Virginia Needs to Up its Game When Talking about “Rural” Development

Governor Northam delivers conventional wisdom to rural economic development conference.

Despite the creation of 4,500 jobs in the “rural” portions of Virginia since he took office in January, Governor Ralph Northam told the Virginia Rural Summit yesterday that Virginia needs to do more to stimulate employment in rural areas.

Sounding familiar themes, Northam stressed STEM education, broadband access, and transportation. Twenty-first century jobs such as cyber-security and artificial intelligence require STEM education, the governor said, but young people don’t necessarily need to complete four-year college degrees. For some high-paying jobs, community college and certification programs may suffice. Rural Virginia also needs broadband access — within ten years, he said, as reported by the News Virginian. He also touted a recently unveiled, $2 billion plan to upgrade Interstate 81.

This is a familiar grab-bag of remedies, and it reflects the safe conventional wisdom on how to approach “rural” economic development. While improved broadband access indisputably would help “rural” economic competitiveness, it’s not clear at all that educating youth for “21st century jobs” or reducing congestion on I-81 will accomplish anything useful for “rural” communities. Northam’s address — like most of the discussion we hear — overlooks some unpleasant realities.

Let’s start by identifying what former blog contributor EM Risse refers to as a “core confusing word.” Near the top of the list of most obfuscating words used by planners and politicians is “rural.” It is impossible to have a rational discussion about “rural” development until we understand what we mean by “rural.”

As commonly used by the Governor and others, “rural” refers to most of Virginia outside of the three main Metropolitan Statistical Areas — Washington/Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads. Depending on context, it may or may not include smaller MSAs such as Roanoke, Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Winchester, Staunton/Waynesboro, Danville, Bristol, Blacksburg/Christiansburg, and Harrisonburg. The term probably includes small mill towns such as, say, Galax, Halifax, Pulaski, Rocky Mount, and the former coal camps of Virginia’s “rural” coal-producing counties. However, the only areas we can be absolutely certain the term “rural” encompasses are the vast tracts of sparsely populated farms and woodlands outside the MSAs.

The economic assets and challenges faced by smaller MSAs, mill towns, and farmland/woodlands are very different. Likewise, the realistic expectations we can set vary widely depending upon a community’s particular assets and liabilities. Some key points:

The agglomeration force. The “agglomeration” force in a predominantly knowledge-based economy is incredibly powerful. Knowledge-intensive companies, which include almost all technology companies, gravitate toward urban areas with large, deep labor pools. As is vividly on display in Amazon’s selection process for its massive second headquarters, technology employers also seek urban areas with the kind of amenities — primarily walkable urbanism — that will enable them to recruit from outside the region and then to retain their employees.

We can educate rural, small-town, and small-metro employees to participate in 21st-century knowledge-economy jobs, but they will find few employment opportunities outside the large MSAs. They will migrate to the large MSAs because that’s where the job opportunities are. Investing in educating “rural” young people for “21st century jobs,” whether in an expensive four-year college setting or a community-college setting, effectively subsidizes workforce development for the big, wealthy MSAs. If Virginia wants to create “rural” jobs, it needs to invest in occupations in which rural places and mill towns have a competitive advantage — which is not cyber-security and artificial intelligence.

Light manufacturing. Small-town Virginia continues to enjoy a competitive advantage in attracting light manufacturing, which requires cheap land, low taxes, and a supply of unskilled and semi-skilled labor. The problem is that manufacturing operations are subject to automation, which means that the yield in jobs from landing new manufacturing investment is smaller than in the past. As manufacturing gets more automated, we can expect fewer jobs but higher-skilled workforce needs from new projects. Manufacturing may be an area where an investment in community-college degrees and certifications may pay off — if the training is done in concert with the manufacturing companies to ensure that workers are learning relevant skills. How many manufacturing plants will need employees with certifications in cyber-security and AI, I have no idea. I’m guessing a few, but not many.

