Danville / Virginia
There is still work to do on connecting systems and moving from collaboration to coordination. As leaders in Danville plan for their community’s future, they must ask themselves who they are building an infrastructure of opportunity for, and how they can make sure no one is left behind.
Danville / Virginia
by Alyson Zandt
The Challenge: establishing an economy and community where young people can build the skills they need and have the option to build a life in their hometown
Elements of Opportunity Infrastructure: employers, educators, the public sector, and philanthropists uniting to generate both new economic drivers and new emerging leaders to set the pace for Danville’s future
History and Context
With an economy that grew initially around tobacco markets and generated significant wealth, Danville, Va., like many Southern cities, flourished as a textile milltown for much of the 20th century. Nationally, employment in the manufacturing sector peaked in the early 1970s, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that Danville was hit with rapid job loss and factory closures. By 2004, the crisis was full-blown. Dan River Mills, the largest employer in Danville and once the largest textile firm in the world, laid off its last employees in 2006.
Because the mill employed so many people in the community for much of the 20th century, its owners were able to dictate much of the local public policy. Education beyond high school was actively discouraged for mill workers, and other businesses were discouraged for fear of competition for labor. According to Karl Stauber, president of the Danville Regional Foundation (DRF), “One of the largest challenges that we have as a region is a continuing cultural ghost. Here, if you’re the child or grandchild of a mill worker, part of your family story is that you can make it without much education.”
When the mills were open, Danville’s future had some certainty to it, and individuals could see the pathways to jobs. According to Clark Casteel, a senior program officer at the Danville Regional Foundation, the opening of the mill in the early 1900s “completely changed the way people lived, worked, and learned.” He explains, “We built platforms, like unified school systems and office buildings, to enable the transition from agriculture to industry. Those platforms worked well for 100 years. Back then, you could see around the corner. You could be demand-driven and you knew what school was for.” This meant young people could navigate from school to work, and it meant community leaders generally understood what types of investments were needed. The challenge now in Danville, and across many Southern communities undergoing similar economic transitions, says Casteel, is that how we live, work, and learn is changing again because of technological advances. The future is shifting rapidly and unpredictably, which makes it difficult for young people and community leaders to decide how to invest in their education and skills.
If you are not able to see around the corner and predict where the economy will take you, what can you do to ensure broadly distributed opportunity for young people? In the past, you could target a particular sector. The pace of change in the new economy makes it harder to build such specific strategies and pathways, so a diversity of tactics is important. According to Laurie Moran, president of the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce, “We want a diversity of jobs and sectors to weather the storms and offer opportunities to people at various skill levels.” They want to avoid relying on a single industry, because another natural economic shift could send them back to where they were 10 years ago. Danville’s leaders are trying to attract new economic drivers, and they also are working to ensure that community members, particularly young people, have the skills to compete in the new economy.
The demise of Dan River Mills altered the economic and social fabric of the community: options for the working class became scarce, the middle class shrank, and young people had fewer opportunities. As late as 1969, Danville had a median household income that was equivalent to the rest of Virginia and the U.S. as a whole. Today, Danville’s median income is half that of the state of Virginia, and only a little more than half that of the U.S. There is deep concern in the community about the loss of talented young people. A young person growing up and leaving home is part of the American story. That’s not always a bad thing, Stauber points out, “as long as opportunities exist and people have equal access to the skills and cultural norms necessary to take advantage of those opportunities.” In Danville, it’s generally agreed that access to opportunity goes up dramatically based on your economic situation, race, and social connections.
“We built platforms, like unified school systems and office buildings, to enable the transition from agriculture to industry. Those platforms worked well for 100 years. Back then, you could see around the corner. You could be demand-driven and you knew what school was for.”
Even for those who leave the area for better education and to start careers, there is a divide in who is able to come back to Danville. “The young people who are coming back and being successful are individuals who are very connected in certain social circles,” says Wendi Goods Everson, a senior program officer at DRF. “Low-wealth young adults, and particularly people of color, have to go elsewhere to find opportunity. Their families don’t have the financial wherewithal to let them figure things out slowly.” In a place with limited choices, figuring out things slowly can be a necessity—younger adults may need to wait until the right opportunity opens up.
4 MDC worked with the Future of the Piedmont Foundation to develop this plan.
Analysis and Strategy
Facing a dwindling employment base in the late 1990s, leaders in Danville had to decide what types of investments and strategies they wanted to pursue to keep the community alive. They could try to bring back manufacturing jobs like the ones they were losing, or they could pursue a different and less familiar path to end a downward spiral. One group of influential community members formed the Future of the Piedmont Foundation to take advantage of economic development resources available from the tobacco settlement. The foundation board created a plan for long-term regional development.4 Their efforts have brought about needed improvements in technology, regionalism, education, and collaboration.
When Danville Regional Medical Center was sold to LifePoint Hospitals, Inc., $200 million was invested to create the Danville Regional Foundation. The creation of DRF was a game-changer for Danville, as it brought in substantial resources and thought leadership. DRF serves as a catalyst for many community projects. With significant resources and organized leadership, Danville is better positioned to strategically invest in the community’s future than many places in the South. Still, there are major challenges, including the uncertainty of the new economy, the continued cultural and social divides of the mill economy, and a narrow leadership base.
Building Skills to Compete
On the skills-building side, the Danville Regional Foundation, along with key partners like Danville Community College (DCC), is seeking to connect young people with good careers, beginning with investments in early childhood and workforce development. DRF sees investment in early childhood as a first step on an education-to-career pathway, with the aim of ensuring all students start school ready to learn. The workforce development investments are targeted at preparing people for employment and drawing in new businesses, with the idea that companies will come to Danville if they see that there is a strong workforce development infrastructure that can adapt to meet their needs. The emphasis is on living-wage jobs; they do not want to train people for careers that will keep them in poverty.
