Virtual sixth annual SWVA Economic Forum set for May 26-27

The sixth annual Southwest Virginia Economic Forum will be held virtually on May 26-27, 2021. Organizers say the two-day event, which will be streamed live from the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, features one of the strongest lineups of speakers and panelists yet. Every year, the forum engages participants through a shared vision of regional collaboration, growth and innovation for all of Central Appalachia. It has become a central gathering place for the region to discuss new ideas and synergies to build Central Appalachia’s future.

The emphasis of this year’s forum will be the topic of connectivity as it highlights entrepreneurs, both locally and from afar, and the event includes panels to discuss the innovative strategies that are ongoing in the region. Shannon Blevins, vice chancellor for economic development and strategic initiatives at UVA Wise, says the forum will touch on entrepreneurship, women entrepreneurs, how the region is doing in terms of economic development, and how innovative technology is making a true difference. The event will also highlight what opportunities lie ahead.

“This year’s lineup will give people the opportunity to view sessions from the comfort of their offices or homes, which embodies our theme: connectivity,” says Blevins. “Last year’s forum was also virtual, and while we missed seeing our colleagues in person, it drew hundreds of people to each of its sessions.”

UVA Wise Chancellor Donna P. Henry will welcome virtual viewers and provide a hint of the many topics the forum will feature.

Day One

WCYB’s Olivia Bailey will serve as emcee for day one of the forum. Bailey, who is a familiar face throughout the region, will introduce speakers and topics as she weaves in commentary about things she has learned while covering the region for the NBC affiliate. She will also inform those participating virtually how the forum will operate during the two days and about the possibility of receiving one of several giveaways supplied by sponsors.

Stephen Moret, president and chief executive officer of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, will deliver his State of the Region address. Moret did the same for the 2017 forum. He is expected to provide a long-term look at how the region has progressed over the years, what challenges it faces now as well as the opportunities on the horizon.

GO Virginia Region One recently awarded the Regional Entrepreneurship Initiative, launched by Opportunity Southwest Virginia, which provided the funds for a report on what opportunities exist in the region for entrepreneurial ventures. The report was written by Tom Chapman, of Chapman & Company, who will speak about his findings.

To help local businesses and organizations reach their target audiences, Alisa Miller, CEO and Co-Founder of Pluralytics, will share her entrepreneurial journey and discuss the science behind building connections through communication.

Small businesses across the nation have shown resiliency over the past year and continue to remain connected to their communities. A panel on “Southwest Virginia’s Entrepreneurs in Action” will feature entrepreneurs from Wise, Bluefield and Abingdon including Blake Salyer with Lincoln Road Coffee Lounge, Collin O’Donnell with The Grind Bluefield Coffeeshop & Eatery, and Nicole Dyer with White Birch Food & Juice. The panel will be moderated by Leah Fremouw, senior vice president and director of community innovation at Virginia Community Capital.

Day one concludes with Troy Bravenboer, president and founder of Brave Freight and AirMax Logistics, in a session titled “Southwest Virginia: Worth the Investment.” Bravenboer is an entrepreneur who is growing his logistics business in Southwest Virginia when he could have selected any location in the world to do so.

Day Two

Doug Jackson will serve as the moderator for the second day and will highlight how connections across the region are leveraging resources and contributing to the development of regional place-based economic development.

Nancy Whitworth, former director of economic and community development at the City of Greenville, South Carolina will share her insightful experience and the importance of establishing public-private partnerships that lead to long-term success.

Discover how locals are leading their communities by implementing unique projects across the region. This session will include Keith Barker with the city of Galax, and Kim Ross with mountTERRA LLC. This session will be facilitated by Ken Heath, director of community and economic development at the town of Marion.

It’s never too early to talk about craft beer. Dr. Kristen Westover, president of Mountain Empire Community College and Will Payne, director of InvestSWVA, will discuss how Southwest Virginia is using innovative drone technology to harvest barley and how they are strategically partnering with Virginia breweries. Growing the region’s agricultural base to include food and beverage processing is a key economic development strategy.

The Sixth Annual SWVA Economic Forum will conclude with a fireside chat by Ben Muldrow, partner at Arnett Muldrow & Associates, and Doug Jackson, capacity development specialist at Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

This year’s forum is generously supported by presenting sponsors GO Virginia Region One and UVA Wise, media sponsor The Business Journal of TriCities Tennessee/Virginia, and a host of other sponsors, which can be viewed at


No registration is required for the forum; this event will be streamed via Facebook Live on May 26 and May 27 from 9 a.m. to noon each day. To participate and learn more about the lineup of presenters and sponsors visit the SWVA Economic Forum Facebook Page, at, and website, at, to receive the latest updates.