Is There a Government Role for Rural Development?

A scene from Dollywood, near Knoxville, Tenn.

by James A. Bacon

John Accordino, a planning professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been giving extensive thought to a perennial problem, the nation’s urban-rural divide. As author of a newly published article and State and Local Government Review, he provides a broad overview of his thinking in a Richmond Times-Dispatch column.

Accordino sees the urban-rural divide — the divergence in incomes and job growth — as unhealthy for America’s economy, society and politics. And he thinks it is something that government intervention can address.

I know John, and I think he is a very thoughtful guy. And I agree that there may be a limited role for government. But I am skeptical that the federal and state governments can be very helpful. The solutions, such as they are, must come from the bottom-up — from rural communities and local governments themselves.

But before I get into that, let’s see what Accordino has to say.

Internet connectivity is a prerequisite for participating in the modern economy, rural Internet connections are slow, and government can help accelerate the deployment of broadband. Accordino points to a “digital inclusiveness” program in Minnesota and a “Digital Equity Action Plan” in Portland as examples of what can be done. Likewise, he points to telehealth as a way to connect health practitioners in urban areas with patients in under-served rural areas. He also highlights collaborative economic development partnerships, citing Virginia Tech’s Vibrant Virginia initiative to “identify and encourage urban-rural linkages” as well as the Virginia Intiative for Growth and Opportunity.

But more is needed. “It’s now time for the federal government to replicate and scale up successful models, provide flexible assistance so regions can devise solutions sensitive to their needs, and remove federal policy silos that undermine state and local efforts,” he writes. “And it must enact, and work with states and localities to implement, a national digital infrastructure and inclusion policy, to give all communities — urban and rural — a chance to prosper together in our 21st-century economy.”

The federal government has been trying to solve rural poverty for decades. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, accompanied by busloads of reporters, descended upon Inez, Kentucky, in Martin County, one of the poorest localities in the country. Posing with Tom Fletcher and his two young sons on the front porch of their ramshackle, tarpaper house — the resulting photographs would come to define the face of Appalachian destitution — LBJ declared a war on poverty. That was 56 years ago.

Martin County subsequently enjoyed a burst of prosperity when the Norfolk & Western Railway built a rail spur into the county, opening up vast coal reserves for exploitation. Coal production would increase from 200,000 tons a year to 18 million tons, creating hundreds of jobs in the mines and ancillary businesses. The coal industry created Martin County’s brush with prosperity, not the government. But when the best coal was mined out, the market for coal collapsed, and coal-related jobs evaporated, government policy was powerless to reverse the decline.

A regional economic development authority has invested funds building several industrial parks equipped with water, sewer and fiber in eastern Kentucky, but the build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy has achieved limited results. The region is remote. Martin County lacks four-lane highway access. The workforce in a county of 10,000 people is small and needs training. Many people are struggling with drug addiction. There’s not enough outside money in the world for outsiders to fix these problems for Martin County and the hundreds of other struggling rural counties like it.

What outsiders (whether government or private foundations) can do — and Accordino touched upon this idea — is “replicate and scale up successful models” of development. This would start with the recognition that different rural counties have very different assets. Some have mineral wealth, some do not. Some have the climate for specialty agriculture, like vineyards and wineries, some do not. Some benefit from proximity to major metropolitan areas. Some offer natural amenities such as mountains, lakes and rivers. Some have anchor institutions like colleges and universities. Some have wealthy local residents who can bankroll new business ventures. Some have vibrant towns that can serve as nucleii for development — Virginia towns like Abingdon and Farmville come to mind — while others do not.

There is no one-size-fits all solution for rural counties. Each community must find its own path forward. What a rural development think tank could do is identify the most successful rural counties and examine what led to their success — and then disseminate that knowledge. In many if not most instances, I suspect such a study would find, there was a visionary and passionate entrepreneur behind the success, whether it was Friedl Pfeifer who created the Aspen, Colo., ski industry or Dolly Parton who launched one of the nation’s largest amusement parks in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

Economic growth doesn’t just happen. You can’t just throw a bunch of ingredients together — three ounces of broadband, a pinch of telehealth, a wallop of industrial development authority loan guarantees — and expect something to happen. Someone has to make it happen, and those someones have to come from the communities themselves.

