Virginia’s Rural Development Strategy — and Suggestions for Improvement

by James A. Bacon

You most likely missed it because it has gotten next to zero publicity, but the Commonwealth does have an economic development strategy for rural Virginia.

In 2017, a group of rural development stakeholders come together to form a “Rural Think Tank” to identify policies the state should pursue to position smaller metros and rural areas for economic growth. After deliberating, the twelve think tank members came up with five strategic priorities, as described in the latest edition of the Virginia Economic Review, a publication of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP). This second edition of the quarterly publication is devoted to “America’s Rural Growth Challenge.”

The priorities include:

Ubiquitous broadband access. Topping the list is ubiquitous broadband access, a priority embraced by the Northam administration that receives broad bipartisan support. The ability to plug into the Internet is a necessity not only for business growth but is essential to education, healthcare, social connectivity, and the quality of life. As the Virginia Economic Review quotes Didi Caldwell, past chair of the Site Selection Guild, put it, “Broadband is to the 21st century was electrification was to the 20th. Rural communities need it to thrive and survive.”

Marketing rural Virginia. Rural economic development is a tough challenge. Across the U.S. 80% of rural localities fail to secure a single greenfield economic development project each year. One reason (among many) is that small localities lack the resources to market themselves. Says the Virginia Economic Review: “State leaders have now embraced a goal to brand and expand national awareness of rural Virginia as the highly compelling business investment destination that it already is — one of the most attractive, competitive location in the U.S. for manufacturing and other sectors interested  in rural locations.”

Expanded prepared sites inventory. In recent years the lack of a prepared site was one of the most common reasons that rural Virginia lost out on high-impact manufacturing and distribution projects. State leaders are now identifying development sites in Virginia of 25 acres or larger and, through the GO Virginia initiative and the Business Ready Sites Program, making them readily available for occupation.

World-class custom workforce solutions. A big obstacle to attracting investment to rural areas is the concern about the ability to attract a qualified workforce. Virginia is now building a fast-reaction, turnkey workforce recruitment and training capability to address that issue..

Transformational economic development projects. Virginia is building the capability to support recruitment of “transformational” investments such as Merck’s $1 billion investment in the expansion of its Rockingham County plant that will create 100 high-quality jobs, and the $400 million expansion of the Volvo Group truck manufacturing plant in Pulaski County, which will create 777 jobs. According to the Virginia Economic Review, VEDP is expanding beyond manufacturing, collaborating with state, regional and local partners “to launch a rural and small metro technology centers initiative” to attract tech companies interested in locating software-development and tech-services operations in lower-cost markets outside of big cities.

Overall, I think these priorities are fine. I do question the cost-effectiveness of marketing rural Virginia as a “highly compelling business investment destination” — that strikes me as a hard sell for a rural area anywhere in the country — but, yes, rural Virginians do need broadband, and it undoubtedly would be helpful to have shell buildings and a turnkey workforce solution. As for “transformational” projects, the Commonwealth should be as willing to commit state dollars to big projects that show a positive, risk-adjusted return on investment in rural areas as well as in urban areas.

But let’s be clear, this is largely a top-down approach that demands little of rural Virginians themselves, and it is heavily geared to luring outside corporate investment — primarily light manufacturing. Any comprehensive economic development strategy must dig deeper. Here are a few thoughts on other ways for rural, small-town communities can think about transforming themselves.

Solar/wind. The rise of the renewable energy industry creates an opportunity to exploit one thing — abundant land — in which rural areas enjoy a competitive advantage over urban and suburban areas. Some rural areas in Virginia have been receptive to solar and wind farms, others have resisted. But the generation of electric energy could become a new cash crop for landowners, providing a steady stream of leasing income.

Outdoor recreation, natural vistas. Rural areas have another competitive advantage — open space, rivers, streams, bays, mountains, and natural beauty. People in a knowledge economy that rewards deep labor markets in large metropolitan areas may not want to build their careers in rural areas, but they do enjoy visiting rural areas, which can provide the underpinning of a recreational industry built around sailing, golfing, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, etc. Look at Wintergreen, a weekend-getaway destination for Washingtonians and Richmonders, for inspiration. Look at St. Michaels, a Chesapeake Bay sailing Mecca in Maryland, for inspiration.

Retirement communities. While the agglomeration effect favors large metros for people participating in the workforce, the agglomeration effect does not come into play for retired people. Access to outdoor recreation and natural vistas is a significant amenity for retirees, who comprise an ever-increasing share of the population. Other states, particularly North Carolina, have been far more successful than Virginia in attracting this demographic. Look at Blowing Rock, N.C., for inspiration.

