Northern Neck / Virginia

Even if the region is able to bolster its economic base, the absence of a robust infrastructure of opportunity for young people will make it difficult for those growing up in the area to meaningfully connect with the local labor market.

Northern Neck / Virginia

by Alyson Zandt

The Place: a rural four-county region bordering the Chesapeake Bay whose young adult population is declining while the retiree population grows

The Challenge: finding realistic ways to build an economic base that provides opportunities for residents—young and old—to make a life in the region

Elements of Opportunity Infrastructure: strategies to create a culture of collaboration and inclusive leadership to tackle this rural region’s unique challenges

History and Context

The Northern Neck region of Virginia, birthplace of both George Washington and Robert E. Lee, was once home to some of Virginia’s most elite families, unparalleled in its political and economic influence in the state. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, Northern Neck was a tobacco plantation economy, mostly growing tobacco or milling flour for export, relying on the exploitation of slave labor to build wealth. After the Civil War, extractive industries ascended based on the region’s natural assets, like lumber and agricultural crops, especially tomatoes, along with oystering, crabbing, and fishing.

From 1870 to 1930, the region’s isolated communities were connected by steamboat lines, operated by and connected to the Pennsylvania Railroad, tying the area to Baltimore’s economy. This infrastructure gave the Northern Neck an agricultural and aquacultural advantage, getting products to major markets relatively quickly and inexpensively. With the construction of the interstate highway system in the mid-20th century, development shifted west, leaving the region isolated from major economic activity. Tom Coye, pastor at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Kilmarnock, Va., and president of a local organization that connects people with resources to improve economic security, says of Northern Neck today, “If you can make a living here, God bless you, but don’t expect it.”

The Challenge

As many of the Northern Neck’s traditional industries have become less profitable or less labor-intensive, opportunities for employment and mobility have declined. Between the 2000 Census and the 2008–2012 population estimates, the size of the under-45 population in the Northern Neck shrank by 10.4 percent while the 45-and-older population grew by 14.7 percent. As in many rural Southern communities, those that stay face a scarcity of jobs, and the jobs that are available are often low-wage and unreliable.

Amaya, a rising high-school senior, plans to apply to colleges and eventually go to law school. There are not many jobs in the area, and she has seen the people who stay struggle, so Amaya and her classmates have their sights set elsewhere. The youth who don’t see any options or opportunities are the ones who are stuck in the Northern Neck, she says.

“There is nothing tangible to keep young people here,” says Ken Rioland, pastor at Macedonia Baptist Church in Heathsville, Va. “There’s nothing to aspire to, nothing to become.”

The region’s situation is complicated by its development patterns. Over the past few decades, the Northern Neck has seen an in-migration of retirees that bought and built homes along the extensive Chesapeake Bay and riverine coastline. The retired population brought significant wealth with them, but, as in many tourism- and retirement-based economies, their arrival has not created opportunities for income-generation and wealth-building by those who already lived in the region. In the lower Northern Neck, the two counties at the end of the peninsula that reach the Chesapeake, the retiree population is mostly affluent, while those in the upper Northern Neck, at the base of the peninsula, are lower-wealth, often mid-level government retirees from the Washington, D.C., metro.

The “come heres,” as those who move to the region are known, are, in many ways, an asset for the region and drive growth in certain sectors, like the service industry and home health assistance. However, the majority of those jobs are low-wage. And the retired population shifts the political and resource allocation priorities significantly. The county governments respond to the people who vote and mobilize to make their opinions heard, and in Northern Neck, that’s usually retirees. People who have lived their lives elsewhere may not understand the challenges the region faces and the investments needed to improve the future for youth. They are likely to vote against raising taxes and mobilize against ideas they see as threatening their quality of life, which can include economic development (they moved there for the rural tranquility, after all).

