Director of Economic Development
City of Danville
In your background working in cities and towns, what are the most important lessons?
In my opinion, the most valuable lesson would probably be one of collaboration. Being willing to work with partners. Economic development is a team sport and there are so many facets in economic development and so many things that go into what makes a community attractive for industry, for people that want to live there, for people who want to bring business there, for the business to succeed and to grow. You really have a quality of being willing to work with others well — whether it’s community college people, whether it’s K12 education, whether it’s elected officials, whether its existing businesses or community organizations. You really do have to have an open mind and the willingness to work with others. In Danville, one of the things that really attracted me to this community was the fact that it really had this collaborative working environment that I really hadn’t experienced in any other community. I think one of the earliest examples of that was probably the formation of what we call our regional and industrial facility authority. About 14 or 15 years ago, Danville and the surrounding counties joined and created the first regional industrial facility authority in Virginia. The city and the county share costs and share revenues on a number of developments including three industrial parks. That became the first conscious collaborative working environment even across municipality lines, locality lines. As you know, we in Virginia have independencies and counties sometimes that create an adversarial relationship, and people in this region made it a point that they would deliberately work together because they believed we could achieve more by working together. That collaborative working culture is really prevalent today, and it’s across city-county lines, and it’s in a number of facets, including anywhere from education to philanthropic efforts, business efforts, government efforts as well. So I think that is one of the most important qualities in economic development that you can have.
If a city or town doesn’t engage in in that kind of collaboration what are they missing out on?
I think your work is going to be much more difficult to accomplish and I think the impact will be diminished if you aren’t willing to work together. People ask, “How has Danville accomplished so much so quickly?” As you may or may not know, our legacy industries really left early in the 2000s and it left the community completely decimated. What we’ve been able to achieve since 2011 with the revitalization of our River District and with quite a few new industry announcements, even in the last two to three years, has all been due to collaborative effort. Coordinating our workforce and all our strategies with our K12 secondary schools and then making sure they all feed into our target industries and our existing industries and fulfill their needs has allowed us to rebound very quickly. Every community goes through ups and downs economically. Some communities that have lost a legacy employer, it takes them decades to recover from that, or some never recover. I would argue that the Danville-Pittsylvania County region is recovering very, very quickly. And I believe that speed is due to a collaborative work environment and trying to figure out how to do things more efficiently, more effectively, and have a greater impact.
Town after town throughout Appalachia are doing a farmers market, everybody’s trying to bring in tourism. Is that the path to success?
I do believe many of these communities will succeed, but each community has to find out what its calling is and what it wants to focus on based on its assets and priorities it has created for itself. I can only speak for our community. I do think that tourism has become more of a focus for us. We have a regional tourism alliance now between Danville and Pittsylvania County that is jointly funded between the city and the county. The city Danville is the largest city probably within a six county region. Three counties on the Virginia side and three counties on the North Carolina side. Recognizing we are the retail and the hospitality hub for the region — a lot of those citizens who live in the outer lying counties come into the city — has become more of a focus for us. Creating a destination tourism strategy makes sense for us. We’re in a corridor that’s got a legacy and history of auto racing with Martinsville Speedway and Virginia International Raceway in Halifax County. We play on those assets because that makes sense for us. I think every community can go after tourism. Everyone can do, you know, farmer’s markets and downtown revitalization and industry recruitment, but every community has to decide what their thing is. What is going to be the focus for them? What makes sense for them based on the assets of the region, the history, and what the people in the region want for their community? But I do believe every community can be successful on some level. They have to define what success is for them.
What advice would you give to a town that’s so small that it doesn’t have a person whose role is economic development? What should they be doing?
I would encourage small towns to make sure that they adequately use state resources. There are a lot of departments at the state level that work hand and glove with small communities. There’s a tremendous amount of services that can be provided by a lot of the state organizations in Richmond, particularly for small towns. And then, similarly, start small but dream big. I think a lot of small communities, at times even in Danville, have a mindset of “we can only do so much because we’re small.” It’s OK to start there, but I would challenge them all to dream big. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do for your community. I believe that anything is possible if you work hard enough. If you have the right people and the right resources.
What do you most wish that small-town mayors and town managers knew that they don’t know?
I would say to continue to have open dialogue with the residents in your community and with the business community as well. Have group thinks about what ideas you want to implement in your community. Understand and share the challenges that small communities have, particularly with access to funding and revenue and all those things that most citizens may not be aware of. I think the more we educate people, the better and more well informed they are as citizens. And then, they can be of more value to us when they come up with suggestions to improve our communities.