work that can overcome distance and isolation. As Bacon points out Aspen is sure proof of that. As are earlier desolated places – Telluride, Silverton, Durango and Ouray in Colorado. Or The Greenbriar in West Virginia.

    I once drove 15 hours – from before dawn to sundown – going from Escalante Utah to Bullfrog (Via Burr Trail) then through Mexican Hat to Montezuma Creek to Cortez to Delores. And when the sun went down I turned up the rutted mountain road that crossed the Dolores River then went uphill all the way to Stoner.

    At that ramshackle Stoner Inn I thought I had found the authentic mountain west. Until at the bar I discovered four cowboys speaking Dutch. And the honeyed blonde girl singer of the Rawhide Band, a recent fugitive of Arlington County Va. That night went on and on – enchanted and magical, authentic and unique. People, their ethic, character, struggle, attitude, independence and reliability are the key to good life.

    Take the US Marine Corps – its weakness is its strength so its people, their attitude and ethos, is all the Marine Corps has ever had, even with the US Navy.

    South West Virginia can be on the cusp of something big. That recent shooting of the TV reporter showed it has the right stuff.

  6. jhop99 Avatar

    Mr. Fawell, what can you possibly mean by that line about the shooting? Bad taste, sir, and repulsive to this SW Virginian.

    1. LocalGovGuy Avatar

      I’m not a fan of censorship, but I agree….I hope that it’s just a typo, but if not, I’d ask the blog owner to strike that comment. The murder of someone is never “the right stuff” and comments like that are repulsive to everyone, no matter what part of Virginia you reside in.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      One way to measure people is how they respond to horrible events that impact them and their community directly.

      For example, how the Uva. community responded to the Rolling Stone Jackie story. It believe that their response reflected an unhealthy, indeed, sick community. And that that communities ongoing response continues to reflect on UVa. poorly, reaffirming that its ill health continues to today.

      I saw the reverse in how your SW Virginia community responded to the shooting. I was extremely impressed by your communities reaction, by what I saw and heard from the individuals down there, individually and collectively.

      Obviously my impressions were taken in from a long distance, but the spirit of your place in the face of unexpected shock and adversity shone through over that great distance.

  7. LocalGovGuy Avatar

    Well, the population projections for 2040 look pretty ugly for SWVA:

    What should be really concerning for the area is that Virginia Tech and Roanoke don’t seem to be offering much growth potential from 2020-2040.

    The Blacksburg-Radford MSA (Montgomery, Radford, Giles, Pulaski) would grow by approximately 16,000 people in 20 years.

    The Roanoke MSA (Roanoke city and county, Salem, Botetourt, Franklin, Craig) would grow by approximately 25,000 people in 20 years.

    I suppose one could say that at least those areas aren’t shrinking like the rest of Southwest Virginia. But to think that the combined MSAs growth would be 41K over 20 years is not exactly encouraging.

    To explain how bad that is in comparison to the rest of the state, I’m going to point to the other 2 small metros in the state: Charlottesville and Lynchburg.

    The Charlottesville MSA (Cville, Albemarle, Greene, Nelson, Buckingham) is expected to add 47K in 20 years.

    The Lynchburg MSA (L’burg, Campbell, Bedford, Appomattox, Amherst) is expected to add 33K in 20 years.

    The Charlottesville MSA will have greater growth than the Blacksburg/Roanoke MSAs combined. And the Lynchburg MSA will have 4/5 of the growth that the combined Blacksburg/Roanoke MSAs will have.

    Those are not good signs for SWVA. Not only is it falling further behind the Urban Crescent in terms of growth rate. It’s also falling behind the growth rate of the small central Virginia metros of Lynchburg and Charlottesville.