One area of workforce development that has received significant attention and investment is STEM education. According to Charles Majors, executive chairman of Danville’s American National Bank and Trust, “We’ve been so successful that some people are leaving because they get very high-paying opportunities in other places. We are trying to identify opportunities in this region so that they can stay here.” DRF and its partners want to create a STEM ecosystem, where career training and economic development are interdependent.
Danville Community College is a hub for the community’s approach to workforce development. It is partnering with area school systems to expose students to career options earlier. Acknowledging the financial hardships of many of its students, it wants to break up some programs into short-term opportunities that have economic value and can be built on later. DCC tries to tie all programs to industry-recognized credentials to make students more competitive for jobs and give economic developers a business recruitment tool.
There is still concern about why some youth are able to navigate the current education and employment system and others are not. Clark Casteel, a native of the region, points out that the pathways that were available when he grew up were stratified—affluent or middle class kids were steered toward one set of options, and low-income students, and often students of color, were steered toward another. This is why considering mobility when planning an infrastructure of opportunity is so important: how do you ensure that children growing up in low-income families aren’t stuck there? “It’s not that our youth don’t want to do wonderful things; they do. All kids have aspirations. They all have dreams,” says Laurie Moran. “When do they lose that? How do we not let that get extinguished?”
“We’ve been so successful that some people are leaving because they get very high-paying opportunities in other places. We are trying to identify opportunities in this region so that they can stay here.”
New Economic Drivers
DRF, the Chamber of Commerce, and others have immediate and long-range goals when it comes to Danville’s infrastructure of opportunity—the human capital development, employment generation, and social and financial supports necessary to help young people succeed. To meet both ends, they are investing to create a culture of entrepreneurship. The short-term goal is to attract entrepreneurs to the area. The long-term aim is to generate entrepreneurial activity locally and make sure people are flexible and adaptable to the uncertain economic future. Since they don’t know what jobs people need to be trained for, they want young people to have the types of skills that will be important in the new economy, including critical thinking and being confident and capable of finding the intersection between passion, talent, and opportunity.
DRF is providing resources for businesses to get started and gain momentum, and a safety net so that failure isn’t seen as negatively. Approximately three years ago, DRF made a $10 million investment in The Launch Place, which offers business consulting, seed funding, office space and residential subsidies, and other services to entrepreneurs interested in locating in the Southern Virginia region. “Right now, we are trying to create a new economy and a new culture for an old milltown at the same time,” says Karl Stauber. “Developing an entrepreneurship ecosystem is essential to that. This has the potential not only to attract and generate businesses but also to change the conversation here. One of the issues we have in Danville is an attitude that we don’t deserve excellence. Mediocre is okay in education and economic development. In our work to promote entrepreneurship, we’re spending a lot of time helping people see what is excellent.”
In addition to investments in building skills and new economic drivers, Danville is exorcising its cultural ghosts. “A lot of people who live in this area aren’t as positive about the region as those outside of the community,” says Charles Majors. “How are we going to change that attitude?” Danville has struggled to make that change while still being clear about the challenges the community needs to address. “Part of our success to date has come from identifying our problems rather than sitting with our head in the sand,” says Majors. “We went through a period where people didn’t want to hear those conversations, and at times it felt counterproductive to the idea of rebranding.” They found that as some strategies have been successful, more people are excited about the community’s potential and are willing to come to the table. Even as they analyze persistent challenges, they are showing people what is possible.
To achieve their goals, Danville’s current leaders are intentionally engaging and empowering younger leaders to broaden the leadership base. “This is a region used to a very small group making all the decisions,” says Clark Casteel. People used to reference the “men at the mill” as shorthand for the group they saw as in charge, and now they talk about the “boys at the bank.” The old model of leadership in Danville was centered around businesses—the same people who were in charge of major economic entities, like the mills, were the ones involved in community planning. Today, large industries that aren’t headquartered in Danville see their responsibility as creating profit, not being part of the community. Hence, the effort to develop young leaders who are more diverse and inclusive, like the new Middle Border Forward initiative, which has brought together a group of young leaders to work for more equitable outcomes in the region. “Current leaders must make an effort to groom and develop the next level of leaders,” says Laurie Moran. “They need people to invest the time in them.”
Questions and next steps
As many Southern communities know all too well, you can’t build a new economy overnight. “The good news is we’re diversifying,” says Majors. “The bad news is that it takes a lot of businesses with a few hundred employees to make up for the thousands of jobs we lost.”
While Danville has already seen some success in its investments, there is still work to do on connecting systems and moving from collaboration to coordination. “We still need to do more to put together a regional vision that integrates the different components of the work we’re doing,” says Moran. With so much of their future dependent on strengthening the economic base, there is the danger of focusing too much on keeping and attracting the middle class and not addressing eroding employment security and mobility for youth growing up in low- or moderate-income families. Other cities have successfully transitioned to a knowledge economy. But economic dynamism does not guarantee a broad distribution of opportunity for all young people. As leaders in Danville plan for their community’s future, they must ask themselves who they are building an infrastructure of opportunity for, and how they can make sure no one is left behind.
“It’s not that our youth don’t want to do wonderful things; they do. All kids have aspirations. They all have dreams,” says Laurie Moran. “When do they lose that? How do we not let that get extinguished?”
“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.