Transportation. The congestion on I-81 has virtually nothing to do with “rural” economic vitality. The highway links a string of small MSAs (Winchester, Harrisonburg, Staunton, Roanoke, Salem, Christiansburg, Bristol) and small towns. Just as big MSAs like Washington, Richmond and Hampton Roads have co-opted the Interstate highway system for local traffic, so have the small cities and towns along I-81.

I haven’t seen the plan for upgrading I-81, which has been described as involving widening and other improvements to be financed with some combination of gas tax, sales tax or tolls. But I feel confident about saying one thing: The improvements will be focused on increasing the capacity of the Interstate highway itself. It will not entail any changes to land use patterns or nearby non-Interstate transportation investments. Localities will continue to allow the clustering of development near I-81 intersections in a land-use pattern I call “rural sprawl.” Thus, they will perpetuate the use of the Interstate as a local transportation artery and accelerate the need for more improvements a couple of decades from now.

Rural/mill town/small MSA Virginia has two sustainable competitive economic advantages. One is a lower cost of living, which makes it potentially attractive to retirees who want to stretch fixed incomes. The other is raw physical beauty and access to recreational activities such as hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, sailing, ATV trails, and the like. Some communities also can build upon their local historical and cultural heritage. These assets can support retirement- and tourism-related industries. Whether such industries can support existing populations with decently paid jobs is problematic. Many rural/small town communities will have to learn how to deal gracefully with population decline.

Which brings me to a final point: How to deal gracefully with population decline. How do small and sparsely populated localities maintain a tolerable level of services and amenities when the population and tax base is shrinking? Not by subsidizing rural sprawl that drives up the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure. No one in Virginia is talking about this at all. But maybe, instead of squandering scarce resources on pipe dreams, “rural” Virginians and their political champions in Richmond should be giving this question more thought.

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15 responses to “Virginia Needs to Up its Game When Talking about “Rural” Development

  1. Jim, your article is good as far as it goes, but there is an enormous gap in its narrative, that is that Virginia suffers from a major cultural disadvantage. It lacks a strong hospitality culture. Thus for example, despite some of the advantages that you describe – Virginia’s rural lower cost of living, its raw physical beauty and its access to recreational activities such as hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, sailing, ATV trails, and its local historical and cultural heritage, Virginia, like West Virginia too, cannot turn these potentially attractive areas into as built attractive areas for retirees who want to stretch fixed incomes, or to most any other outsider, whether they be affluent retires, vacationers, or other visitors, in a fashion like so many other states have done with their rural lands.

    It is for these cultural shortcomings that Virginia likely will never implement what is suggested elsewhere on this blog, namely my earlier comment that:

    “I-81 is the only Interstate highway in the middle Atlantic states that effectively carries Interstate traffic, including long haul trucks, from the American Northeast and upper Midwest to our coastal and Appalachian south. This heavy Interstate traffic, including its truck traffic, greatly benefits most towns along I-81 in Virginia, such as Winchester, Harrisonburg and Roanoke. Thus I-81 should be improved and maintained to serve its primary mission – that of moving heavy north south interstate traffic.

    Ironically, this will greatly benefit local traffic in the Shenandoah Valley. It will force and divert local traffic onto local roads the parallel the I-81 right of way. This will require new and improved networks on local roads and uses of the land along those roads that are carefully, imaginatively, and comprehensively planned and executed along smart growth concepts that also preserve and enhance the natural beauty, historic character and rural nature of these unique places, and truly wonderful small towns.

    Done the right way, instead of the easy and wrong way, this new road grid affords great opportunity for the Valley’s future, instead of ruining that future for an entire region as has been done in so many other places in Virginia before.

    The WRONG WAY to fix the problem is perfectly illustrated where I-81 traverses Harrisonburg, and in particular James Madison University. This thief of I-81 by local special interests is an abomination. If replicated, these abominations will ruin the Shenandoah Valley for everyone within 1000 miles in all directions.”

