Economic Forum Blog

Kathy Still

Director of News & Media Relations

A Baby Boomer’s Perspective on Southwest Virginia

I treasured visits from my aunts who left the region for jobs in Chicago before I was born. They were part of the big migration North, but they always seemed so relaxed when they came home.

A modern school replaced the small schoolhouse with no indoor plumbing I attended for the first three years of elementary school as coal soared in the early 70s and the county government had jingling coffers. Coal trucks were constantly on the move, day and night. Miners were extracting coal underground in small mines and large shaft mines. Surface miners worked in “strip jobs,” and the economy was solid. I remember hearing a lot about Civil Rights, but I was too young to understand.

I spent the Nixon years in the brand new elementary school and was part of the new open classroom experiment that bonded teachers and students together in hated of those floor plans. The economy stayed the same, but society was changing.

My community saw “hippies” on the nightly news and an occasional one in the community, but they were more of a curiosity than a social movement here at home. But subtle changes were taking place. Under federal Title IX legislation, I played baseball on the Little League boy’s team. I was one of three girls in my county to take that giant step for women’s rights, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I just loved baseball. I was too young to feel society moving as I protected second base.

The Ford Administration was a blur, but things changed when President Carter dealt with the Arab Oil Embargo and more. Coal began to take a hit, less people were crowding the town’s streets on Saturday, and I remember hearing talk that coal was finite and our economy needed a boost. That trend continued in junior high and later high school. I began college during the Reagan Administration during a time when jobs were growing scarce.

I began my career as a journalist with Reagan still in office. George H.W. Bush would soon take over. I learned a lot about the economy. I soon found out that people in the community were taking steps to embrace a new economy. Studies showed that coal would become harder to mine economically, so efforts were in place to diversify the economy. I listened closely to LENOWISCO head Bruce Robinette and Cumberland Plateau Planning District leaders discuss action plans. I saw a flurry of Appalachian Regional Commission grants, but didn’t always connect that back to Johnson’s era.

I reported when new garment factories open and later closed with NAFTA’s passing in the Clinton Administration. I wrote about the early call centers when they opened and when they closed. I watched the birth and evolution of the Virginia Coalfields Economic Development Authority. I wrote about federal grants, state grants, and loans that came from coal and gas severance tax. I wrote about new roads that how link the region to major hubs that lead to most major cities in numerous states.

In the George W. Bush years, I wrote about broadband deployment and learned about data centers and why the region was suited for those important facilities. I saw a new generation of economic developers, community leaders and business owners step up to move the region forward. I watched as they urged workers in the region to learn new skills to meet the needs of a new economy. I changed jobs myself due to a downturn in the newspaper business brought about by the digital age.

I started my public relations career at UVa-Wise in the Obama Administration and saw firsthand how colleges in the region were working hard to give residents the skills and education needed for the emerging jobs. I saw public schools consolidate due to what seemed another smaller migration outside the region by those looking for jobs. I also saw that those who left were looking for ways to come back. I saw outdoor recreation grow as a way to market the region for those in cybersecurity and other data and digital fields who enjoy hikes, kayaks and the beautiful mountains I call home.

I’m in the middle of my fifth decade. I am working during the Trump Administration now. I see our region coming together to embrace the new economy. Drones are here. Cybersecurity is here. Broadband is here. We even have our own breweries and vintners in the region. And don’t get me started on the amazing students I see daily at UVa-Wise. They will change the world for the better.

People are realizing that they can start their own companies and be their own boss, something that was nearly unheard of in my youth. Southwest Virginia is undergoing change, and change is good.

We have a lot to do to get our region ready for the changing economy and a rapidly changing society, but we have the determination and we have the resources. The Southwest Virginia days of my youth are just memories, and I look forward to seeing just what we can accomplish in the coming decades.

Rachel Patton, Business Services Director

Southwest Virginia Workforce Development Board

A Millenial’s perspective on Southwest Virginia

Rachel Patton, discusses being a millenial in SWVA

I grew up in a small town in Southwest Virginia. Most of my friends, like so many young people across the region, left for college and settled in cities and towns from Seattle, Washington to Naples, Florida and everywhere in between, I stayed in Southwest Virginia. I am pursuing my career and raising my family in a town about 15 miles from my hometown.