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32 responses to “Is There a Government Role for Rural Development?

  1. The urban/rural divide is particularly stark in our Commonwealth. Outside of the I-95/I-64 Urban Crescent of NOVA/RVA/HRVA, local economies were depressed even before COVID and their populations declining.

    Fifty years ago, Danville and Martinsville were boomtowns while Metro Richmond was a sleepy backwater economically. Now it’s exactly the reverse.

    Southwest is even worse off. If you’re a high school educated twenty year old in Buchanan County…what exactly is there for you to do in your hometown anymore, economically speaking? My party is for green energy while the Republicans are for fracking, either way, coal is killed off. Add in geographic isolation–there are some places in Southwest Virginia that are west of Detroit (!!) and you have to wonder if some of these communities are going to be able to survive.

    See, “The Extremes of Virginia”:

    Does a pretty good job discussing our three left behind rural regions–Southwest, Southside, and the Eastern Shore–though I wish he would’ve addressed rural Tidewater on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay, too, as those localities also face myriad challenges. They all certainly have different needs and different kinds of potential.

    Tourism is once such route–Vermont was a dirt poor state until the 1970s when it reinvented itself as a destination for tourists, bohemian types, and retirees from New York City. They exploited their rural beauty and cheap cost of living to accomplish this. I could see the more scenic parts of Virginia taking this route, with Greater DC switched out for NYC. What I don’t want is for Virginia to become like Illinois–where you have Chicagoland slapped on top of an otherwise economically and demographically declining state.

    • “there are some places in Southwest Virginia that are west of Detroit ”

      Yes. The distance along the southern border of Virginia is about the same as from Richmond to Albany, NY.

  2. So one might have to ask was rural electrification and building rural roads a mistake?

    How about public education? Should the richer parts of the state pay for education of rural kids? why? Pretty sure TMT and DJ would argue that NoVa should not pay, right?

    To be sure – rural provides most of the food for urban as well as power plants for electricity and land-fills for trash… it’s not like the urban areas could exist on their own without rural.

    • The richer, more urban eastern part of Virginia should absolutely subsidize public education in the rural parts. There’s a coalition to had there bewteen rural Appalachian Republicans and Black Democrats from the eastern urban cores there, btw–both locations have schools with extremely old, run-down physical plants that need massive rehabilitation and/or replacing.

      School consolidation needs to take place in some of the rural counties though–Dickenson County did this successfully when they merged all their old high schools into the new, consolidated Ridgeview High.

      • You think Dickenson County was a success story? Ridge view is a nice school, or was the few times I’ve been in it after it was built, but the consolidation was a source of much community angst and discord.

        • Oh I’m certainly sure it did. School consolidation is never popular with alumni especially, and it’s disruptive to students too.

          However, new high school construction and redrawn attendance zones are always controversial, too, yet it’s done. I went to Matoaca High School the first year the new, larger version of Matoaca High opened, even though I was originally zoned for LC Bird. There was a lot of moaning and groaning in my subdivision, but it needed to happen. Bird was severely overcrowded in 2002. Kids from Manchester and Dale got rezoned for the new Matoaca, too. And now nobody complains about the fact their kids go to Matoaca.

          Dickenson County just doesn’t have enough kids for three high schools to make financial sense.

    • Could urban areas not exist without their rural hinterlands?

      Don’t take that for granted. Consider this recent headline:

      Governor Northam Announces New Hydroponic Greenhouse in Goochland County
      Greenswell Growers to invest more than $17 million to establish new operation, creating 27 jobs

      Governor Ralph Northam today announced that Greenswell Growers, Inc. will invest more than $17 million to establish a new commercial hydroponic greenhouse operation in Goochland County’s West Creek Industrial Park. …

      The new hydroponic greenhouse is expected to produce nearly 3.7 million pounds of leafy greens for distribution in the mid-Atlantic during its first three years of full production. The facility will be able to produce 28 times more product per acre than a traditional growing operation and will be the fifth of its kind in the United States.

      Growing leafy greens in a suburban industrial park? Holy moly.

