Friday I attended the semi-annual Board meeting of the Virginia Economic Bridge at George Mason University. The Bridge is a 501(c)(3) which draws business and academic leaders from Southwest Virginia (defined as “anywhere beyond Roanoke”), who are seeking to develop business relationships in Northern Virginia. To state the mission simply: why outsource to India, when you can send it to Wise County?
I joined the Bridge Board in the fall of 2005. Since then we’ve had meetings in Richmond, Blacksburg and Fairfax. The Board is a non-partisan group, because most folks are involved in more important matters. For example, the gentleman who sits next to me is a VMI grad who runs a bank in Tazewell County. You don’t want to default on a loan to this guy!
The Bridge has two special projects that it’s working on: (1) the “work force showcase” that matches Northern Virginia CEO’s with small businesses in western Virginia that can provide back-office skills in computer programming or customer support, and (2) the “Return to Roots” program which matches natives of Southwest who left to pursue school or higher-paying jobs — particularly those with high-tech skills — with new businesses in their home region.
Each program is literally a work in progress. As members of the Board, we have the opportunity to comment and direct future efforts.
The decline of American manufacturing and its effect on linked communities (particularly rural) is an obvious 21st century phenomenon. However, two things make me optimistic about rural Virginia’s ability to rise above this decline:
1) We live in a state that is a leader in high-tech development. State leaders understand that communities must develop broadband access in order to compete in today’s world. Virginia’s universities get it also (one of the first “e-villages” was in Blacksburg). This is literally as important as rural electrification was in the 1930′s, when American statesmen led the way.
2) Western Virginia has some great physical assets, including Mount Rogers and the New River Valley, which make it a natural recreation and vacation spot. Why schlep up to the Catskills when you can stay at a Virginia resort (or state park) for half the price?
There is no “one size fits all” solution for retaining our population and businesses in Southwest Virginia. It takes time and proactive governmental interest. It’s also a process that directly involves Northern Virginia, which has both the venture capital and surplus jobs needed.
With groups like the Bridge, I believe this process will inevitably succeed.