Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission
How do you help small towns?
We provide planning technical assistance services in support of community and the economic development projects in four counties – Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell and Tazewell – and 12 towns in the coalfields in Virginia.
What kinds of things do you do to help?
We over the years have provided a lot of assistance on the infrastructure side. Towns and counties are the primary providers of water and sewer services in their communities. We have worked with them in developing their systems, keeping them upgraded. But more recently [we work] more in the area of downtown revitalization, where we’ve provided staff support to these very small towns, many of which have only one or two employees dedicated to those kinds of efforts. We help them bring in other resources from state and federal agencies and groups and then provide assistance in grant writing and grant implementation so that they can do these very complicated, very challenging projects.
When it comes to infrastructure, do the towns generally know when they have a problem or is part of your job is to alert them: “Hey, these pipes are about to disintegrate”?
We don’t have any engineers on our staff. Localities depend on the professional engineering firms in the region to assess their needs. We have supported several regional studies both in water and waste water development that provide – and we obtain the funding for – those studies, and engineering firms work with the communities and with us to complete these assessments set a path forward for their needs. Then we work with them at their request to seek public funding. Without which they could not possibly do these projects, many of them are multimillion dollar projects, and we are in 100 percent rural communities with very few resources. The population is dispersed across a large area so cost per mile for developing a water project, for instance, in these mountains is many times what it would be in Tidewater/Piedmont areas.
What do you wish that town managers and mayors knew about infrastructure that they don’t know?
Perhaps if there was one thing that they might be better at: You have to remember they’re local leaders but they are politicians as well. They have to run for re-election. So they’re interested in keeping taxes and water rates and sewer rates as reasonable as possible, which is not easy in a community where costs of development are so high. So maybe years ago there was not that much awareness of the need to keep a system maintained, to provide rates that make sure that can happen. But local leaders are really in tune in their communities needs and willing to do whatever is necessary to keep their communities viable and vibrant.
Is infrastructure a big problem in this region just because of its age?
I think this is probably a rural America story. Air systems are about 40 to 50 years old now. A lot of them were funded in the late 1960s and 1970s under the old Great Society programs. And there was funding then that was targeted to rural communities through agencies like the Appalachian Regional Commission, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. Through HUD, through HEW then. So there was a lot of infrastructure development in the 70s. So at this point, where those communities spent the last 40-plus years building out their systems to serve as many customers as they could, they’re now faced with the huge cost of replacing those systems. The bias in funding is more toward, has always been toward, new connections. That’s changing and we’re seeing more and more willingness for funders to replace projects. So that is changing.
So you’re in a specific geographic region. Are there counterpart organizations like yours that small-town leaders could look for?
Absolutely. During the Great Society programs, there was an emphasis, especially in ARC and EDA, on the development of local development districts or economic development districts. And in 1970, Virginia formalized that in the formation of planning district commissions all over the state. At present there are 21 planning districts in Virginia that cover the entire state. Many of those are in rural communities, in fact most of them. So each one of them has staff that’s dedicated to working with towns and counties. There’s a Virginia Association of Planning District Commissions – http://www.vapdc.org –and there is a directory of all the districts, who their executive directors are, who their members of governments are. Information about the kinds of services they offer. Each planning district is a unique animal formed by its local members, its local governments. And the boards are at least 51 percent elected officials, so those boards develop the priorities for the things that they want the planning district commissions to work on. Most of us do annual work programs and strategic plans that involve our locality. So we are very in tune, each one of us, with our local needs.