Outreach coordinator, Rural Resilience Initiative at Virginia Tech
Former mayor of Blacksburg
Former president of Virginia Municipal League
After 25 years in local government, 12 as mayor, what did you learn about being a small community in Appalachia?
What I found as an elected official all those years, is that so important that you set the correct tone for your community. If you set that tone, and I think that’s what leaders have to do, if you set the tone of optimism, if you set the tone of positivity, of moving forward in a positive way – that then resonates through the community. If I found anything over all these years of being mayor and in being in elected office, that’s the most important thing that I’ll always remember: How the tone you set then reverberates throughout the community.
As president of the Virginia Municipal League, just looking at the Appalachian territory, which is pretty big in Virginia, what do you see as the main problem communities face?
What communities in Appalachia talk about primarily, of course, is jobs. That’s what they talk about. But as you talk to them further, and dig down a little bit deeper, yes it’s jobs, but it’s also all those elements that go into making a community a place where people want to be. Quality of life. That’s one thing I heard a lot as I talked to folks in different meetings in Southwest Virginia and Appalachia. It’s great to say we’re going to put a business here. But what we also want to do is create a community where people who work in that business want to live and stay — not drive an hour to get here and drive an hour back somewhere else. And that is, I think, one of the biggest challenges that smaller communities face is building that sense of place, the quality of life, where people will stay there, build a home, raise a family, and be part of the community. And I’ve seen communities really tackling that challenge. One of the places that come to mind is Marion, Virginia. They’re working so hard to address that quality of life. Clifton Forge, which is not really in Appalachia, but they’re doing a great job looking at the quality of life issue. St. Paul is doing that and that’s what Pennington Gap is working on now. I see that happening, but that’s one of the issues that these local communities are having to address.
Towns often seem to be working on building the same things such as tourism and farmer’s markets. Are they competing against each other?
I find that those issues − farmer’s markets, bringing in tourism, and bringing in businesses − are interrelated. And it’s very important that all of these communities work together as a region. Farmer’s markets are a very local driven entity. That really provides for your small community right there. But they don’t compete. Tourism is so important to do on a regional basis. Communities working together, as well as industry and business. What I’ve found in all of these communities, each one is so individual that the needs are individual. It’s important to look at that community because there’s no cookie-cutter solution. It’s got to be tailored to what that community wants because you’ve got to have the community’s support.
What is one thing that you wished mayors and town managers knew that they don’t seem to know?
One of the things that I think is so important for mayors and town managers to think about is always try to keep your eye on the big picture. When you’re a mayor or the manager of a small town, the big picture is there. And you have it. But then you get that call that the garbage hasn’t been picked up or there’s a pothole. You’ve got to react to that immediate need, but don’t let that take away from completing those larger goals. You’ve got to take care of those needs, but don’t get distracted from also that larger picture of where you want to be as a community.