Organizers say the first Southwest Virginia Economic Forum, held nearly a year ago at UVa-Wise, sparked a movement that is changing the way the region’s people view themselves and their communities.

The forum brought together dozens of people in economic development that were working on different projects to spur growth and progress. More than 300 people shared ideas to promote entrepreneurship and to unite the region as it embraces a new economy.

Shannon Blevins, associate vice chancellor for economic development and engagement at UVa-Wise, said networking at the 2016 forum ignited and united those in attendance. People who were working on solar energy found others with similar interests and those who were involved with advanced manufacturing initiatives grouped together to discuss their projects and goals.

As the forum steering committee plan the 2017 forum, which will take place on May 10 at UVa-Wise, Blevins shared her thoughts on the first forum and how it ignited the region.

“The forum highlighted a region that was coming together to chart its own course as opposed to expecting someone else to save it,” Blevins said. “People left the forum with more hope than they had the day before. They saw that something was being done and that people were trying to find creative solutions to our economic development needs.”

Weeks after the 2016 forum, people in the region approached Blevins and expressed appreciation toward those who attended the forum and volunteered to work on various committees to help the region succeed. To Blevins, the comments meant the message reached more than just economic developers. It was the start of a movement.

Although many initiative were underway in the region prior to the 2016 forum, the regional event provided an opportunity for individuals and group projects to connect. For example, a group of solar energy advocates who networked at the 2016 forum have advanced their work and will soon hold educational meetings in the region, younger residents are embracing entrepreneurship, and communities are experiencing new vitality as local residents work together to improve their hometowns, Blevins added. Rally Southwest Virginia, a community leadership initiative which started in 2015 exploded after the 2016 forum and projects sprang up in many communities. The energy is still strong and growing.

“It turbocharged Rally Southwest Virginia,” Blevins said of the program that, among other things, holds skills sessions in small towns so residents can learn to be effective facilitators and promote confidence in their communities.

“The forum got the attention of people outside the region as well,” Blevins said. “Nothing like the forum had happened in the Commonwealth, but a few months later, the eastern part of Virginia pulled a similar event together.”

Blevins said the 2017 forum would focus on the messages that the region needs to hear now. Organizers want to build on last year’s successes as well.

“We want to focus on developing a growth mindset,” Blevins said. “We want to challenge the way we think and get the message across that the region’s past does not dictate what it will be in the future. Our region is stronger when we stand together and pull our resources, talent and time.”

Organizers have a powerful lineup of speakers to accomplish the goal they have set for the 2017 forum. An economist, a local CEO and member of the GO Virginia Board, local legislators and several economic developers, including Stephen Moret, head of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, are on the agenda as keynotes.

In addition to Moret, the forum will feature Elliot Eisenberg, an acclaimed economist who specializes in making economic fun, relevant and educational. Kelly Swanson, a nationally renowned speaker on harnessing the power of story. Erik Pages, president and founder of EntreWorks Consulting, a firm that helps communities and organizations achieve their entrepreneurial potential, will also address the crowd. Steve Smith, a member of the Go Virginia Board and president and CEO of K-VA-T Food Stores, and Marjette Upshur, economic development director for the city of Lynchburg, will speak at the forum. A legislative fireside chat and five minute flash talks on proposals that could boost the region are also planned for the event.

The Southwest Virginia Economic Forum will take place on May 10, at 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., at the David J. Prior Convocation Center at UVa-Wise. To register, please visit

For more details, please contact Becki Joyce at