  3. One thing government can and must do is help rural communities protect the resources they have. For example, damage from mountaintop removal has been only slowly and incompletely repaired. As the Mountain Valley Pipeline is under construction, volunteer monitors have documented numerous and repeated instances of failure to protect the environment. Few of these have been addressed by enforcement and when they have the penalties have been low enough for the companies to just consider them a cost of business, insufficient to make them stop the damage.

    Rules protecting people and property in rural areas are looser and significantly less in rural areas than they are in populated areas. The risks of the people and their property are not considered when standards are set, instead they are based on the potential costs to the company. In effect, for many purposes, rural areas are sacrificed when infrastructure is installed and the localities don’t get compensated. Generally, the money made from these operations is not used in the affected communities. Resultant employment is always less than projected and damage to roads and other local infrastructure is often left to the locality to repair.

    Until we change the way that those in populated areas dismiss the damages caused by taking things they and others need, ignore real needs of rural areas, and support rural areas as they protect the valuable resources they have, many rural areas will not be productive or self sufficient. Additionally, rural areas need affordable, dependable, and robust internet access to be productive and self sufficient.

    Telling rural areas to take care of themselves while not making basic universally necessary infrastructure including broadband available, allowing uses of resources in ways that damage the environment and making it worse by not ensuring that it is fully repaired, while saddling localities with damages to roads and other infrastructure from the businesses that benefit is a recipe for failure. Right now, it’s no wonder that rural areas struggle so hard. Local people are not able to fix these things, no matter how hard they work because necessary resources do not exist. Our hands and feet are often tied behind our backs as we are told we must pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps while others take what they want from us.

    • Regarding damage to the roads being left to localities to repair: while cities and some towns maintain their own roads, there are only two counties in Virginia (Henrico and Arlington) which do so. Neither of these counties are “rural”.

      The roads in the rest of the counties in Virginia are maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation. Whatever other damage they may have to try to repair on their own, rural areas are not [directly] saddled with the cost of road repairs.

      That is not to say, of course, that utility companies should not be required to pay 100% of the costs of cleaning up after one of their projects.

      • All counties and cities get money from VDOT for road maintenance.

        In the Counties, VDOT is the agency doing the work. In the cities, they have their own crews. But money for the work is allocated to all of them – albeit not at the same rate which is why most counties just let VDOT maintain.

        • Okay. What does that have to do with my comment?

          You REALLY need to leave me alone. I’m serious.

        • And damage means other things don’t get done. The backlog of projects is awful and as most folks think there are too few people benefiting, seems portion of money going to rural areas declines often. Local people will pay for the misalignment of tires, ruin of tires, etc. directly.

  4. “rural” is the “service sector” of our economy. Everyone depends on them but they are a “drag” on the economy… they need “entitlements” and cause problems when wanting minimum wage.

    • Rural folks don’t want to be considered the service sector, a drag, or in need of entitlements. We’d rather be self-sufficient but can’t be when we can’t get the infrastructure and safety others do. Our businesses – education and health care – can’t compete.

  5. Not every rural area’s residents wants big development ideas. I moved to Mathews from Los Angeles after living in Northern California, New York and Philadelphia. I brought my basic income with me and supplement it with writing and crafts when I choose. Others like me came here to get away from city life. Traditionally, young people have commuted to jobs or left to work in cities and return later in life. If the brilliant souls in Richmond would learn how watersheds function and let them do that, instead of imposing urban stormwater concepts, we’d be a lot better off.

    • My dad has owned some property in Mathews County since the 1970s. The last time I was there about 10 years ago it had not changed much from when I used to camp there as a teenager. The largest poison ivy vine I have ever seen was growing up one of the trees on that parcel. I swear to you it was every bit of 6 inches in diameter.

    • Right. And living in a beautiful natural area is something that gets taken away when industrial infrastructure gets routed through rural areas. Nobody thinks rural areas need to be compensated for the loss of peace and quiet, darkness at night and other things we value. They don’t think our ties to our land matter and while converting everything to dollars, ignore and if reminded deny compensation for the things rural people consider precious.