Place-making. Smaller communities have another competitive advantage over urban and suburban areas: “small town feel.” People love “quaint.” Some people prefer the anonymity of big cities, but many people want to feel part of a connected people where everyone knows everyone else. Rural/small-town communities can build on this by paying attention to place making, the design of public space and amenities. But this will require a major shift in attitude. Instead of subsidizing “rural sprawl” — random, low-density development along rural roads — they need to steer local investment into creating the kinds of places people like visiting and living in. Place-making is critical both for attracting retirees and building a tourism trade.

Restructuring health care. Many rural counties are losing their community hospitals. As health care is a critical component of quality of life, it is necessary to restructure rural health care systems so they can serve less-affluent, low-density populations: more clinics, more urgent care centers, more outpatient surgery centers, more tele-medicine, and the like.

This is hardly a comprehensive list. Rural Virginia could do more with niche agriculture, artisan guilds, and wood products. It could do more to promote small businesses and entrepreneurship. Pockets of rural prosperity can be found around the country. Rural Virginians could benefit from studying them. Perhaps Virginia’s “Rural Think Tank” can turn its attention to creating bottom-up approaches to improving livability and reinventing local economies.

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37 responses to “Virginia’s Rural Development Strategy — and Suggestions for Improvement

  1. You say : ” the Commonwealth does have an economic development strategy for rural Virginia.”

    Don’t you mean: ” The Northam administration has an economic development strategy for rural Virginia.” ?

    😉

    I mean you blame the administration for things the “Commonwealth” does in other things.. so why not credit them for these things and not disbanding them?

    • This economic development strategy is really Stephen Moret’s strategy and the Rural Think Tank’s strategy. Although Northam has indisputably championed rural broadband, the other four priorities were all articulated by others. We can presume that Northam supports these priorities as well, but I have seen no public announcements to that effect.

      • “Solar/wind. The rise of the renewable energy industry creates an opportunity to exploit one thing — abundant land”

        Good Lord, Jim! You will run everyone out of the state.

        And, who the hell wants your “retirement communities!” Boring! Man, Boring! You’re back in 1950’s, air-conditioned nightmares, UFOs, and golf carts.

  2. Here’s something that BR can do a post on:

    Governors eye regional cap and trade plan to fund transition from fossil fuels

    Governors from several northeastern and mid-Atlantic states may have found a way to reduce pollution from cars and trucks and buck the Trump administration, which is trying to weaken auto emissions standards and gut efforts to curb climate change.

    Under a regional cap-and-trade plan that a dozen states still are developing, drivers would pay more at the pump through higher prices for gas and diesel. The revenue would be invested in mass transit, electric-vehicle charging and other transportation infrastructure.

    https://www.politico.com/states/new-jersey/story/2019/10/21/governors-eye-regional-gas-tax-to-fund-transition-from-fossil-fuels-1225722

  3. Jim, you said, “But let’s be clear, this is largely a top-down approach that demands little of rural Virginians themselves…” and “Perhaps Virginia’s ‘Rural Think Tank’ can turn its attention to creating bottom-up approaches to improving livability and reinventing local economies.”

    The rural think tank group specifically focused on things the state could do (as you noted) that it wasn’t already doing to encourage economic growth in rural areas. The group deliberately avoided various worthwhile initiatives (several of which you highlight) that would rely on local leadership/initiative. Local initiatives are essential, but the commonwealth needs to do its part, as well. Considering the diverse array of localities that make up rural Virginia (with widely varying views toward growth in general as well as the particular kinds of growth desired), my sense is that the group did not want to push localities to embrace any particular type(s) of development. Indeed, while one of VEDP’s top goals is to help position each region for growth, we follow the preferences of each locality in terms of the types of prospects we bring to them as well as locations proposed for such projects.

    Also, it’s important to note that there are many state-level initiatives at VEDP and elsewhere that benefit rural development, including, for example, an effort of multiple agencies and the administration to encourage outdoor-related economic development opportunities, including but not limited to tourism. The group referenced in the article was focused on new, state-level initiatives not already happening in Virginia (or not already happening at scale).

    I believe the commonwealth has an important role to play in helping position rural and small metro regions of Virginia for growth, not just to ensure that all regions share in Virginia’s prosperity but also to avoid negative outcomes of sustained decline (e.g., closures of hospitals, schools, and other important regional assets, as well as small businesses).

    • Stephen, Thanks for the clarification regarding how the Rural Think Tank framed its task. The fact remains, the state has articulated its goals pretty clearly but the regions have not. Outside of the Northern Piedmont area where the Piedmont Environmental Council and Journey Through Hallowed Ground have crafted a carefully integrated vision for the future of its region based largely on niche agriculture and tourism, I see little more than random initiatives at the local level, some of which are worthwhile, some of which are not. If the Rural Think Tank doesn’t take on the job of laying out alternatives, someone needs to!