    Thus, the Shenandoah Valley area done, if it were done right, could support several eastern versions of Aspen, but culturally the state, and its citizens, cannot pull this off. The best it can do is a Evergreen, which however attractive it may be to some, would be considered a cultural backwater by the standards of many other successful developments elsewhere.

    How does Virginia change that? It can. But to date it simply does not want to. That is Virginia perfect right to be what is always has been. But until its leaders see and appreciate the real problem, solutions will not be found.

    • I’ve been thinking for a while that simply enlarging I-81 will pull more local traffic onto the Interstate. That would be unfortunate, because a good part of the problem with this highway is the conflict between big trucks and the four-wheelers that we and our families drive to work, etc. You’re spot on in calling for local and regional attention to land use near the interstate and improved local roads parallel to it. However, as many times as I have driven through Harrisonburg on I-81, I don’t quite know what is meant by “This thief of I-81 by local special interests…” Could you be more specific, please?

      • Yes, jhop99-

        The best living example of how a locality steals an Interstate designed primarily to serve interstate traffic is how the Northern Virginia business interests hijacked the Washington Beltway (I-495) for their own local use and profit to the point that, by and large, Northern Virginia’s local traffic by 1990 had shut down most all inter-state traffic on I-495, most particularly at and around its northern end across the American Legion bridge for miles and miles of gridlock in all directions.

        This amounted to an intentional act by the local real estate developers who controlled Fairfax, saying “We are going to make the Capital Beltway Fairfax county’s main street.

        Their success in so capturing the beltway for themselves defeated the Beltways primary purpose which was to move interstate traffic quickly around the city to distant points far south and north of DC.

        The important thing to remember here is that this did not have to happen. With proper zoning and corrective design, both initially and later, this gridlock (caused by local theft 0f roadway), I believe could have been avoided. And done right, all stakeholders, interstate and local interests, could all have used the Beltway to their great mutual advantage. Problem was no one wanted to spend the money at the time, and take the time. They were instead interested only in quick easy money fast, so they ended up with a debacle of all concerned. One that haunts and hobbles Northern Virginia to this day.

        I was there in the real estate business myself so have a ring side seat. It was easy to see the problem coming.

        • Dear Reed,

          You should write a long paper describing how and when and “who” this happened, and then publish it.



          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            Andrew –

            Thank you, Andrew. The “who” in your comment is the hard part, unless one lives in an imaginary world where “I don’t think it’s evil people. It’s human nature.”

            Absent that, there is much history already on this website about the subject by numerous highly informed and smart people to include:

            TMT, Ed Risse, Tyson’s Engineer, Rippert, our boy Jim, and other experts whose wisdom they and I have brought into the conversation, great often unknown heroes like William G. Allen. (see

            The key is while the 1950s though today in Northern Virginia was often unique at the time, a case of first impressions when things first happened, those events have proved to be a classic case study of what went wrong during those incredible times, and how those mistakes plague and/or haunt us today is other places that on their face today appear to be very different but in key parts are not very different at all.

            Here I speak of places like the Shenandoah Valley being destroyed by the obsessive focus of the power hungry elite on I-81 to the detriment of everything and everybody else having a stake there, and also the amazing neglect of the people of the Virginia’s Eastern shore, and the obsessive focus there on Rt, 13 plus the slew of elite special interests operating there at the peoples expense.

            The abuse of the elite in human societies has been ubiquitous throughout all human history. To be blind to it is to be abused and ultimately destroyed.

        • And now, because of backups on the Inner Loop of the Beltway between Tysons and Maryland, the Tysons’ developers have hijacked local streets in McLean as Maryland residents use them to get onto the Beltway at Georgetown Pike. Part of the blame goes to Maryland for not proposing relief at the American Legion Bridge until very recently. But part of the fault lies with the failure to enforce TDM commitments made by landowners when they developed their properties at Tysons.

          A number of parents at Langley HS and Cooper MS complain their children cannot engage in extracurricular activities due to the amount of cut-through traffic. Drive down the quality of life and wonder why many middle class people are leaving Fairfax County.