  6. Most folks don’t pay much attention especially if they are in interstates but a lot of rural Virginia grows crops like corn, soybeans and peanuts.

    If you drive Route 3 or 17 US 460 to the Northern Neck or Tidewater you’ll travel by many fields under cultivation. Nowdays, we’re also seeing cell towers and solar panels…

  7. In 1790 95% of Americans lived in rural areas. As the economic opportunities moved from rural to urban areas so did the people. Today about 23% of Americans live in rural areas. That’s still too many. Why? Because only 1% of Americans live on farms. Yes, Larry … there will still be plenty of chickens and cattle even if a large percentage of people living in rural Virginia relocate to parts of the state with better economic opportunities. The argument about “no food if no rural” is the ultimate strawman. Nobody says that there should be no people living in rural Virginia, only that there are too many people living there now. Try to grasp that. And the answer to that problem is for people to move to the opportunities not for rural Virginia to continue to be the permanent welfare area it has been for years.

    There are 3,243 counties and county equivalents in the US (+territories). Please tell me how many rural counties have been resurrected from economic decline to economic vibrancy over the 56 years since windbag LBJ declared a war on poverty. Fifty? Other than becoming exurbanized that’s probably generous. Bacon’s examples give little hope. Dollywood? It’s 32.7 miles from the Knoxville Airport. Not exactly in the middle of nowhere. For sake of comparison, Fredricksburg is more than twice as far from Dulles Airport. Meanwhile, in Sieverville (next town from Dollywood) the poverty rate today is 23.3%. Aspen? Pretty much of a natural wonder. Now, what percentage of rural Rocky Mountain counties do you think have been been rescued by ski resorts even though they all have one of the world’s greatest mountain ranges to work with?

    Urbanization has been underway across the world for centuries. How completely arrogant and inept to believe that “gub’mint” can reverse that trend in Virginia. Yet one thing for sure – liberals will throw other people’s money down a rathole forever. Did the hundreds of millions of tobacco indemnity fund payments reverse urbanization in Virginia? Did it create a Singapore on the Shenandoah? Did subsidized electricity and subsidized phone service reverse urbanization in Virginia? Did the rural population stabilize and economic opportunities grow? Of course not. If that would have happened we wouldn’t be perpetually looking for a way to “save rural Virginia” decade after decade after decade. You know how to save rural Virginia? Convince people to move to where the economic opportunities are in Virginia, save their money and then move back to rural Virginia to retire.

    You want a couple of practical ideas that will help rural Virginia while the centuries old urbanization continues to play out?

    1. Legalize the medical and recreational use of marijuana in Virginia and mandate that all grow operations and related manufacturing be performed in distressed rural counties. Let those counties keep some of the retail taxes from the sale of marijuana to help people relocate to areas with better economic opportunity.

    2. Build a big ass highway from Northern Virginia and Richmond to the Northern Neck. Very few on ramps and off ramps. Then, develop the Northern Neck for vacation homes and retirement living.

    3. Cancel the environmental easements on about half of the Atlantic side of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Build beachfront vacation home and holiday communities. Think Ocean City, MD or Rehobeth, DE but better planned and with gambling. Run a car ferry from Annapolis to the Bay side of Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

    • There’s a certain percentage of folks that are on government aid that will never work. They either don’t want to or they simply cannot.

      The best place for them to be is in a low cost of living rural area, especially since disability payments are the same no matter where you live.

      • Probably right. However, economic development won’t help them if they can’t or won’t work.

        • If their roots are there and they have land or a house – they are far better off to stay there and even if they get entitlements, they’ll use far less than someone needing them in an urban area.

          Housing like this is more “affordable” than most urban apartments and it has other advantages. Farm produce and eggs are available, cheaper repairs and other services, etc.

          In fact, if cities could convince their folks on entitlements to move to the country – the entitlement costs likely be cheaper!

  8. So how do you know how many is “too many” in rural?

    I don’t know but I’ve been through the midwest and can say the rural
    is truly very lightly populated.. just mile after mile of corn and wheat and every 20-30 miles a big ass grain elevator and a get-n-go.

