The Roanoke Times runs a portion of former Governor Gerald Baliles speech in front of SCHEV (State Council on Higher Education for Virginia), speaking specifically on the link between Virginia’s community colleges and economic development and revitalization:

Why not consider a “Marshall Plan for rural Virginia?” George Marshall wouldn’t mind. The distinguished former Secretary of State was a Virginian, after all.

Why not undertake a bold, comprehensive and coordinated educational effort for the region that actively recruits students and older adults to the classrooms and workshops? If we can actively recruit athletes, why not students and older adults? Why not provide in every county and community throughout the region academic courses and workforce training that engages the mind, lifts the spirits, sharpens skills and demonstrates the power of education and hope for a better future?

Why not establish shared responsibility among our public colleges and universities for providing life-long education programs, online instruction and financial incentives to enroll and complete educational programs throughout the counties, cities and towns of the “rural horseshoe?”

After all, shouldn’t all of Virginia’s public colleges and universities be a vital part of such an intensive educational revitalization of the rural region? And why not invite the independent colleges of the rural horseshoe to join in this enterprise?

And who should take the lead in such a bold endeavor?

The good news — one might insist — is that the $2.3 billion “UVA Slush Fund” could be used as the catalyst for such a Marshall Plan.

Baliles suggests that the remaining half billion dollars — about $466 million — remaining in Virginia’s tobacco settlement to revitalize communities in what Baliles calls the “rural horseshoe” (in contrast to the Golden Crescent along the I-95/I-64 corridor from Washington to Richmond to Norfolk).

The core point of this should not be to pit either the University of Virginia or the Tobacco Commission against such a Marshall Plan, but it should be linked as an effort to compel both — and especially the scions of Mr. Jefferson’s University — to take seriously this call to arms.

Rural Aspirations, Rural Decline

Part of where one can start to look at the lagging fortunes of rural Virginia can begin with some of the excellent work being done at the UVA Weldon Cooper Center in measuring the impact today’s “creative destruction” is having on rural communities writ large.

Here’s the GIF of doom:

While the rate of Virginia’s explosive growth over the last 20 years is slowing to a point (or at least, slowed during the McAuliffe era), the impact of educated workers matriculating from rural localities towards cities and suburbs is matched only by the influx of out-of-state workers (and new immigrants) looking for better opportunities in Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads.

Moreover, the impact of this on Virginia’s political landscape has caught both parties off guard.  As Republicans struggle to maintain a dual identity between a western Virginia that identifies with Trump vs. a suburban and well-educated conservatism, and Democrats struggle between an old-school “pay as you go” Byrd Machine vs. an openly progressive (and in some cases, socialist) left wing that sees the liberals as too soft — the demographic changes have brought very different solutions to the table as well.

Let’s start with the basics.

At the moment, the problem for rural localities isn’t just a problem of demography, but rather that the available pool of new post-secondary applicants to Virginia’s community colleges and four year institutions are rapidly dwindling.  UVA’s 2014 projections for rural student populations have that same “rural horseshoe” declining at an almost precipitous rate, whereas cities and suburbs have seen almost dramatic increases.

This doesn’t exactly bode well for a rural ressourcement.  If the industries and capital — both social and economic — are matriculating to high-density localities, the argument for rural revivification becomes more difficult as finite resources become more constrained.  Should the Marshall Plan emphasize education over infrastructure, what then prevents these students from simply following through and taking their education where they can make more money?  In short, why stay put?

Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back

In Fluvanna County, I attempted to present a plan that would involve a three-fold emphasis on post-secondary education, workforce investment, and microfinance to help revive our own community.  Yet government rarely thinks outside the box, and unfortunately the plan devolved into a squabble for cash for pet projects that had nothing to do with helping people and more to do with boosting personal salaries.

Yet the idea didn’t quite die out.  Former Representative Tom Perriello in his 2017 gubernatorial campaign took a page out of the playbook by proposing a free two-year community college education to anyone who could make the grades — effectively the same workforce program I proposed in Fluvanna back in 2010 and the substantially the same one Missouri employs to great effect.  Perriello is also a noted champion for microfinance alternatives to help create future entrepreneurs in the Third World.  Governor Ralph Northam has already committed in principle to a program of workforce development called “G3” which will help those whose personal economies have either transitioned or moved to get the retraining they need and get back on track.

Already, much of what the Virginia Tobacco Commission has done has been overwhelmingly on the side of workforce development and bolstering existing firms, trying to foster the “intersecting economies” that will have the most impact.  Excellent examples of microfinance initiatives such as the Staunton Creative Community Fund have already revitalized downtown areas and shown that microfinance can indeed work in the United States (yes, it really is a national model).

Moreover, regional approaches to transportation and economic development are already being spearheaded by groups such as Growth and Opportunity Virginia.  Should they take a more granular approach — through the planning district commissions which have quasi-governmental authority rather than advisory roles as the GO Virginia “districts” do — the planning district commissions themselves could be the perfect (and one might say, ideal) conduits to focus this sort of Marshall Plan to rural communities, if for no other reason than they have the global perspective that will link post-secondary education, workforce development, and microfinance with more tangible concerns of transportation and economic development.

With such tools at hand?  That’s what gets the attention of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership to start creating that good black soil where young entrepreneurs can finally take root — and larger firms take interest as the Port of Virginia continues to expand into becoming an international hub.

Sustainable Creative Mass?

The good news here is that the aggregation of big ideas and resources already exists, provided the General Assembly and the Governor’s Office are prepared to act in a bi-partisan and decisive manner.

Selling this to elected officials in Northern Virginia ought to be a simple task: we live in a commonwealth, and unless localities such as Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun desire to continue to subsidize weaker economies in the Rural Horseshoe?  This is a plan that will cost precious few taxpayer dollars in exchange for a healthy and sustainable economic boost in the region.

Most importantly, whatever is done has to be done with a focus on sustainable growth, with sustainable communities in mind, where rural families and rural graduates can choose to stay put if they so desire — and not feel forced or compelled to “make a living” in more urbanized parts of the state.

Doing this not only puts our rural localities to our best and highest possible use, it also holds forth the freedom to keep the promise SCHEV made to make Virginia the best educated state in the nation by 2030.  Imagine a community college system that paid adjuncts above the median salary of $2,700 per course?  Imagine the best and brightest choosing to educate two-year students rather than be paid in prestige at a four-year one?  Or imagine folks who have seen their jobs shipped overseas retraining themselves for the job they always wanted?  Imagine those same graduates going out and starting their own businesses?  Fixing up that abandoned brick building on the main street and running a shop there that other businesses and start-ups need?

It doesn’t have to be imagined, folks.