  4. “Although Northam has indisputably championed rural broadband, the other four priorities were all articulated by others. We can presume that Northam supports these priorities as well, but I have seen no public announcements to that effect.”

    Governor Northam and his administration, as well as the General Assembly, have providing funding support for all five of the state-level rural development initiatives highlighted in Virginia Economic Review.

  5. I have yet to look at above described second edition of quarterly publication on “America’s Rural Growth Challenge.” But I will look at it and comment later.

    Meanwhile, some off the cuff potential drivers of America’s future rural growth whose recognition might help “identify policies Virginia should pursue to position smaller metros and rural areas for economic growth in the State.”

    As to some Rural Growth Drivers consider this:

    From 1970 to 2017 cost of American health care went from $1,797 per person to $10, 739. It’s still rising fast, with ever more retirees driving it supported by ever fewer workers.

    The early 2000’s dot com bubble burst combined with 2007 housing bubble implosion acerbated by Obama’s long recession wiped out millennial savings and now is aggravated by quick rises of housing prices, particularly in “hot” dense urban areas. Even as to median figures, housing costs since 1974 have risen 9 times (from $37,200 median) to $337,900 in 2017, while median income increased only 4.5 times. So home ownership has gotten out of reach for most everyone new in dense urban areas. Rents are increasing greatly now there too.

    And on top of all this, from 1971 to 2018 private college annual costs increased 216%, and at public college increased 285%, with costs at elite and selective colleges soaring far higher.

    Thus students loans of $481 Billion in 2006 zoomed to $1.57 TRILLION at end of 2018. These college loans hobbling the future our our young now exceed the nation’s total auto loans, and credit card debt, while mortgage debt ranged far higher. All these cost war against one another, and are hitting the young, and millennials far harder than earlier generations.

    Hence millennials are far behind in building equity to buy homes at urban prices, and fund families there, such less save for their own retirement. Particularly so when the cost to live in desirable dense urban cities is going through the roof, with no end in sight, and for families is ever harder. So what are educated millennial going to do to counter these adverse trends, if given the opportunity by visionary urban planners and developers, and visionary towns and small cities in Virginia?

    The list here is long and varied. But first consider the ongoing revolution and wild advancement in telecommunications. How it continues to open ever wider opportunities for workers to succeed at living, working, and thriving, at ever longer distances from those they work with, and for companies who take advantages of opportunities to operate in ever more distant and desirable locations outside today’s dense urban environments.

    That is just the start of an exciting conversation.

    • Obama’s recession? The collapse of Bear Stearns and the ensuing financial crisis happened in the Bush administration. Obama inherited a crisis and prevented it from becoming worse. By the way, the stock market is in the midst of its longest bull market ever, beginning in 2009, the second year of the Obama presidency. Furthermore, the U.S. economy is in now in its longest period of expansion, beginning in 2009.

      • I respectfully disagree, Dick.

        The Bear Stearn’s collapse and all that followed in its wake was the direct result of a corrupt Democratic Congress (think Barney Frank) and its political allies courting the black vote, who forced Fannie Mae into a wildly irresponsible sub-prime mortgage crisis (done over over Republican objection) that blew up the American economy in league with Wall Street’s typical greed.

        All this was done, even as the Democrats were pushing ever harder even back then to vastly enlarge the ongoing college debt crisis the now threatens to explode the US economy all over again. And this time the economy will be saddled with the massive Obama induced federal debt that was far larger than any other in American history.

        Hence too, recovery from this first Democratic party induced disaster of 20o7 was thereafter delayed substantially by Obama’s anti-growth economic policies, excessive new and burdensome regulations, anti cheap energy Jihad, and Obama’s pro crony capitalist policies that induced massive waste of federal resources that corrupted higher education, health care industry, and environmental movement long term, turning these institutions into rapacious mongrel business cartels that are now driving America’s youth to be ill educated and bankrupt in a myriad of new and highly creative ways. Hence, the ongoing collapse of American society in front of our very eyes.

  6. Funny how conservative Republicans are quick to throw down the “Mo Money” mantra when it’s for schools or healthcare. Where is the Mo’ Money criticism of this program? Subsidized housing in the inner city is welfare while subsidized broadband in rural Virginia is an economic development necessity.

    The state’s plan is a pipe dream. A waste of money. Futile. You hear over and over again about rural electrification. In a more in-depth analysis you’d hear about universal access for telephony as well. Guess what? They failed. Rural America wasn’t saved through electrification or through universal access. It won’t be saved by ubiquitous broadband either. Urbanization is a global, centuries old reality that hasn’t, isn’t and won’t be reversed.

    Whenever I ask about at-scale rural economic development programs that have worked anywhere in America I either hear crickets or somebody brings up Aspen, CO (population – 7,300). Now you bring up Wintergreen. How many people are employed at Wintergreen?

