Recently, I completed a report on the region that paints a rather bleak picture and a challenging future. The people are wonderful, but the community is a fairly isolated region where population has dropped a third in the last 30 years and probably will keep dropping.This from his report sounds all too familiar:
Many residents are undereducated, unemployed or underemployed. Housing conditions are poor, and the vacancy rate is nearly twice the state average. Several schools are old and must be renovated or replaced. Median household income is well below the state average, and the economy depends much too heavily on manufacturing, which continues to decline.
Under these conditions, it's hard to make a good first impression, and it's increasingly difficult to attract the new jobs that come from new businesses and industry locating in the region.
Here's your wake-up call -- unless the region takes charge of its own future, these conditions will worsen during the next 30 years. As more people leave to find work and a higher quality of life, one in four people left will be a senior adult, living on a limited, fixed income. Fewer people of working age means a higher burden will be borne by a smaller tax base. Business prospects will keep passing up the Alleghany Highlands for move-in-ready sites elsewhere.
The Alleghany Highlands has experienced a lot of ups and downs in recent years in economic development. The arrival of the Lear Corporation was heralded as a huge success story in 1989. Its departure early in 2006 with a loss of 220 jobs was a large blow to the area.How many stories like that have been written in recent years?
Wilson's assessment comes down to these key points:
"The Alleghany Highlands faces four tough challenges: 1) creating economic opportunity, 2) offering a strong housing mix, 3) providing quality public education, and 4) keeping taxes low."
I've read the report, which can be found here: "Challenges for Economic Growth in the Alleghany Highlands" (in .pdf format). It provides several viable solutions to our problems, including the need to keep debt service low, keep bond ratings high, make local tax rates competitive, continue working on capital improvements, bettering our schools, and pursuing all possible state and federal business incentives.
I find fault with a couple of his suggestions - like the putting-the-cart-before-the-horse call to improve housing stock in the area ("the greatest number of housing was constructed pre-World War II") ("If a community intends to attract and retain residents, one of the essential needs is diversity of housing ...") and his call for more retailers to locate to the area (does anyone doubt that there'd be a Wal-Mart on every street corner if economic growth were bustin' loose here?)
Then there's the maddening use (on page 35) of the Virginia Tourism Corporation's bogus Economic Impact Estimates, a report that clearly represents itself as a "travel" study and not a "tourism" study, to call for more aggressive pursuit of that mythical tourist we keep hearing about.
Beyond that though, Craig Wilson provides us with a wonderful banquet of food for consideration. A good - an important - read for all.