I am considered a millennial. I’m an old millennial, just barely squeaking into that generation. However, I do feel as if I need to speak for the young people in our region.

As a workforce development professional, I know that one challenge looming for Southwest Virginia is the aging workforce. Much of our skilled workforce is quickly reaching retirement age and there is much concern among businesses and workforce developers about replacing that talent. I heard this wave of impending retirements referred to as the ‘grey tsunami’ recently. From the time that I graduated from high school (a few years ago) I have heard people in the region talk about the ‘brain drain’ effect, where many of our young people leave the area to go to college, into the armed forces, or just to pursue their dreams elsewhere. There have been many discussions about why young people leave and what we can do to encourage them stay or return.

I make the argument that we as a community in Southwest Virginia export our own youth.  I cannot tell you how many times I have heard young people in my hometown told that if they want to pursue their dream, whatever it may be, that they need to get out of Southwest Virginia for more opportunity.

Now that may be true if you hope to be a marine biologist, there isn’t a tremendous demand for that career field in our beautiful mountains. However, for just about anything else Southwest Virginia has a tremendous amount of potential and opportunity for a young person that is looking to make their mark in the world.

Perhaps it’s time we change our message to youth and let them know that if they want to chase their dreams, Southwest Virginia is just the place to do so.  It’s time to let them know that we need their talent, ideas, and passion to help our community grow. With our robust broadband network, they can have access to the world (and great shopping) from right here in the mountains.  We have a quality of life that brings tourists from around the world to visit so that they can experience it.

I cannot imagine how many Southwest Virginians are living across the country that are making a mark on their community, doing great things both civically and professionally that they could be doing in the region.  I wonder how many entrepreneurs, doctors, writers, teachers, engineers, and IT professionals are pursuing their careers and lives outside the area because they were told by some well-meaning person that they would not be able to succeed in Southwest Virginia?

The millennial generation is different from previous generations with what they are looking for in careers and quality of life.  Many regions across the country have been very strategic in the economic and community development efforts to attract millennials to live and work in their communities.  If Southwest Virginia wished to retain and attract millennials to the region, we too must be strategic in creating an economy and a quality of life that encourages millennials not only to stay, but to invite their friends.

As we approach the Forum, I challenge the blog readers to two things. First, when you are discussing economic and community issues, please make sure that you are including the millennials in the conversation. Don’t just assume that you know what millennials want.  Second, be sure to mentor the millennials that surround you in the workforce. We are eager to learn and we need the knowledge that you have in order to be successful. Use those mentorship opportunities to tell millennials about the many opportunities available to them in Southwest Virginia.



Becki Joyce

Economic Development Director

Who Says You Can’t Go Home?

The years in Eastern Kentucky were great years, filled with family and friends and professional growth opportunities.  Coming back to Southwest Virginia, I settled in to the daily grind of online employment applications, visiting businesses, and adjusting to my new surroundings.   After just a few weeks, the opportunity arose for me to reconnect with my alma mater and begin working for UVa-Wise.  Life does move in circles.

I found much of what I learned through my years in Eastern Kentucky could be applied here.  Watching progress in one location allowed me to see potential here, and I found that much of what I experienced gave me the groundwork for understanding where we are now and that there is much hope and support to grow if we embrace it together.

On a routine basis I’m sharing job openings on social media, hearing a business express their need for a certain position, and connecting the dots between employer and potential employee.  As I travel the region and listen to businesses and economic developers talk about talent and talent recruitment, I think of all those who left the region for better opportunities elsewhere.  Do they know they can come home?   Are they aware that there are employment opportunities here where their talent, experience and understanding of the region would be an excellent fit?

I have to be honest.  Some things never change.  As I settled in to my parent’s home and looked out the window I saw some of the same sights I had seen over 30 years ago.   Some things were untouched.   But that gave me a sense of familiarity, a peace in knowing I was not completely in a foreign land.  I immersed myself into the community, hiked paths that I hiked 30 years ago, reconnected with old friends, and experienced a flood of memories as I walked my son through the same school hall I once walked.