    How many people do you see as living in “rural and small town Virginia”? 1M? 2M? More? Now how many jobs do you have to create to make a difference to rural and small town Virginia overall? 100,000? 200,000? More?

    You might be able to pick a very few isolated examples where you can make a difference in rural and small town Virginia. Retirement centers reasonably close to the UVA Medical Center (Say, in Nelson County) might get some traction. Certainly, a lot of retirees are moving to Charlottesville. Bring in bus service to Dulles, NoVa and DC or better train service. Improve the Charlottesville airport. But you’re talking about maybe 500 jobs in a place like Nelson County.

    Rural and small town Virginia need triage. Most of it cannot be brought to economic growth. Fostering de-population is probably the best policy. There are plenty of jobs in urban and suburban Virginia. Some very focused initiatives might make a small difference in a few places.

    I think it’s time for telling the truth. There is no magic bullet that will reverse urbanization in Virginia or elsewhere. If conservative Republicans want to support a permanent rural and small town underclass through wealth transfers from suburban and urban areas then those conservative Republicans ought to use the same terms they use when discussing inner city poverty – welfare queens, freeloaders, hood rats, living on the Democratic plantation, etc. Where are those pejorative terms when discussing the wealth transfers to lily white rural and small town Virginia?

    You also missed the biggest opportunity of all – legalized marijuana. Legalize it and set aside the grow permits for distressed rural areas. All planting, harvesting, processing, purifying and packaging of legal weed must be done in these distressed areas. Then, give the lion’s share of the sell permits to disadvantaged Virginians in the inner cities. They will open dispensaries wherever there is demand but a disproportionate percentage of the licenses to sell the stuff goes to those who have borne the brunt of the disproportionate law enforcement penalties in the past. Oh yeah, and tax it. Bad for drug cartels, good for all the people clamoring for Mo’ money from the state.

    • “The state’s plan is a pipe dream. A waste of money. Futile. You hear over and over again about rural electrification. In a more in-depth analysis you’d hear about universal access for telephony as well. Guess what? They failed. Rural America wasn’t saved through electrification or through universal access. It won’t be saved by ubiquitous broadband either. Urbanization is a global, centuries old reality that hasn’t, isn’t and won’t be reversed.”

      To be clear, our goal is to position every region for employment growth, not every locality. At the regional level, just 100-200 additional jobs each year in each region would be enough to position every region of Virginia for growth (based on recent Moody’s forecasts), including the small metros and largely rural regions. In my view, that’s not at all a pipe dream. It’s more a question of will and focus.

      • How much money from the tobacco settlement fund has already been spent trying to generate economic growth in rural and small town Virginia? According to this website Virginia is getting a ton of money.

        https://www.kff.org/health-costs/state-indicator/tobacco-settlement-payments/?currentTimeframe=1&sortModel=%7B“colId”:”Location”,”sort”:”asc”%7D

        Money has been pouring into rural and small town Virginia from across the state for decades. The school funding formulae move billions per year.

        I’m not sure of how you define “regions” but this is my definition of southwest Virginia …

        Alleghany County, Bedford County, Bland County, Botetourt County, Buchanan County, Carroll County, Craig County, Dickenson County, Floyd County, Franklin County, Giles County, Grayson County, Henry County, Lee County, Montgomery County, Patrick County, Pulaski County, Roanoke County, Rockbridge County, Russell County, Scott County, Smyth County, Tazewell County, Washington County, Wise County, and Wythe County.

        That’s about 900,000 people. How could a couple of hundred jobs create economic growth?

        Where is the accountability for results? Where is the budget and timeline for self-sufficiency or economic growth?

        Like I said, if rural and small town Virginia are just going to be permanent recipients of funding from urban and suburban Virginia we should just say that. Pretending we have a plan to create economic growth is … frankly dishonest.

        • “I’m not sure of how you define ‘regions’ but this is my definition of southwest Virginia … That’s about 900,000 people. How could a couple of hundred jobs create economic growth?”

          Your list of localities includes all or part of six regions (based on how the localities have organized themselves), including regions served by the following regional economic development organizations: Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VCEDA), Virginia’s Industrial Advancement Alliance (i81-i77 crossroads), Onward NRV (New River Valley), Roanoke Regional Partnership, Southern Virginia Regional Alliance, and Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance.

          Each of these regions represents a fraction of the total population count you referenced, and the number of jobs in each region is a fraction of the amount of population in each region.

          Looking at employment forecasts for those regions developed by Moody’s, just 100-200 additional jobs each year more than the forecast for each region would be enough to place each region in positive territory. The reason is that even those regions that currently are expected to decline in employment are expected to lose a relatively small number of jobs each year.

