#751 – How a rural Virginian town is using entrepreneurship to boost its local economy

Posted on | The Agurban

We have long been believers that entrepreneurs can play a significant role in the success of a community. As our loyal readers know, we are long-time proponents and supporters of the CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities) program that began in our hometown of Effingham, Illinois, in 2008, and has now grown to 41 classes in four states. Below is a great story, in part, on how one community took it upon themselves to mold their future.

How a rural Virginian town is using entrepreneurship to boost its local economy
Jenna Temkin  |  Brookings.com  |  August 1, 2019

America’s unequal geography of opportunity is widening: big, dense metropolitan areas are leading the way in employment and wage growth, job density, and prosperity, as many small towns and rural areas are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession.

Given these social and economic cleavages, rural Main Streets today evoke a complex sense of place. On one hand, they are often thought of— even romanticized—as tight-knit communities with distinct local culture, homegrown businesses, and a more laid-back lifestyle; on the other, they represent a way of living that, to some, seems at odds with our globalized, networked digital economy. Indeed, these communities face deep structural challenges—including low population density, long distances to major job hubs, declining manufacturing activity, and resource constraints—that aren’t likely to be overcome with traditional approaches to economic development.

So where does this leave small rural towns looking to revitalize their communities in the face of widening geographic divides? And what role can transformative placemaking play in reinvigorating their local economy?

A look at Wytheville, Va.—a small town of 8,000 situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains—provides some insight.

In the 1950s, Wytheville’s downtown was booming. Businesses lined the Main Street, and a vibrant soda shop served as its anchor. But about fifty years later, the soda shop was gone, and the struggling downtown faced challenges that are familiar to many small towns across southwest Virginia coal country. As industry declined, so did the town’s jobs and population, causing businesses to close and vacancies to increase, leaving few anchors or amenities to draw people to Main Street.

To address these challenges, Wytheville adopted a person- and place-based approach to leverage local assets, build regional partnerships, encourage community capacity-building, and ultimately revitalize its regional economy. Three years ago, the town’s place governance organization, Downtown Wytheville, Inc., made it its mission to bring economic vitality back to Main Street. It completed a major downtown streetscape renovation, improving sidewalks, lighting, and crosswalks on Main Street, to create a more vibrant downtown. But leaders realized that Wytheville required more than physical changes to its landscape to spur revitalization: it needed human capital and the necessary skills to drive small business development and growth.

The town decided to start with what it had locally: aspiring entrepreneurs looking to launch their own businesses. While Wytheville recognized entrepreneurship as a critical tool for economic development, particularly for rural communities, leaders also knew that a lack of human capital and resources meant they would need more than small loans and financial incentives to create a supportive entrepreneurial environment. In addition to capital, residents need access to the skills training, mentorship, and resources required to create a locally-led and sustainable entrepreneurial environment.

In 2018, Downtown Wytheville applied for and received a Community Business Launch Grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and launched the competition, Evolution Wytheville.

The competition was open to anyone looking to start a business in the downtown district. Four winners eventually took home $75,000 in prize money—two winners each opened breweries, one a Vietnamese bakery, and the other an art school.

Wytheville is investing in additional efforts to nurture and sustain its entrepreneurial culture, offering free business classes and marketing assistance to residents and incentives like meal tax incentives, façade improvements, and signage programs to small businesses.

Ultimately, Wytheville’s effort to boost entrepreneurship is not just about the winners of the business competition or other downtown Wytheville business owners—it is about improving the quality of life and access to quality places for an entire community. While such efforts cannot erase the geographic and demographic challenges Wytheville and other small rural towns like it face, they are helping to drive small-scale, regionally inclusive economic growth and showing the importance of centering people and place when doing so.

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