*** Published June 30, 2010 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier.) ***
ABINGDON, Va. – Virginia's chief economic development officer, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, said Tuesday that he can see the light at the end of the recession's tunnel – and Southwest Virginia is well positioned to take advantage of the economic growth to come.
"One of the advantages that we have right now in Southwest Virginia is we have a lot of local communities that are working together," Bolling said while touring the region Monday and Tuesday to learn about economic development efforts taking place here.
"Anytime you have regions within a region working to promote the region, that's a positive," Bolling said.
As part of the tour, he stopped in Abingdon on Tuesday where he heard presentations on a regionwide cultural tourism initiative based at the $17 million Heartwood artisan center now under construction on the campus of Virginia Highlands Community College.
State Sen. William Wampler, R-Bristol, and Todd Christensen, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Commission that's overseeing the project, explained the plans to develop Heartwood and an associated website to market Southwest Virginia worldwide as a cultural heritage destination.
"The physical hub is in Abingdon," Wampler said. "The virtual spokes are what we think are important."
Christensen pointed to the Crooked Road, a music heritage trail that he said has created dozens of businesses and hundreds of jobs in the few years since its creation. At the same time, he said, the Crooked Road has raised the self-esteem of communities throughout the region.
The Southwest Virginia website will endeavor to sell the region's culture to the world, Christensen said. And thereby help develop a better quality of life for the region.
"We're going to have almost like a dating site," Christensen said. "They're going to go into this website, they're going to fall in love with Southwest Virginia, and if they're lucky enough we're going to allow them to come and visit. If they're really lucky, we're going to tell them how to move down here and to bring their business with them, or move down here and start a business or come and buy a house."
Bolling said he's impressed, and the effort fits well with an even broader economic development strategy coming out of Richmond.
"You're really on the right track with something that could pay some huge dividends," Bolling said. "It's perfect timing for you to be able to lead this kind of program with a more aggressive state tourism effort that we're going to see unfolding in the next six months to a year."
In his meeting with community leaders at the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator, Bolling also learned about the energy research center to be built nearby at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center.
The center is one of several being built around the state with help from the Virginia Tobacco Commission.
"Our mission here will be to sustain the very strong industries that we have in coal and natural gas ... and keep the bottom line going strong for Southwest Virginia," said Rachel Fowlkes, executive director of the higher ed center.
She said the building housing the energy center will be a model of green energy and efficient energy use while encouraging cleaner-coal technology.
Bolling said the energy center fits well with the administration's goal of making Virginia the East Coast's energy leader – and he touted state efforts to put economic development and job creation first.
Without that economic development, he said, none of the state's other priorities can be funded.
"We really do believe that economic development is the rising tide that can lift all ships in this time that we are in and turn the budget shortfall into surpluses," Bolling said. "There is a light at the end of the tunnel and I think we are beginning to turn the corner, but we have to keep doing stuff like this, like you talked about to me today."
Southwest Virginia is "uniquely positioned" to do well as the state emerges from the recession, Bolling said, because of the resources available through the tobacco commission and the region's spirit of cooperation.
*** Published June 24, 2010 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier.) ***
ABINGDON, Va. – On a three-day tour of Southwest Virginia, the recently appointed co-director of the Appalachian Regional Commission said he has a good first impression of the region – and of a project being billed as a focal point of a new creative economy.
"It's incredibly beautiful," Earl Gohl said of Southwest Virginia, after he toured the construction site for Heartwood, the $17 million artisan center under construction in view of Interstate 81.
Southwest Virginia, he said, has "a group of people that are very dedicated and that are very determined for their communities to grow and to be better places for their kids to live."
The commission is a regional economic development agency established by Congress in 1965 that works in the 13 Appalachian states, including Virginia and Tennessee. In partnership with those states, the commission has accomplished a lot over the past 45 years, Gohl said, but there's still a lot to do.
Wednesday's visit to Heartwood was a major stop on Gohl's tour. The artisan center has been partially funded by the commission, and is designed to serve as a gateway for the region's new tourism economy.
Gohl called the project "a bridge to somewhere," a case-in-point of "federal tax dollars that are being returned to the community, that are being reinvested to create jobs for the future."
Visible from Interstate 81 at Abingdon's Exit 14, Heartwood will be a physical gateway to the region, said Sen. William Wampler, R-Bristol, who is heavily involved in the project and was part of the tour Wednesday.
A corresponding website being developed for Heartwood will serve as a virtual gateway.
"The amount of dollars that [the Appalachian Regional Commission] and the tobacco commission and ... all of our localities are putting forward are testimonials for what we believe the new generation of jobs are going to be," Wampler said, "and that is based on the rich heritage and tradition that we have."
As a roof and walls are wrapped around the steel structure in place at Heartwood, and the developers of the website build its content, the dream of a comprehensive resource on the region – and a restructuring of Southwest Virginia's economy – is coming closer to reality.
"This is really about economic development," said Todd Christensen, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Commission, which was formed in 2008 to oversee the Heartwood project.
"The things we're really focused on are quality of life, sense of place, community development," Christensen said. "Every town in Southwest Virginia is or will be going through a revitalization process to become a cultural center as opposed to a goods and services center."
Christensen said the broader initiative includes three objectives: attract high-tech business development and high-end entrepreneurs through good quality of life; promote Southwest Virginia as a place to live; and attract visitors.
The effort involves branding a 19-county region as a unified destination that's synonymous with music, traditional arts and a unique cultural heritage.
"It is typical of communities that succeed," Gohl said of the level of cooperation he sees in the project. "It's not a process that has a termination date. It's a process that's going to go on and go on and go on. ... You always have to be looking to the next opportunity."