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.

A Visit to Northern Neck,VA

A Visit to Northern Neck,VA

There used to be so many oysters in Chesapeake Bay that ships would run aground on reefs piled high with them. By the turn of the 20th century, oystermen were harvesting 20 million bushels a year, delivered by steamship and rail to cities up and down the East Coast. But a century later, the oyster reefs have disappeared. A combination of overfishing, pollution, and disease wiped out the bay’s oyster crop. Harvests in Virginia and Maryland total in the tens of thousands of bushels, no longer the tens of millions. An entire industry was nearly destroyed.An effort is now under way to rebuild the bay’s oyster population by reducing pollution, creating oyster sanctuaries, and restoring reefs. And one company in the Northern Neck peninsula of Virginia is doing it box-by-box—cultivating native oysters in wire boxes and floating them in the bay – creating a new supply and market for varieties of the disappearing Crassostrea virginica. It is sowing the seeds (or spat, as oyster larvae are called) for what is hoped is part of an economic revival on the Northern Neck.

The company is the Rappahannock Oyster Co., run by two cousins who are the grandchildren of oystermen. There’s perhaps no better place to enjoy their oysters than Merroir, a restaurant they own in the tiny village of Topping, Va., overlooking the Rappahannock River. We stopped there for lunch while reporting on the Northern Neck, a beautiful and isolated peninsula between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, for our State of the South 2014 report.

At bayside tables shaded by umbrellas, Merroir serves the three trademarked varieties of oysters they raise–Rappahannocks (sweet), Stringrays (mild), and Olde Salts (briny)—along with a small plates menu that includes crabcakes, a variety of oyster dishes, and a delicious shucked corn and crab soup. (They all taste even better served with Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout, brewed with the company’s oyster juice by the Flying Dog Brewery in nearby Fredericksburg.) The restaurant is luring patrons from as far away as Richmond and Washington, D.C., who want to go to the seaside source and not just to the restaurants the company owns in those two cities. And it serves a growing community of wealthy retirees who are building multi-million-dollar homes on the bay.

 

Merroir and the Rappahannock Oyster Co. are emblematic of two areas of economic development— aquaculture and tourism— that folks on the Northern Neck are hoping will offset the decline of the peninsula’s seafood, agriculture, and canning industries. But they have a long way to go. Word is that the Rappahannock Oyster Co., which ships oysters to top New York restaurants, can sell as many as they can raise, but raising oysters isn’t labor intensive yet. The hope is that with improved science instruction at local schools, students will be better prepared for college and, perhaps, the nearby Virginia Institute for Marine Science, where they can build careers and new businesses in aquaculture.

In the meantime, as in so many rural places with weak economies, young and working age people are leaving the Northern Neck to find jobs. A repeated concern we heard was about a pronounced population drop of people between 20 and 55 years old detected between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, and an average age around 54, compared to a statewide average of 37.5.

We talked to business, community, foundation, and education leaders—and young people—who know they have a big challenge ahead. In addition to demographic, political, and geographic divides across four counties, there’s also a racial one in an area of deep Colonial history that’s the birthplace of both George Washington and Robert E. Lee. The community is trying to addressing its poverty-related problems with youth programs, an expanded community college, and an initiative called “Visions” that has among its goals to bring the community together to understand the problems that poverty causes and to solve them through education, workforce readiness, and economic growth.

Leaders in Northern Neck recognize that oyster cultivation and destination restaurants like Merroir are not enough. But, like replenishing the oyster population in Chesapeake Bay, they know you have to start by rebuilding the foundational reefs on which they grow.

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.

A Visit to Port St. Joe, FL

A Visit to Port St. Joe, FL

If you’re a football fan, you may already know that the New York Jets first pick in the NFL draft was Calvin Pryor, a junior safety from the University of Louisville. On the night of the draft, in Port St. Joe, FL, Calvin’s hometown, there was  a big screen TV, a cover band, and free barbecue, all set up in a parking lot with ocean views, to celebrate. We happened to be in town for the party and for our first State of the South 2014 on-the-road visit. Nearly everyone we talked to either invited us to the draft celebration or asked us if we’d been there. Athletics is one thing that brings this small town (population 3,400) together across all the lines that might divide a rural community in the South—race, class, politics, power—and Calvin’s success was a point of pride that everyone could agree on.

Sunset over St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, nearly 20 miles of unspoiled beaches on the Cape San Blas peninsula protecting St. Joseph Bay and Port St. Joe.

Sunset over St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, nearly 20 miles of unspoiled beaches on the Cape San Blas peninsula protecting St. Joseph Bay and Port St. Joe.

While Port St. Joe High School has had a few athletes go pro over the years, it’s not exactly a solid advancement strategy for the city’s young people (no matter what the kids think when they take the field in the popular pee-wee leagues). For decades, the path to the middle class in Port St. Joe was a job at the St. Joe Company paper mill—or one of the other supporting (and St. Joe-owned) industries like the railroad or the phone company.  But with the 1998 closure of the mill and the departure of another industry—Arizona Chemical—in the early 2000s, Port St. Joe has struggled to sustain the population and prospects for goods jobs beyond the seasonal tourism economy. Right now, government is the largest employer (municipal services, schools, corrections).

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