          • As far as I know there are no standard definitions of regions in Virginia. So, your definition is as good as any. What our politicians in Northern Virginia should be demanding is accountability. Defined regions. State spending on economic development by region. Employment percentages. Total amount of money transferred into each region (beyond money taken in state and local taxes by region) etc. There should be a date when each of these regions is expected to no longer need other people’s money to sustain their local operations – schools, roads, jails, etc. If the economic development programs get these regions to financial self-sufficiency all the more power to them.

        • “Where is the accountability for results? Where is the budget and timeline for self-sufficiency or economic growth?”

          Part of VEDP’s strategic plan includes tracking the growth (or decline) of each region in Virginia, as one of our top goals is to help position every region of Virginia for employment growth. Short of a recession, we expect each region to be positioned for at least modest growth within 3-5 years of fully implementing our strategic plan. That said, many of the strategic plan initiatives have not yet been funded (or at least not yet fully funded).

          The latest Moody’s forecasts I saw for 2019 (a couple months back, i think) suggested that nearly every region in Virginia would experience employment growth this year (CY2019).

          • Sorry to be difficult but if nearly every region is already experiencing employment growth why should we fund economic development programs? I suppose “nearly every” region isn’t every region. A plan that focuses on the (apparently) few region where economic growth is not occurring would be a lot more sensible than a plea for high speed broadband internet everywhere (paid for by people other than those who will use it of course).

            The other point is employment growth vs economic self-sufficiency. If you look elsewhere in America you can see this problem. A recent study in Illinois, for example, shows that Chicagoland gets the short end of the stick while down state Illinois takes in more money than they send to Springfield. In fact, the 19 most southern counties in Illinois receive almost $3 for every $1 they send in. Meanwhile, if you allocated the pension shortfalls in Chicago to every household in Chicago making over $75,000 per year (37%) those households would have a $393,000 liability.

            Nobody seems to have access to similar numbers for Virginia. But the basic trends between Illinois and Virginia seem eerily similar. At some point the state can’t afford to underwrite people’s lifestyle choices. If we really have a plan for financial self-sufficiency in rural Virginia that would be great. I’d like to see it. Otherwise, I’m not sure why encouraged relocation from low economic activity areas to high economic activity areas isn’t on the table.

            https://www.bcrnews.com/2018/09/02/beware-of-biting-the-hand-that-feeds-downstate-illinois/aa1ry6z/

    • “Aspen, CO (population – 7,300). Now you bring up Wintergreen. How many people are employed at Wintergreen?”

      Or you might bring up Santa Fe and Taos, or Denver, Boulder, and Vail Valley, or Sedona, Tucson, and Phoenix, whole complexes of towns, villages, small cities all over America, that grew large seemingly overnight, after waxing and waning for decades or centuries. Few are in a zero sum place for long when they act without fear, and with drive, will, imagination and smarts. And Virginia now has got it all right now, if led right by right people, locally, and state wide, no doubt.

      • Denver had a population of almost 300,000 a century ago. Boulder is effectively a suburb of Denver. Tucson had a population of over 200,000 people 60 years ago. These areas are more comparable to NoVa or Richmond than rural or small town Virginia. Sedona grew from 1970 through 2000 but has shrunk over the last 19 years. I’ve been to Vail many times. I’m not sure where Vail Valley is located.

        In 1980 Santa Fe had 48,000 people, today it has 84,000. In 1980 Roanoke had 100,000 people, today it has 99,000. I’ll buy Santa Fe as a successful and growing small town. If the Commonwealth’s stated intention was to study places like Santa Fe and decide if whatever made them successful could be replicated in Roanoke … that would be a plan. At least the start of a plan.

  7. smoretva says, “The rural think tank group specifically focused on things the state could do (as you noted) that it wasn’t already doing to encourage economic growth in rural areas. The group deliberately avoided various worthwhile initiatives (several of which you highlight) that would rely on local leadership/initiative.”

    OK, I get it, no toes should get stepped on, but your next sentence contradicts the hands-off approach: “Local initiatives are essential, but the commonwealth needs to do its part, as well.” If that means the State should and will give assistance to localities even as to those “worthwhile initiatives” it has otherwise avoided because they “would rely on local leadership/initiative” — great! I am particularly concerned about the solar farm initiative: I think the State should be all for it, as it supplies a steady income stream to those owning agricultural land who may otherwise lose the farm to debt or choose random, eyesore development. Solar farms do not contaminate the soil and are easily reversible if the owner chooses to bring the land back to agricultural use or to clear it for another use. That said, there are a number of things localities should know and should do up front to become knowledgeable about utility-scale solar and about the special use permit conditions which are commonly placed on developers — such as visual screening from nearby roads both of the collectors and of the electric interconnection facilities, converter noise abatement, back-end removal guarantees, etc. The State, without mandating anything, could come up with a set of model recommendations and resources to contact for rural jurisdictions confronting this for the first time.

