Virginia focuses on revitalizing rural communities
By MICHAEL FELBERBAUM , 09.07.11,
RICHMOND, Va. -- The warehouses, storefronts and hotels left vacant as textile mills and furniture factories moved out of southwest and southside Virginia stand as a reminder of better economic times. But some state leaders say these remnants of past economic vibrancy deter future development as the once-bustling heart of Appalachia struggles to reinvent itself.
Virginia typically spends more than $36 million each year for revitalization programs to help localities redevelop cornerstones of their communities in the hope of sparking new investments and helping thousands who lost jobs find new employment. The money, including $3 million in grants recently announced by Gov. Bob McDonnell, helps convert unused and typically derelict buildings into business development hubs, cultural centers and educational facilities.
Some of the revitalization programs require matching funds from localities, and several other state, federal and private funding programs and tax credits are available for similar redevelopment efforts.
"We've been able to work on a regional basis to revitalize some areas that have passed their heyday, that had their economic high at one point, and now have been looking for that next catalyst, or that next engine to come along," said Chris Thompson, community development policy manager with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.
While no study has been done on the economic impact or effectiveness of the programs, many of the grants are based on performance, meaning the state doesn't pay if the projects fail to meet certain goals. The department monitors projects very closely, so those instances aren't common. But Thompson said there have been cases where the projects were scaled back, so the state funding was reduced.
Those closest to the projects say they've been a huge success.
A set of historic buildings and tobacco warehouses in downtown South Boston was transformed into a high-tech campus for cultural, educational, job training and work force development opportunities for the region. The buildings also house the Innovation Center and Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, where students can earn more than 70 different degrees - from a general education diploma to a doctorate - without leaving the sleepy southern Virginia town.
The center's reach spans 16 counties and surrounding cities and has contributed millions to the economy in an area traditionally known for long-gone trades like textile manufacturing, which has gone overseas, and for its role in growing crops like tobacco. The demise of that economy left the area with generations of families where education wasn't as important.
"We were in high cotton here. Factories were going like crazy and tobacco markets were at full tilt and everybody was doing well," said Betty Adams, the center's executive director and a native of South Boston, where 18-wheelers loaded with fabrics from the nearby factory once regularly rumbled past her house.
A combination of state, local and other support has helped "develop an oasis in a desert" for students to get an education without traveling more than an hour away and help train them for current and future job fields, Adams said.
"We need to train people, educate people to use the technology that is really transforming manufacturing, (and) is transforming entrepreneurship," she said. "In little, rural, southern Virginia we're doing some really innovative things and thinking outside the box."
More than 140 miles away, an old "big box" home improvement store in Galax was converted about six years ago into The Crossroads Institute, an educational and economic development engine for the city, Grayson and Carroll counties and the surrounding area.
The institute, created partially from funding from various state redevelopment and revitalization programs, houses a regional business incubator, a small business development center, the regional economic development authority, an education center for Wytheville Community College and a call center.
"This arrived on the scene at just the right time," said Oliver McBride, executive director of the institute, who sees it as a "place to try to build the capacity of our region and our people for what lies ahead."
McBride said that since the small business development center began, more than 230 business plans have been completed, more than 170 small businesses have been funded and it has created more than 810 jobs at an investment of $44 million.
Less than five miles away, the First National Bank in downtown Galax, which sat vacant for about 15 years, now houses the Chestnut Creek School for the Arts, which offers various art classes like pottery and woodworking. The building, which was built in the 1920s and renovated in 2007, serves as a cultural center for the community and has led to several businesses opening up around it - exactly what state redevelopment officials hope for in revitalization projects.
"Most people aren't going to small towns now for their daily commerce. They don't go there to get their clothes, or go there to do a lot of the basic things," Thompson said. "But if they can be cultural centers ... that's what keeps people coming back.
"That's how you build that momentum and that how you start building those supporting businesses. It's not about having one place in town to go, it's about having competition and some variety."
Chris Shackelford, the school's director, said she considers the facility a resource to help develop a "creative economy based on our assets, which are both natural and human." The school utilizes various places like the historic Rex Theater to expand its offerings, and it partners with other local businesses to entice artisans to visit the community.
Shackelford said funding and support from the state, local and regional authorities was critically important to making the facility a reality. Part of the school's mission is economic development of the surrounding area, which saw businesses pop up around the renovated bank building, including a coffee house and bike shop.
"There's a lot of transition going on as far as downtown and businesses and I think that's an evolution," Shackelford said.
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