    If you follow Virginia history/geography, one interesting note is the rise of Lynchburg in comparison to Roanoke. In 1980, Roanoke had 100K in population and Lynchburg had 66K in population. In 2040, Roanoke is projected to have 105K in population and Lynchburg is projected to have 96K in population.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      One driving element to UVa. sickness is its case of overweening arrogance. Here its arrogance is on ample display with UVa.’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service projections about everyone’s future compared to its own.

      Given that UVa’s 24/7 propaganda machine now spews out daily nearly endless articles on UVA over the top claims of great achievements why should we believe anything that UVa’s predicts. Especially as its concerns UVA’s claim that it is a world class research university and that C’ville is the fastest growing hub of world class research as if C’ville will soon rival Silicon Valley right beneath Thom Jefferson’s Monticello.

      Why do people think that whatever demographers predict will happen? Especially where bias and self interest are involved, and the world constantly changes while demographers can rely only on the past? What justifies any such claims? Recall the last 17 years of wrong predictions on Northern Virginia growth post year two thousand, for example. Or the Centers study to revitalize and refixture the Appalachian Trail for the future in light of the Centers findings the certain ethic groups did not enjoy hiking.

      1. LocalGovGuy Avatar

        Um, did you read the projections? Charlottesville and Lynchburg MSAs may be projected to grow, but nothing like their counterparts in the Urban Crescent. Chesterfield County is projected to grow more than the Charlottesville and Lynchburg MSAs combined. So I don’t think the Cooper Center is presenting a great case for Charlottesville or Lynchburg.

  8. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Four decades ago, when you and I were both at that paper, Jim, there was already an inordinate and ridiculous fascination with OPM in the state and federal budget. I got the feeling that if the governor got shot in the GAB doorway, the city desk would still be pressing me to find out and write about what the state appropriation would be for Center in the Square, or Explore (Dickie World) or some other local project that was supposed to save Roanoke’s economy with grant largesse. Roanoke’s last best chance for economic renaissance was the final failed vote on the consolidation of the four valley governments.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      If you have the time, explain that failed vote, and its impact, of which I was not aware. In my view, Roanoke on its own should be poised to roar back with a vengeance, and feed a whole region, if it gets its political house in order.

    2. LocalGovGuy Avatar

      Well, that…and….the airport fiasco… The death of consolidation and losing the air hub probably killed Roanoke for good. Though it is my understanding the airport failure is on some Bedford property owners rather than Roanoke or Lynchburg.

      Freightcar just shut down in the Star City and there are rumors of more NS layoffs.

      It is difficult to imagine any realistic prospects for the city’s revival at this point. The state is going to have to do everything in its power to hold onto Advance, as I’m sure North Carolina is chomping at the bit to lure them to Raleigh.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m going to offer some provocative thoughts:

    1. – I’m not convinced that the assumptions used for population growth hold true anymore because they were and have been based on 20th century land-based transportation ideas and business models.

    2. I agree with Steve’s premise about the potentially not good aspect of the current way that Virginia separates the governance structures for city, town and county, -making them competitors that weaken and cannibalize each other rather than forming cohesive unified competitive regions to other regions in other states – already unified.

    Va Tech is a land-grant University in an area surrounded by outdoor venues not dissimilar from places out west that attract educated young folks to work high tech during the week and play on weekends.

  10. djrippert Avatar


    Aspen has some of the best skiing in the world. It has an elevation of 8,000 ft on the Western Slope. Aspen Mountain has an elevation of 11,200 ft at its highest point. Jim, the highest point in Virginia is 5,729 ft.

    Aspen has a good airport with over 20 flights a week to Chicago and Los Angeles. As I recall the airport was financed by Pitkin County, CO and is owned by Pitkin County, CO. If you don’t like Aspen’s airport fly into Eagle County (Vail). Roanoke has an airport and Abingdon probably is very nice but Abingdon is 133 miles from Roanoke.

    There area lot of differences between Aspen and Abingdon. Transportation is one of them.

    I think you’d have better luck with Athens or Augusta Georgia. Or, maybe … Knoxville, TN. Aspen is a unicorn.

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