    In fact everything on Jim’s supplemental list could benefit from State coordination if not direction. I hope this sort of behind-the-headlines assistance to rural localities is part of the VEDP mission.

    • “In fact everything on Jim’s supplemental list could benefit from State coordination if not direction.”

      That may be true. For context, during VEDP’s strategic planning process in 2017, I learned that the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) already has substantial community planning expertise and regularly supports local planning efforts. We did not want to duplicate what they were/are already doing, so we have no plans to increase VEDP’s activities with respect to that topic. I do think place-making is a big opportunity for most communities, but it is one that VEDP is not well positioned to support at the present time. We already have committed to implement several other major initiatives that require substantial focus and resources.

      One of the relatively unique aspects of Virginia’s state economic development structures is that the ownership of economic development activities is spread over several agencies. There are both pros and cons of that approach.

    • That helps explain it. For the novice, there are so many overlapping programs out there that it’s hard to know what is being avoided because others have it under their purview, versus what is being overlooked.

    • You and others have mentioned the steady income solar farms provide to landowners. I am curious about this. Do you have any idea what the “typical” arrangement is? Do the landowners get a one-time payment? Or, is there some sort of monthly or annual “rent”? If so, how much? I guess something is better than nothing for open fields that are not producing crops or supporting animals.

  8. Acbar – I think solar is all about strict adherence to key details and restraint in face of quick easy money that easily destroys places if done wrong. Virginia’s record here is abysmal. Hence, my fears, and why I overstate my case.

    • We agree, there’s easy money without sensible restraint, and the price can be destruction of a rural landscape. It comes from taking advantage of local governments who, even if their hearts are in the right place, are unprepared to demand detailed commitments rather than vague, glossy promises. Why reinvent the wheel when others have done this already and learned from it? It merely makes sense to me that those who attract an economic opportunity to a unsophisticated locality should also accompany that with their own advice as to how to make the opportunity a benign local investment. If that means bringing in another agency, fine, but the opportunity should come with all appropriate cautions.

  9. Jim, These are very appropriate ideas. Without broadband rural areas have little hope of being self-sufficient. It’s a must in today’s world. With electrification, we found ways to incentivize serving all. In today’s environment such is avoided at all cost. As a rural person, I’m tired of hearing that someday someone will provide the internet service I’ve been asking for every way I know how for a good 20 years.

    With broadband, many people could work remotely at almost any job. people could merchandise Appalachican products or any, really. It can support specialized health care more inexpensively than having it everywhere. A site with broadband is valuable; one without is hard to move. Retirees aren’t going to move without good health care and broadband to do the things they’re used to doing and others. Without broadband, it’s hard to do ecotourism or agritourism or entertainment to draw people.

    I’m bothered that so many urban/suburban people think of rural areas as money pits. And those who complain that they only get benefit of a quarter of their tax dollars, haven’t thought about all the years agriculture, forestry and rural areas supported the Commonwealth in ways that allowed their current homes to develop and become established. It seems that all that matters is what I get and we’ve forgotten about the things that we all share (transportation systems, water from the headwaters in rural areas…).

    I appreciate your positive suggestions for rural areas. The research is clear that the most effective solutions involve the affected people in the decision making and building. Haven’t we learned a lesson from coal mining? Mostly out of state owners took most of the profits out of the community while manipulating local government, entrepreneurship and everything else for its benefit as long as it needed to, leaving behind a community unable to sustain or grow itself and without diversity in the economy. Unless attitudes change, rural Virginia is only a dumping ground and currently prosperous Virginians seek to only take from rural areas, not share.

    Someday, the clean air and water (if there’s any left), trees, ability to grow food to be used in Virginia, and other things that meet basic needs may once again be needed by those outside of rural Virginia. It will be a shame if it’s not available and folks have to depend on a far away source of food, energy, water, etc.

    That’s when national security will be a huge issue.

    • “I’m bothered that so many urban/suburban people think of rural areas as money pits. And those who complain that they only get benefit of a quarter of their tax dollars, haven’t thought about all the years agriculture, forestry and rural areas supported the Commonwealth in ways that allowed their current homes to develop and become established.”

      Things change. Farming is no longer a labor intensive business. The coal in southwest Virginia has been largely depleted. People have been migrating across America in search of economic opportunity for centuries. People still migrate for economic opportunity. Look at the growth in Charlotte, Nashville, Austin, etc. People come to America in search of economic opportunity by the millions from all over the world.

      Rural and small town Virginia have too many people for the economic base. Meanwhile, good jobs go unfilled in urban and suburban Virginia. People like living in the countryside. Great. I get it. It’s very nice. I just don’t care to fund that lifestyle choice. Where in either the national or state constitution is the right to live where ever you want regardless of economic opportunity funded by others?