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            Yes, I know that Historic Georgetown Pike very well, including its intersection over pass over the the Beltway a quarter mile into Virginia coming off the American Legion bridge from Maryland.

            To my mind, the biggest scandal is that that historic road and its intersection there, and its fine surrounding neighborhoods, have been constantly abused since Dulles Toll Road opened in mid 1980s. And no one took any effective action to deal with problem, except to paste it over, as it got worse and worse over the ensuing decades.

            That looming mess is what caused me to start searching for a site to built an new office building in Ballston, instead of Tyson’s corner, even before the toll road opened.

            What happened is this, for me. The opening of the toll road jammed up seriously for the first time the traffic headed south from Maryland toward and into Tyson’s corner. This traffic overtime became intolerable.

            Hence southward bound cars from Md began to exit off the beltway onto Georgetown Pike then swung south again into Swinks Mill Rd neighborhoods and then onto Spring Hill Road neighborhoods into Tyson’s Corner by the back way. This was the beginning of the end for me. As always happens, these neighborhoods traffic started jamming up every-which way, during rush hour in gridlock by 1986. And so its gone on now for more than 30 years without relief. And I am sure each commuter has his or her unique story to tell.

        • jhop99-

          Never let engineers and a few politically powerful business interests aligned with the State Government locate and design your roads, including I-81. Never, ever, let them improve your roads either.


          Because, if you do let those engineers and few politically powerful business interests aligned with the State Government locate and improve your roads, then for sure they will destroy the Shenandoah Valley, its land and its towns, and the lives of those who live there, just as those engineers and politically powerful business interests aligned with the State government have destroyed Northern Virginia for those who live there.

          How do we know this?

          Look around you at what the engineers and powerful business interests aligned with the State government have already done to the town of Bridgewater, and to Brigdgewater college, too.

          Look at how they have used I-81 to build James Madison University into a sprawling suburban monster that is eating the beauty, culture livability, history, and towns of the Shenandoah Valley alive.

          Meanwhile, this monster has sucked the life out of the town of Bridgewater, and all who lived there. The same thing happened to Arlington County when Fairfax County sucked the life out it, back in the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

          The people of Arlington County fought back. The people who love the towns of the Shenandoah need to do the same, fight back. Or they will continue to be eaten alive as they are now being eaten by those who will destroy their home.

  2. I miss Ed Risse. He definitely had a different perspective about settlement patterns and by “different”, I mean he really thought about it in a comprehensive way and provoked others to also widen their perspectives.

    You know, in the age of the internet-powered, knowledge-based, global economy, one might think that “geography” does not play the same role it used to.

    You don’t need a programmer to live where the computers are located. TV’s and electronics, contrary to the thought that the further away the more the transportation costs… much of our stuff comes from China where, before you think “poor” workers – China has a middle class bigger than our entire population AND our electronic “stuff” comes to us along highways like I-81!

    Bacon’s Rebellion could just as easily be hosted in Roanoke or Winchester as Henrico!

    So what is it?

    I think Northam is dead on correct about his views about education regardless of whether that job is in NoVa or Lynchburg – you need a 21st-century education and no it does not need to be a 4yr degree from UVA to be a decent salary job. ( an interesting juxtaposition with UVA’s Ryan!).

    So I do not think we have figured this out yet but what we can know is the history of the current RoVa MSAs and quite a few of them were born as mill towns or regional farming centers. Later, small-manufacturing found them but those days are also gone. So we have these smaller, regional MSAs whose reason for their original formation and existence has gone away and perhaps, we’re essentially trying to “re-invent” them. Those MSAs with Colleges have “built-in” industry that is sustainable.

    But finding a way to re-use them is fraught with risk in the 21st century where one company or even an entire industry can be wiped out in a relentlessly “disruptive” economy.

    One career these days that can be a lifelong career – is education – both the K-12 and higher ed and that means towns with Colleges tend to have better-staying power… they can shrink but they still have a core that spins off other business.

    Mom & Pop are dead though – Walmart started it and Dollar General is finishing it.

