With an economy that grew initially around tobacco markets, Danville, Va., like many Southern cities, flourished as a textile milltown for much of the 20th century. By 2004, decades of slowdown became a full-blown crisis. Dan River Mills, the largest employer in Danville and once the largest textile firm in the world, laid off its last employees in 2006. 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. Today, the median income is half that of the state of Virginia, and only a little more than half that of the U.S. In Danville, as in much of the South, access to opportunity goes up dramatically based on your economic situation, race, and social connections.
The challenge now is responding to rapid and unpredictable shifts in economies and labor markets that make it difficult for young people and community leaders to decide how to invest in their education and skills. Danville is trying to attract and develop new economic drivers with living wage employment, and working to ensure that community members, particularly young people, have adaptable skills to compete in the new economy.
With significant resources in the local Danville Regional Foundation 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. 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. In this short video, Cathy Hill, MDC board member and a vice president at Georgia Power, lays out the importance of expanded leadership and a commitment to finding common language in order to understand common interests:
In both the formation of the Future of the Piedmont Foundation (in the late 1990s) and the Danville Regional Foundation (in 2005), Danville’s leaders have experience engaging in long-term regional planning and local investment. Their efforts have brought about needed improvements in technology, regionalism, education, and collaboration. Current leaders are intentionally engaging and empowering younger leaders who are more diverse and inclusive, hence the Middle Border Forward initiative, which has brought together a group of young leaders to work for more equitable outcomes in the region.
While strengthening the region’s economic base is vital, other Southern cities have learned 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. 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, who is involved in the creation of that infrastructure, and how they can make sure no one is left behind.