  10. Yeah, I’m not buying DJs characterization of rural. Probably 99% of the food consumed in NoVa comes from rural – and a good bit of it RoVa.

    Ditto for electricity – that’s where all the power plants are.

    And try running a dairy farm or a poultry operation without electricity.

    I think the truth is that rural economies are different than urban economies. They’re certainly much smaller and tenuous and one of the telling things about rural Virginia is that although they do cattle, pigs and poultry and a good amount of corn and soy beans – a LOT of land that could be farmed – is no longer farmed – and IDEAL for solar!

    And in terms of internet – for no other reason other than giving kids access to education – it’s imperative that they get internet.

    And I’m hoping and praying that the GA reps from NoVa do not share DJ’s view!

    • Larry – you really struggle with basic economics. If there were demand for the goods and services of rural Virginia sufficient to maintain full employment and generate economic growth we wouldn’t have a problem. Why is that so hard for you to understand? There’s enterprise in rural Virginia – just not enough to support the current population or generate economic growth. There are two possible solutions – generate more demand for the goods and services of rural Virginia or encourage people to move to areas where there is economic growth. We’ve been trying the former for decades and it hasn’t worked. As far as I can tell, that approach isn’t working anywhere. Maybe it’s time to encourage more people to relocate from rural and small town Virginia to urban and suburban Virginia. There are plenty of ghost towns in Nevada. The people didn’t die off. They just moved when the silver ran out.

  11. I would propose an Urban Subsidy Excise Fee that RoVa would charge Urban regions for :

    1 – municipal landfill waste
    2. – sewage sludge waste
    3. – Combined sewage overflow releases
    4. – air pollution emissions from automobiles
    5. – air pollution emissions from power plants
    6. – animal feeding operations that pollute – charge NoVa an add-on fee for pastures, poultry, hogs, dairy operations that impact runoff into Virginia waterways.

    The money would go into a Rural Development and Internet fund to compensate RoVa for the pollution impacts that NoVa has on RoVa land and people. Those funds would be used to provide rural broadband and other rural economic development.

    • Wow. You just don’t get supply and demand, do you? Waste dumps in rural areas charge for dumping. Why don’t they just charge more? Because the price is set by the intersection of supply and demand?

      If you are arguing for taxes to counter the externalities of waste dumping – I’d agree with you. People should be compensated for the ecological harm done by other people’s pollution. I’ve advocated for that for years. However, you’d better be sure that other states do the same thing. West Virginia is a lot closer to NoVa than Southwest Virginia. And waste dumping is already a growth industry in rural Virginia since other states tax the dumps more and those states now export their waste (toxic and otherwise). Where do you think Duke Energy is dumping its coal ash? In Raleigh?

      You write … “6. – animal feeding operations that pollute – charge NoVa an add-on fee for pastures, poultry, hogs, dairy operations that impact runoff into Virginia waterways.”

      I’m not sure why only NoVa would be taxed. Everybody should be taxed for the ecological damage done by animal feeding. How many times have I made that point? You might want to try a Burger King Impossible Whopper first though. High prices which include the cost of externalities will reduce demand and drive substitution. Which, of course, is part of the point.

      Virginia is the third largest importer of waste among all 50 states (by percentage generated internally vs imported). 26% of all waste dumped in Virginia is created in other states. Why? C’mon, you know the answer to that. Only 5 states allow unlimited campaign contributions. Waste disposal operators know how to grease palms. Two of the five (Oregon and Virginia) are among the top 3 states for importing other states’ waste. Two others (Utah and Nebraska) are just too far away from urban centers to justify the shipping costs. I can only guess that the last of the five, Mississippi, is too disorganized to play the game.

      https://www.ozy.com/need-to-know/love-thy-neighbor-the-bible-belt-is-becoming-a-dumping-ground/93854/

  12. I’m a long-time lurker who no longer resides in Virginia but continue reading this site due to its coverage of rural issues and economic development.

    While much of the Commonwealth’s focus on transportation planning is (rightly) centered around areas of population growth or existing congestion, I’ve often wondered if some of rural Virginia’s struggles are exacerbated by lack of interstate or expressway access. Even most of VEDP’s certified and characterized sites identified in this month’s VER publication are along existing interstate corridors. I have contacts at several state and local economic development agencies who have said that companies, particularly those with an industrial focus, often ask about interstate proximity in judging a site’s infrastructure.

    I’m curious if there’s any correlation between rate of decline in rural areas and proximity to interstates or other major transportation nodes (e.g. rail corridors). I have to imagine that they have some positive impacts on job growth and business development relative to locations with no immediate access.