  3. re: hijacking the interstates for local development and use.

    pretty widespread – not unique to Washington but Washington is an uber example.

    Beltways were an “innovation” when the Interstate system was proposed as a follow-on to the National US Highway systems which some call the “original” Interstate.

    The beltways were actually intended to route non-local/regional traffic – AROUND the urban cores – leaving the land inside the beltways to be developed.

    What happened instead was that urban cores – almost universally – around the country essentially co-opted the beltways and in doing so – fundamentally changed the way that settlement patterns “work”.

    Whether it’s Washington or Charlotte or Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, LA, Seattle, Chicago, etc… interstates and beltways pretty much work the same way with the beltways pretty much spawning exurban sprawl to satisfy the quest for affordable housing.

    I don’t think it’s evil people. It’s human nature. People are willing to commute longer distances to get the house they cannot afford inside the urban core and that demand is satisfied by others who make their own livings providing what others want.

    Ed Risse felt that this kind of thing left to people’s own devices had to be stopped by government , yes, the very same government that TMT blames for too much development that generates too much traffic and congestion!

    But like I said -anyone who have been to other urban MSAs should be able to easily confirm the same development behaviors..

    By the way – there is NEWS on I-81!!!!

    ” I-81 plan proposes tolls for trucks, cars”–plan-proposes-tolls-for-trucks-cars/article_a44d1eaf-fe4d-505a-b3eb-1f80f408b5ff.html

  4. and hiding under the radar and completely missed by our stalwart blog masters :

    ” Article X. Taxation and Finance. Section 6. Exempt property

    1. Ballot Question

    Question: Should a county, city, or town be authorized to provide a partial tax exemption for real property that is subject to recurrent flooding, if flooding resiliency improvements have been made on the property?


    Present Law

    Generally, the Constitution of Virginia provides that all property shall be taxed. The Constitution of Virginia also sets out specific types of property that may be exempted from taxation. For example, the Constitution of Virginia allows the General Assembly to permit localities to provide a partial exemption from real estate taxes as an incentive for property owners to make substantial improvements to existing structures by renovating, rehabilitating, or replacing those structures.

    Proposed Amendment

    The proposed amendment would authorize the General Assembly to allow localities to provide a partial tax exemption for real property that is subject to recurrent flooding, if improvements have been made on the property to address flooding. The General Assembly and participating localities would be allowed to place restrictions or conditions on qualification for the tax exemption.

    A “yes” vote will authorize the General Assembly to allow localities to provide a partial tax exemption for real property that is subject to recurrent flooding, if improvements have been made on the property to address flooding.”

    talk about income redistribution !!!!

    • If a property is subject to recurrent flooding, it should have a lower market value. If it has a lower market value, it should have a lower assessed value. If it has a lower assessed value, it should be taxed at a lower rate that a comparable property not subject to flooding. That should suffice.

      • Makes sense. Why do we need a Constitutional amendment?

        And if this starts for just one flood zone wouldn’t everyone who is in “designated” flood zones be able to demand equal treatment and great swaths of land in coastal areas be effectively de-valued reducing tax revenues and then in turn reduce what the county could pay for in services to all residents?

        I thought it interesting also that this is on the ballot and I’ve not seen a thing about it to this point… just days away from voting!

  5. Won’t this have the effect of convincing people to STAY in the flood zones and get subsidized flood insurance and at the same time cratering the finances of the locality – why would any locality agree to effectively not tax some land and have to increase taxes on other land if they were to maintain services – like schools and public safety ?

    • It is interesting. Places like Detroit are seeing properties abandoned, torn down and converted to urban “open space”. They do lose the tax revenue but they also no longer have to provide many services since the land is no longer owned or occupied.

      Why would ANY locality reduce the taxes on a property that they still have to deliver services to? The only way to reconcile it is to reduce services or raise taxes on other properties.

      Surely this is worth a word or two in BR which has preached from on high for as long as I can remember – the premise that people pay for their location-variable costs!

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