However, just as homecoming can be so rewarding and productive it is also crucial that some things need to change.  The youth of today that are itching to leave, need to see a changing, growing, thriving environment where there is hope for a successful productive future.   They need to see a place of both familiarity combined with new adaptations to advancing industries, diverse people, new technologies and a place willing to embrace them.  People leave when they feel no hope for the future.  We all can be a catalyst to help bring back hope.  Entrepreneurs, executives, and laborers have within them the power to promote the positives.

Some things need a new perspective all together.   A Southwest Virginia native is the region’s best cheerleader.   My job provides me the ability to meet some amazing, smart, creative and resilient people.   For too long we’ve had the” hillbilly”, “poverty ridden”,” unskilled”,” uneducated” view from mainstream media and those who frankly have never stepped foot here.  We have the ability to right the prevailing misperceptions of the region, its culture and its people.  We can be the talent needed here to infuse our hometowns with different experiences, new ideas and new growth.  We can be an asset by sharing our talent, our work, and our own passion for community, place and become a hometown ready to embrace its youth with new opportunities.

I am thankful for the time I spent away, for the friends and business connections made along the way, and for having a front row seat in seeing Pikeville, Kentucky make the steps toward economic growth.  My beautiful grandchildren still live there and I return often.  But, I love home.   There is a feeling when I top Pound Mountain and see into Virginia that I cannot explain.   It never left.  It fills my soul every time the mountains open.  I can hear it in the rustling of the wind in the trees, and see it in the beautiful blue sky.  “Welcome Home”.

Bernie Niemeier,

Publisher of Virginia Business

It’s a Long Road to Wise

Bernie Niemeier shares his Long Road to Wise on the way to the 2016 SWVA Economic Forum

This magazine takes me all across Virginia, figuratively as a reader and literally as its publisher.  I’m a participant in a multitude of business and economic development events.  During a two-week period last month, I found myself in Norfolk, Chantilly, Charlottesville, Richmond, Lexington, Irvington and Wise — in that order! That’s a lot of time crisscrossing the commonwealth.

The road to Wise started on a foggy morning in Richmond.  For those who don’t know Wise County, it’s in far Southwest Virginia.

As the crow flies, it’s closer to state capitals in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and West Virginia than it is to Richmond. Driving west on I-64, a light rain started in Louisa County.

I hit my usual pit stops, the Fifth Street exit in Charlottesville for gas at the Sunoco, and the Starbucks in Waynesboro for coffee.  Traffic slowed in a shroud of fog atop Afton Mountain.  On the other side of the pass, the rain was gone, and a bit of blue began to peek out from behind the clouds.

Pushing on westward to Staunton and the I-81 merge, I then headed south.  I stopped at the Pink Cadillac off the Natural Bridge exit for a quick lunch.  Not the best taco salad I’ve ever eaten, but it beats most of what else is quickly available without leaving the interstate to drive into Roanoke.

Lots of folks complain about the number of trucks on I-81. I don’t mind them.  It’s good to see business on the move.  This section of the interstate follows the ridgeline of the Appalachians and includes some of the best scenery Virginia has to offer.

I-81 rolls on, passing Lexington, Roanoke, Christiansburg and the exits for Blacksburg and Floyd.  If it’s possible for a road to have a rhythm, this one is made up of the small towns ticking by — Dublin, Pulaski, Draper and Wytheville (home of my all-time favorite name for a newspaper, The Bland County Messenger).  Keep going past Rural Retreat (how idyllic!), Marion and Chilhowie (another favorite name, everyone should be able to say, “I’ve been to Chilhowie!”)

The long ride south ended at the Abingdon exit, turning west on Route 58.  This is the same highway that begins in Virginia Beach and crosses the entirety of Southern Virginia to its westernmost tip.

For much of that distance, U.S. 58 features two lanes, lots of curves, lots of trucks and a long-standing reputation for highway danger.  But that’s not so much the case by the time the road gets west of Abingdon.

In this part of the state, one sees the benefit of an industrial heritage, the need to move coal trucks eastward from the mines.  The need to haul coal has intersected with Virginia’s complex and arcane highway funding formulas to produce in Route 58 a road that is the equivalent of an interstate. It is a divided highway with two lanes each way and cloverleaf  exits.

Thanks to coal, Southwest Virginia has solid transportation infrastructure. Furthermore traffic congestion is non-existent, especially when compared with much of the rest of the commonwealth.