    North Carolina seems to have successfully lobbied for several new interstate designated corridors (whether they’ll get funding and be completed in next 30 years is a different story). These include I-87, I-42, and I-73/74. NC’s rural communities face a similar outlook relative to much of VA’s but I wonder if road access gives them a competitive edge in recruitment or rural job creation. Virginia could consider upgrading US-15, US-360, US-460 (didn’t go so well, I know.), US-220, and US-58 to provide better north-south access (potentially relieve I-95) and east-west access to the Port of Virginia in Norfolk. I realize this is expensive and there are likely opportunities with a stronger ROI but I think in the right national political environment, at least getting corridor designation and an initial funding tranche could be possible. I think Southside and even South Central VA are now largely in the Triangle’s economic orbit yet the connections between those two regions are largely on rural roads (try traveling from Clarksville to RTP; it’s not as easy as it would appear). It would be nice if the political leadership in both states would also push for the restoration of the CSX-S line as part of the Southeast High Speed Rail project, which would hopefully allow for increased retirement, tourism, and even commuter activity for the Southside.

    Lastly, I’ll mention that South Carolina has had success reducing the real property tax rate for owners above a certain age threshold to attract the retiree crowd. This could be a policy experiment worth trying in select VA municipalities as well.

    • You ask good questions but I’d turn them around. Are rural areas located reasonably close to major highways in better economic shape than rural areas located far from major highways? Rt 81 travels through much of rural Virginia. Washington County is one such place. There is a RT 81 exit at Abingdon in Washington County. Other towns in Washington County are … Abingdon, Damascus, Glade Spring, Saltville. Here are the household median incomes for each:

      Abingdon – $30,976
      Damascus – $19,886
      Glade Spring – $31,552
      Saltville – $24,375

      Abingdon has an exit, Glade Spring is located close to I81. Damascus and Saltville are some distance from I81.

      You may have a point about proximity to highways.

      As for retirement – that’s a no brainer in my opinion. Retired people, by definition, don’t need jobs. A substantial percentage have savings. They don’t generally have school aged children. Back to Washington County … South Holston Lake runs into the county. There’s the small Tri-Cities Airport just over the border in Tennessee. Why not lakefront retirement development in Washington County?

    • “I’ve often wondered if some of rural Virginia’s struggles are exacerbated by lack of interstate or expressway access. … I have contacts at several state and local economic development agencies who have said that companies, particularly those with an industrial focus, often ask about interstate proximity in judging a site’s infrastructure.”

      Yes, that is very much the case, although a 4-lane roadway that is not an interstate also often is competitive. The big challenge here is the site selectors (and their client companies) have many options to choose from, so often 4-lane or interstate access is a simple yes/no filter, with the “no” sites often eliminated right off the bat for that reason alone.

  13. A few ideas for rural development:
    According to my Central Virginia Electric Coop utility, 4 acres of cleared land can be developed into an est. 1 MW of solar generation. If that power is net-metered, that is equivalent to an est. retail cost of $120,000 of power. 8 to 10 acres would be required for solar power development to yield the same return on selling at wholesale pricing to the utility. This is clean energy generation with the capability to also farm certain crops within the same solar generating area. Currently there are farmers and land owners, including my organization realistically considering this land use. As there is an increasing need for renewable energy at all levels and so many of us farmers or landowners have land but little cash for substantial investments…partnering with investors to leverage our land ownership for solar energy generation is worth consideration.

    Another consideration for rural Virginia that may work for some farmers and landowners (but not necessarily for my community) is growing legal medicinal cannabis for CBD oil or growing industrial hemp. One regional consultant stated that 1 acre of CBD oil quality cannabis (now legal in VA under specific regulations) can yield up to $60,000. The yield for industrial cannabis seed or hemp fiber is an est. $480 per acre in profit.

    Once cannabis is legalized for open regulated growth and sale, we can look to other states to view how that may provide some rural economic development. According to New Frontier Data, Using the average price of $1,948 per pound in Colorado, an acre of marijuana can yield more than $1.1 million per acre. Comparatively, the most widely grown crops in the U.S., including corn, soybeans, oats and wheat, all yield less than $1,000 per harvested acre. Even with more competition in the legal marijuana market, which could cause prices to fall, the revenue margin will remain significantly greater for marijuana crops than for other cash crops.

  14. I’m not of the view that interstates help the rural areas. They just provide more external region corridors.

    In order for an interstate or 4-lane to be a help – you’d have to have something that would benefit from it and manufacturing is no longer it.

    so what would be?

    there are thousands and thousands of miles of existing interstate throughout the country and I just don’t see it spurring any appreciable economic development beyond what is already there.

    US 40 is the “original” interstate – it looks like this:

    it does go through the heartland of American with it’s corn and wheat but corn/wheat are largely moved by truck to the regional storage granaries and then from there on trains.

    interstate 40 looks like this:

    it has LOTS of trucks but most of them are long-haul and I just don’t see a whole lot of economic development that was spurred by I40.

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