    Oh… and if you do visit Northern Neck – you’d know already that every inch of waterfront is high dollar residential… all the way to the coast then south to Tidewater!

    but how do we know that rural is “over populated” , oh and they’re not liberals.. they vote GOP right? So, we’d expect the GOP to cut off their welfare and Medicaid?

    • My sister lives in the Northern Neck. Every inch of waterfront is not high dollar residential. Much is still undeveloped. Here are some ads for some waterfront land for sale around Reedville.,77;6,1232;13,12;268,6843;361,103671

      If you consider the Northern Neck to be “rural Virginia” then it can sustain economic development because it has scenic beauty. Across the bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore the real estate market is the best it has been for the last 30 years. Why? COVID19. People are streaming here from Baltimore, New York, DC, Philadelphia, etc looking for homes. Waterfront, waterview, near water, in town – all are hot. The problem is density. There isn’t any. Great for the property values of the existing landowners. Not so great for middle class people trying to relocate here. The good news is that you don’t have to get very far off the water before land becomes a lot cheaper and housing a lot more affordable. No suburbs of Cambridge, MD – just countryside.

      The Northern Neck isn’t nearly as close to population centers as, say, Talbot County, MD. So, it’s not as “hot” a destination for second homes as somewhere like Easton, MD. However, COVID19 may have changed that. Working age empty nesters who cant’s take the riots in Richmond or New York might see working from home in the Northern Neck as a great idea.

      The question is whether the Northern Neck can find an attractive human settlement pattern to implement. Jim Bacon and the great Ed Risse had it basically right. Relatively densely populated towns with low ddensity surrounding countryside along with a non-automobile method of getting from one town to the next (free bus service like in Vail / Snowmass, etc would work just fine).

      • Boy do YOU live in a DIFFERENT world. In whose world is 100K for a one acre lot before one stick of lumber – “affordable”?

        Yes – you CAN find waterfront – but it’s got to “perk” and it’s not exactly scenic views if surrounded by woods… so let me re-phrase – “waterfront” – I mean the kind where you sit at waters edge and no trees or others between you and the water vista.

        Yes, you can find lots – but they’ll make 100K look like a beggars purse.

        Now – can a county with a bunch of high dollar real estate do a better job of taking care of it’s own with needs that rely on the State or NoVa to subsidize them?

        Answer me that question !

        The tax rate in some of these rural counties is 1/3 or less what you’ll find in urban areas…

        Face it – urban has a lot of jobs, yes. But they also have a lot of service workers who barely survive, can’t find affordable housing and often need entitlements… Some urbanized areas do better than others… Fairfax and Arlington are wealthy counties but even they have large numbers of low-income folks that need “help” from taxpayers.

  9. New York, Baltimore, Philly, Richmond, Detroit, Chicago, Louisville, St Louis, Portland, Seattle, San Fransisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, to name a few: how are those towns with their glorious pasts doing to today? How are they serving their residents, the young, the old, and the in between. How bright their future?

  10. > Is There a Government Role for Rural Development?
    As someone born, raised and living in rural Virginia, how about No! Richmond? Norfolk? North Virginia? Worry about your own problems.

    >If the brilliant souls in Richmond would learn how watersheds function and let them do that, instead of imposing urban storm water concepts, we’d be a lot better off.
    Spot on example

    • Good for you. Rural Virginia should be managed by rural Virginians. If rural Virginians don’t want economic development – fine. But please ask your neighbors to stop asking for “free stuff” like internet broadband subsidized by others outside rural Virginia. I assume you choose to live in rural Virginia. I can see why people would make such a choice. You have clean air, beautiful vistas, free flowing traffic, fresh produce, etc. None of that exists in Northern Virginia. But you lack the population density for affordable broadband internet. It seems unfair to me for rural Virginians, who reap many benefits from rural living, to ask others to fund urban conveniences.

  11. I lived in West Virginia in the 1960s and spent a lot of time there for my book. Also in sw va and E. Kentucky. It’s all been tried. Atv trails. White water rafting. Call centers. Sorry but the only thing that really works is federal spending. The coal industry has screwed over that sector for decades and then skipped out. Where did the wealth go? Places like Richmond. Maybe Richmond should give some back

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