But still, the Southwest is rugged mountain country.  Following my car’s GPS I headed west, distracting myself from the long ride with phone calls.  When I got off the phone, the GPS kicked back in exhorting me to “Please make a U-turn.”  Obviously, I’d gone a bit off route.  Paying attention to directions and getting off the four-lane highway, the road began to narrow.

After taking a right turn, the road narrowed even more, winding up and down.  This was fun road for a lone driver, but it would have made a passenger with even the strongest stomach queasy.  Pulling hard uphill around a curve, a big yellow school bus suddenly appeared in the opposite lane.  The car barely shot between the passing bus and a steep roadside ditch. Whew!

Deep into beautiful farm country, the road finally began to widen, eventually to the point of having room for a yellow line again. Another short stretch of U.S. 58 took me past the Dominion Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, then through a big cut in the rock (you know it when you see it) to St. Paul, and onward into the town of Coeburn.
Next, it was up over Tacoma Mountain Road.  After another tire burning climb and brake-beating descent, I finally pulled up in front of the Inn at Wise, six-and-a-half hours after leaving Richmond.

Wise County is also the home of University of Virginia’s College at Wise.  I was there to attend the 2016 Southwest Virginia Economic Forum.  This part of Virginia is ground zero for the much-maligned coal industry.  The people are hard working and they are also working hard to reinvent the local economy.

More than 300 attended the forum; that’s bigger than some economic events I’ve been to in Richmond.  Much credit is due to U.Va.-Wise for serving as a place-making convener.

If you haven’t been to Southwest Virginia, you should visit.  It’s a beautiful place, full of friendly people and opportunity.  The drive may be long, but it’s well worth it.  You might even find yourself wanting to locate a business there.

Shannon Blevins

UVa-Wise Office Associate Vice Chancellor of Economic Development and Engagement

A Southwest Virginia native’s hope and vision

Shannon Blevins

 I’m not an expert in anything. I’ve never claimed to be and don’t see myself ever making that claim. I’m a generalist! Sometimes I get an overwhelming feeling that I don’t know what I don’t know. Do you ever feel that way?

I’ll wallow in that self-doubt for a while but then I come to my senses and realize that there are many things that I do know, many things I can do. I often feel “overwhelmed with opportunity.”

That’s a good thing! I’m always in an uncomfortable state with feeling a bit confident in my skills and yet a little nervous that I might not have what it takes to get the job done. Experts say that means that I’m growing personally and professionally. That’s also a good thing but it is still uncomfortable!

I feel Southwest Virginia, the region that I’ve called home my entire life suffers from the same self-doubt I feel at times. I don’t know if it is a cultural thing.  We are a humble people. We are also a proud and resilient people. On the other hand, is it a legacy of being dependent upon a single industry economy for centuries? I am not sure but I know that our challenges are not just with external forces such as the decline in coal and energy; it is also in our mindset.  Do we really believe our future in Southwest Virginia is bright?  Do we really think we have the DNA to reimagine our future, reinvent the region and change the opportunities available to our children?

During the SWVA Economic Forum held last year, I felt a palpable hope in the crowd.  So many exciting things have happened since the region came together in May 2016 to begin taking action and being intentional about working together and leveraging resources. We must do more to foster a collective “growth mindset.”  I’m learning about the difference in a fixed Vs. growth way of thinking.  This is an area for us all to work and develop.  I believe we are transitioning from a fixed regional mindset to one of growth.  We’ve often believed that our regional strengths are fixed traits and that we can’t change them.  With a growth mindset, we believe that our basic regional strengths are just a foundation, a starting point on which we can develop.

We can be more than what we are today! We can view challenges as opportunities for us to grow. Let’s face it, we are in a very challenging economic climate.  Developing a growth mindset will have far-reaching implications on our region’s future.  Please don’t miss the 2017 SWVA Economic Forum and the opportunity to further the region’s development of a growth attitude.

Our economy is diversifying on its own. Let’s be intentional about setting the right course and work together to overcome the self-doubt we often face in the region.  I’m on a journey to develop professionally and personally, please join me.  Let’s stop working hard to stay “small” and under the radar screen. Southwest Virginia has so many thing to be proud of; so many assets that people outside this region would love to have. Let’s be proud of our region and work hard together to reimagine and then realize our future!