Danville, VA: New Leadership for a New Vision

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.

For more information on how Danville is working to build an infrastructure of opportunity for young people, read our State of the South profile.

A Visit to Danville, VA

A Visit to Danville, VA

In the age of startups, business incubators, and Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship conjures images of computer scientists, high-tech companies, and sleek offices in big cities. But in Danville, Va., entrepreneurship is being promoted as a strategy for building a vital, diversified economy—and attracting young people to the rural region on the border of North Carolina and Virginia.

Like many other cities across the Sunbelt, Danville flourished as a milltown for much of the twentieth century, producing the famous brightleaf tobacco and textiles. Though employment in the manufacturing sector was at its peak in the early 1970s, 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, filed for bankruptcy and in 2006, shut its doors completely.

Today, if you ask Laurie Moran, the president of the Danville-Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce, what kind of economy she and other leaders in the area are trying to build in the wake of such loss, she quickly replies with a few descriptive words: diverse, with living-wage work, and with enough opportunities to keep her children in the area.

Small start-up businesses have opened on the historic Main Street in Danville’s downtown district.

While part of the city’s economic development strategy relies on attracting large companies to the area, Danville and the surrounding counties have taken an innovative approach to rebuilding their economy. To ensure that they no longer rely on just one or two primary industries, the region is developing intentional strategies to promote entrepreneurship among its youth and to attract entrepreneurs to establish their businesses in their 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, president of the Danville Regional Foundation (DRF). “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. We’re spending a lot of time helping people see what is excellent in our work to promote entrepreneurship.”

The Foundation has been at the center of this effort. Nearly a decade ago, it made a $10 million investment in The Launch Place, which offers business consulting, seed funding, office space, residential subsidies, and other services to entrepreneurs interested in locating in the Southern Virginia region. Last winter, the Launch Place partnered with several members of the Middle Border Forward initiative (a DRF project managed by MDC) to develop Danville’s next generation of leaders, to host a business pitch competition. IdeaFest attracted over 60 participants, including individuals from other entrepreneurship hubs like the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina as well as residents of Danville.

As part of revitalization efforts in Danville, public, private, and philanthropic leaders have put significant investment into infrastructure like this walking bridge to encourage activity in the downtown River District.

But Stauber and other leaders are not only interested in attracting newcomers. They are also investing in the kids born and raised in the region. Recently, DRF and the Chamber of Commerce have teamed up to launch a young entrepreneurs’ academy, an after-school program for middle- and high-school students. Over the course of 30 weeks, students learn what it takes to turn an idea into a business. “They develop business plans, complete market assessments, and ultimately, share their ideas in front of an investor panel,” says Moran. “This is really about helping young people see that opportunities are everywhere if you’re an entrepreneur.”

You can follow us on Instagram for dispatches from upcoming visits to other Southern destinations.

Ed. Note: This post originally appeared on MDC’s blog, The North Star.