In addition to the divide between the “come heres” and “been heres,” the Northern Neck faces geographic and racial divisions that make it difficult to build a plan for the future with broad buy-in. Geographically, the main divide is between the upper and lower peninsula. The upper counties, Richmond and Westmoreland, have fewer economic centers. The lower counties, Lancaster and Northumberland, are still largely rural, but have more towns, infrastructure, and affluence. While the counties of the peninsula are connected by their shared history and, to a certain extent, by their shared isolation, there is not a strong regional identity or sense that their future prosperity is intertwined.

“We want our young people to have the skills to get jobs, build wealth, and have
a better quality of life.” —Lindsy Gardner






The legacy of plantation-era slavery and the Civil War created racial divides in the region that remain very present, with significant residential and social segregation on the peninsula and higher poverty rates and lower levels of wealth for African Americans. Unlike the formal legal segregation of the past, current-day segregation is not as overt. “There is an implied understanding of where white people go and where black people go,” says Ken Rioland. Because of longstanding prejudice and discrimination, black people do not feel welcome in certain places. Prejudice may run both ways, Pastor Rioland told us, but because of historical oppression and disparities in power between the white and black communities, it is the black community that is the most affected. There is deep mistrust, and it will require significant and intentional work to bring cohesion to the region.

In addition to the divide between the “come heres” and “been heres,” the Northern Neck faces geographic and racial divisions that make it difficult to build a plan for the future with broad buy-in.

As working-age adults leave the region and raise their children elsewhere, enrollment in schools is also dropping, with enrollment in Lancaster County schools dropping by more than 6 percent between the fall of 2009 and 2011. In Lancaster County, 71.7 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and in Westmoreland 73.9 percent of students are. Even in Northumberland and Richmond Counties, where 56.1 and 54.6 percent of students are eligible, respectively, the rate is significantly higher than the state average of 41.2 percent.

The ability of the region to draw more middle- or high-paying jobs is limited not just by its isolation but also by its relatively low levels of educational attainment, ranging from 12 percent of adults with at least a two-year degree in Richmond County to 24 percent of adults in Westmoreland County. Those who see the region’s challenges and divides but want to work toward a better future for its young people know they have very little in the way of an infrastructure of opportunity to work with—the human capital development, employment generation, and social and financial supports necessary to help young people succeed. Most of the region’s nonprofits are small and run primarily by volunteers. Geographic barriers make it difficult for nonprofits and public entities to share services across multiple counties. There is little coordination between programs, and strong partnerships are rare, with the exception of a few institutions, including Rappahanock Community College.









7 Jessie Ball DuPont Fund also contributed support to this report

The Analysis and Strategy

Despite these barriers, civic and business leaders in the Northern Neck are organizing themselves to work toward a better future for the region. They recognize that before comprehensive systems can be built to promote economic development and security, they need to build a broad awareness of the region’s challenges, create a more inclusive leadership base, and promote more collaboration and communication.

One relatively new community organization, known as VISIONS, formed following a meeting hosted by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund7 focused on reducing poverty. “This all started because we were talking about how to help people build assets to get out of poverty,” says Lindsy Gardner, director of the Lancaster Community Library. “We want our young people to have the skills to get jobs, build wealth, and have a better quality of life.”

The leaders who participated in that conversation decided to make VISIONS their main community platform to explore and pursue a goal of building a new region-wide economy. They want to create return opportunities for those who have left, but they especially want to create opportunities for the people who have stayed and are struggling to find good employment. They realize they cannot get much done without more buy-in and awareness from the community, so VISIONS released a report in 2012, A Community at the Crossroads, which analyzed the economic and social situation in the Northern Neck and offered recommendations for how to move forward. A consistent theme of this report is public awareness: “Changing the mind-set of the public to support job creation initiatives that are the right fit for our area, as well as creating a positive business climate where businesses want to grow and flourish, is the basis for economic growth and the major solution to our current woes.”

“Lead Northern Neck,” a leadership program created by VISIONS and Rappahannock Community College, educates citizens about community leadership, coalition building, and civic action. The program concluded its second cohort in 2014. Lead Northern Neck, which wants to be proactive about diversity and intentional inclusiveness, focuses its final session on overcoming racial divides in the region.

