One of the challenges with implementing USDA Rural Development programs is that many of the communities we serve have not had the opportunity to develop strategic plans to guide federal infrastructure investments effectively. Fortunately, a 2010 grant from HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities enabled the New River Valley Planning District Commission to engage the public in the rural Southwest Virginia counties of Pulaski, Montgomery, Giles, and Floyd and all the major towns to develop a blueprint for future economic activity.
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend a meeting where over 100 rural citizens in the New River Valley gathered to put some of the finishing touches on the 3-year regional planning process, known locally as their Livability Initiative. I came away inspired by the dialogue that has evolved over the past three years and am looking forward to seeing how the communities in this economically diverse rural region look for ways to implement some of the ideas they have generated to improve their communities and enhance long-term economic opportunities.
Some of the ideas in the plan are regional in nature and some, of course, focus on locally-based strategies. Over the coming years these communities will now be able to benefit from the multi-county relationships they have built and guidance by the goals identified in the plan. The HUD planning grant is part of the federal agency Partnership for Sustainable Communities aimed at promoting more efficient use of federal infrastructure investments.
One of the more impressive aspects of the New River Valley Livability Initiative is how it is moving forward. Once the plan is finalized this spring the Community Foundation of the New River Valley has volunteered to keep the community involved as it moves toward refining some of the goals and implementing the ideas outlined in the plan. Having spent the past couple of years exploring ways that philanthropy can be more engaged in rural America, this struck me as a superb example of a foundation leveraging federal resources and stepping up to the plate to provide capacity in a rural area. It’s the sort of activity we envisioned when USDA signed partnership agreement with the Council on Foundations in 2011.
A complementary initiative in Southwest Virginia was announced in 2012--the Rural Jobs Accelerator, a one-time program funded by USDA, the Economic Development Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission. The SW Virginia project--Appalachian Spring—Connecting Communities in SW Virginia.-- provides a national example for a regional strategy focused on culture-based economic opportunities as well as developing strategies to support the outdoor recreation economy. The effort includes the combined initiatives of two organizations, the Crooked Road, aimed at fostering the region’s bluegrass music tradition and Round the Mountain, dedicated to elevating the artisan crafts of the region.
During my tour of this rural region, I was able to visit the rural hamlet of Floyd situated on a hilltop ridge, near an entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Floyd offers a model of a rural community that is already embracing innovative ways of supporting local livability and embracing the cultural economy. The pedestrian-friendly main street environs are surrounded with local businesses coupled with Bluegrass music stages in several local establishments. Moreover, the town’s proximity to outdoor recreation, and its abundance of working farms, from which a vibrant local food economy can be nurtured.
USDA Rural Development has recently provided grant support for the development of food processing facility in partnership with Sustain Floyd, a local leader in helping shape the economy of Floyd County. Sustain Floyd’s efforts around developing a viable Farm to School effort also demonstrate strong partnership with USDA.
SW Virginians are doing everything they can to chart an innovative economic strategy for the future, and I look forward to seeing the results of their work.