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Wise County Chamber of Commerce: Depend less on big prospects, do more with local strengths

Mike Still • Updated Feb 22, 2020 at 9:48 AM

WISE — The days of reeling in large economic development prospects with hundreds of jobs may have faded, so localities need to partner with colleges and one another to grow.

That was the message about 25 members of the Wise County and Norton Chamber of Commerce received during presentations at a chamber retreat in Wise.

Computer services and technology business owner Donald Purdie said that Wise County and Norton have a two-decade history of technology and data infrastructure. Getting several large business prospects to move operations and take advantage of that infrastructure has been a challenge despite some call centers and data centers locating in the area.

While Southwest Virginia may have cheaper labor than urban areas of the state, Purdie said, that has not been a real advantage to making the region attractive to outside businesses.

With the decline of the coal industry, Purdie said, that leaves few options for a magic bullet solution for economic woes in the region.

“We need to build ourselves up, get ourselves together and show we can get things done,” he said.

Shannon Blevins, vice chancellor for economic development and engagement at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, said her office and responsibilities have grown and changed in 13 years.

With the college now involved in projects such as applying telemedicine to behavioral health care access and providing support for community development, career services and professional development services for localities in Southwest Virginia, Blevins said she has seen a regional shift from trying to recruit 500-employee businesses to developing a volume of small businesses.

Blevins pointed to the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority’s shift since the 1990s from supporting recruitment of larger businesses to the region to emphasize its own small business grant program.

“VCEDA has made $10,000 in grants to 75 small businesses,” Blevins said.

UVA Wise has also included new programs to help give entrepreneurs a boost, Blevins said. Entrepreneurial contests and the Nest, a program to help students and the area’s residents work out entrepreneurial ideas to become a reality, are part of that effort.

Chamber Executive Vice President Rick Colley said that, until recently, area businesses have failed to take advantage of UVA Wise and other local colleges as part of a broader economic development effort.

Shankar Naskar, entrepreneurship professor at UVA Wise, said developing cooperation between localities, businesses, cultural institutions, arts communities and colleges has become more important to rural areas that have seen large employers leave in recent decades.

Naskar said many rural areas face a combination of loss of a major employer and a resulting lack of economic effort that can become a “vicious cycle” of economic downturn. With the loss of a longtime major employer or industry, that can lead to outmigration, an education gap in the population and other problems.

Using Paducah, Kentucky, as an example, Naskar said that town dealt with job loss and unemployment by building on the arts and music community and a historic downtown to develop a tourism- and arts-based economic sector.

Naskar said Roanoke took a similar approach with a focus on outdoor recreation and related businesses along with downtown revitalization and engaging the public at several levels in planning a vision for the city.

Besides identifying and building on existing economic development assets and getting the public engaged in the development process, Naskar said localities and regions should:

— Take advantage of all funding sources

— Help businesses find ways to invest in that development

— Encourage local, regional and business cooperation

— Work toward a clean and healthy environment for development

New Wise County Supervisor James Lawson and County Administrator Mike Hatfield said county officials are looking at a range of new and existing efforts to encourage local business development.

Lawson said grant funding is available for last-mile broadband service extension into communities. He pointed to a recent state grant to extend service into three communities in Lee County. Getting 5G broadband service to UVA Wise to help support research and development efforts is another priority, he said.

The LENOWISCO Planning District Commission has also started planning for Project Homestead, Lawson noted. With an initial $1.6 million federal grant application, Lawson said Homestead could offer younger residents land to build single-family starter homes if they stay in the region. That could help keep younger talent and educational resources in the region.

Lawson said alternative agricultural products also offer ways to build diverse niche businesses. Hemp growing has been a topic of research and legislative efforts to make it a legal crop, he said, and one grower has begun raising hops in the Norton area to supply a growing brewery industry.

Lawson said Wise County entrepreneurs also need to look at state Tobacco Indemnification Commission grants to support their efforts.

While Wise County made progress in the 1990s and early 2000s in expanding its water line networks, Lawson said the county needs to continue developing countywide water and sewer infrastructure to support business growth.

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