Here’s a radical thought: What if the most creative thinking in the country on how to build a new economy in rural communities was coming from Southwest Virginia?
• As the new economy demands more educated workers, many officials around the country are pushing to make community college free on the theory that a community college degree is what a high school diploma used to be. Virginia’s not there yet but six community colleges in the state have tried to raise enough money to provide scholarships that make tuition free for many students. Five of those schools are in this part of the state — Dabney S. Lancaster, Mountain Empire, New River, Virginia Western and Wytheville. (The sixth is Eastern Shore, obviously not in Southwest Virginia but certainly another school that serves rural students.)
• Virginia’s stalemate on Medicaid expansion was broken when a rural legislator — Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County — switched sides. He reframed Medicaid expansion as an economic development measure for rural areas. The work requirement he proposed appealed to conservative instincts, but the real value might have been in the details: That work requirement could be satisfied by recipients getting a GED or job training. At a time when the “skills gap” in rural areas is a big obstacle to attracting jobs, Kilgore’s Medicaid proposal was really a backdoor way to upgrade work skills on a potentially large scale.
• Kilgore and other Republicans from Southwest Virginia were also the legislative movers behind a bill to encourage Dominion Energy to build a pumped-storage hydroelectric project in the region. Two novelties: The project is studying whether it can use water from abandoned coal mines as its water supply — which, if successful, could convert a liability into an asset. The legislation also requires a certain amount of wind or solar energy as part of the project. Critics fear this is simply “green-washing” — an attempt to use a smidge of renewable energy for publicity purposes. Proponents, though, say they recognize that many technology companies now insist on renewable energy and there’s their attempt to provide some. Historically, this is a huge paradigm shift – with conservative legislators from the coalfields embracing green energy.
• Two of those Republican legislators — state Sen. Ben Chafin of Russell County and Del. Todd Pillion of Abingdon — also got through a bill that converts other rural liabilities into assets. That legislation allows localities to designate abandoned schools as enterprise zones where lower taxes apply. The idea is this might help localities convert some of those abandoned schools – which the coal counties, in particular, have aplenty – into small business incubators for entrepreneurs.
• Finally, Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, introduced a bill to designate certain economically distressed localities for a radical series of tax breaks. Some saw the adjective “radical” as a compliment, others did not. The General Assembly watered down the most innovative parts but still passed the basic idea, and Gov. Ralph Northam signed it into law. Morefield — previously a low-profile legislator — made headlines across the state both for the measure and the odd couple coalition that made it happen. Morefield’s partner on the bill was an African-American Democrat from the other side of the state — Del. Lashrecse Arid of Petersburg. They might not agree on much else politically, but they both represent districts that the new economy is passing by — and wanted to do something about that.
These five examples — four initiated by coal county Republicans — don’t spring from any academic think tank but rather have bubbled up naturally. They may constitute a kind of trial-and-error approach, but they do constitute action and innovation. They certainly put the lie to the stereotype that often is fixed on rural America in general and Appalachia in particular — that people are sitting around, pining for the good old days. That’s simply not true, at least not in Southwest Virginia. There’s certainly more that can be done, but people aren’t exactly waiting for the mill and mine to come back.
We said “finally” above, but that word might not last long because now another idea is arising out of Tazewell County — the sixth on our list. It involves one of the more obscure but vital government entities in the land — the local industrial development authority. Specifically, the newly formed Cumberland Industrial Facilities Authority, which covers Buchanan, Russell and Tazewell counties. Inspired by Morefield and Tazewell’s county attorney, Eric Young, the Cumberland IFA has invited other localities in the state to partner with it in revenue-sharing agreements.
Here’s how Morefield hopes it will work: Suppose a company is looking at, say, Fairfax County, but can’t find the land it needs at an affordable price (a realistic concern in Northern Virginia). If it referred the project to one of the Cumberland IFA’s three counties, Cumberland would share some of the revenue from the project. Fairfax would get something for its trouble, and the coal counties would get something they very much need – jobs.
Another variation: Cumberland might help finance a project in another part of the state, but get some of the revenue — which those localities also need to pay for schools and whatnot.
There’s really just one way to describe this. This is radical thinking. There are other revenue-sharing agreements across Virginia, but they appear to only be between contiguous localities. Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem have one for the Wood Haven property they’re jointly developing. Commerce Park in Pulaski County is run by an industrial authority that covers seven counties, four towns and two cities from Bland County to Roanoke. Localities in the coalfields have agreed to share revenue if the Dominion pumped storage project comes to pass.
This, though, would be unprecedented — because it would involve non-adjacent localities in completely different parts of the state joining together in an economic alliance. Morefield envisions a network of cooperating industrial development authorities across the state “could provide substantial resources for economic development” in a way that a single entity could not. Other parts of the state would have a direct stake in the economic success of rural Virginia.
Will this work? We’ll see. But this much is certain: This is the kind of creative thinking rural America needs, and rural Virginia is now getting.