While the longer-term strategies leaders are pursuing are focused on creating the culture of collaboration and inclusive leadership needed to tackle big ideas, there also is a mix of small strategies to improve opportunities for young people in the short-term. One example is YouthWorks, a summer employment program for high school students coordinated by the Lancaster Community Library and Rappahannock Community College. Participants, who must be eligible for free or reduced lunch, go through a series of trainings and earn their Career Readiness Certificate, a nationally recognized credential. “Low-income students are going to run into a lot of hurdles, and many eventually just stop,” says Lindsy Gardner. YouthWorks wants to provide low-income students with the skills and connections to keep going.

The longer-term strategies leaders are pursuing are focused on creating the culture of collaboration and inclusive leadership needed to tackle big ideas, there also is a mix of small strategies to improve opportunities for young people in the short-term.

Many of the region’s young people do not see a path to success in the region, but they also do not see leaving as a real possibility. Ken Rioland and his wife and co-pastor, Cynthia Rioland, are working with young people of color in their community to create a stronger sense of self-worth and to set higher goals for themselves. Cynthia started a summer camp for high school girls a few years ago with the goal of developing a positive self-image and aspirations. Last year they visited Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona, Fla., an HBCU founded in 1904 by Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, the daughter of former slaves; they also went to Universal Studios. “They just haven’t seen it,” says Cynthia Rioland. “We want to show them what is possible.” Now, the challenge is figuring out how to make sure these young people have access to the resources they need to achieve their goals.

Questions and Next Steps

From the perspective of VISIONS and other community leaders, it will be difficult to connect youth with opportunity until the region has a better economic base. Given their relative geographic and economic isolation, leaders want to be realistic about the type of economic development they pursue. Without four-lane highways, it’s unlikely they will attract any large industries. They are pursuing ideas that have the greatest chance of success and can be worked on incrementally. Some of their best bets do not require large numbers of people, or pay low wages, like home health assistants. The region has significant natural and historical assets that could drive a strong tourism economy, including Stratford Hall, the historic family home of Robert E. Lee. Cultivating a stronger tourism base will require significant regional coordination, which could be helped along if their application to become a National Heritage Area is successful. The area has a long history of agricultural production, and some are trying to capitalize on the farm-to-table movement that has broad appeal in nearby metros. While agriculture requires fewer people than it once did, many families in the Northern Neck have land, and they could be growing something on it if they knew how. Paul Reber, executive director of Stratford Hall, wants to develop an agricultural education program for the school system in Westmoreland County. The region is seeking to take better advantage of aquaculture as well, particularly oysters, given the recently announced creation of the Virginia Oyster Trail and oyster harvests coming in at their highest levels in decades.

Even if the region is able to bolster its economic base, the absence of a robust infrastructure of opportunity for young people will make it difficult for those growing up in the area to meaningfully connect with the local labor market. As long as young people continue to see leaving the area as their only chance at success, it will make it more difficult for their voices and perspectives on the future of the region to be heard. This resource tension between an aging population and an increasingly diverse youth population has been discussed broadly as a national and Southern challenge, with demographers like James H. Johnson Jr. referring to the simultaneous “browning” and “greying” of the region; in smaller communities like the Northern Neck, where resources are already scarce and the opportunity infrastructure is unsteady, that pressure is exacerbated. These issues, including a lack of economic drivers, significant loss of young people (and in particular skilled young people), and inadequate support among political and economic resources to invest in education and youth opportunity, are ones with which much of the rural South is struggling to come to terms.

“We want to show them what is possible.” — Cynthia Rioland

“Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity for the Next Generation” takes a deep look at prospects and challenges for the region’s 15- to -24-year-olds. Southern communities need to create an “infrastructure of opportunity” for youth and young adults that is as seamless as the electric grid or the water system—and just as essential. That infrastructure consists of a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connect youth and young adults to educational credentials and economic opportunity.

Read more of the report.