Coordinator, Office of Farmland Preservation, Virginia Department of Agriculture
What is the hardest part of planning for a small town?
Well, small towns have typically small towns are places that arose because they were someplace doing something that brought people together. Whether it was industry, whether it was transportation – and in today’s modern society those things have changed. But you still have the towns and the infrastructure and things of that nature. So for small towns particularly in Virginia, I think it’s been difficult for them to figure out what their next thing is, to remain a viable force of human, population centers. Because you know with the way that technology is, the way that transportation is, people started moving away from the small towns. Virginia has a lot of small towns. So how do you support, with the amount of infrastructure that most of those towns have, public water, sewer, roads, and things like that? How do you keep those up and going? I think the biggest thing is probably keeping the industry, the things that actually pay for the utilities, pay for the infrastructure. The industry that keeps those things going. Trying to find, attract and keep them there.
What advice would you have for town managers and mayors of small towns to do that?
Network. Continue to see what other localities in other towns are doing and what works well. The best thing about towns and small places is there is typically a town that has “been there and done that.” And you can learn from that. Attending conferences that have likeminded individuals who have experiences that show best practices is a great way to network and find out additional things going on. I think that also making themselves aware of the granting programs out there at the state level, at the federal level. Those are ways that really encourage innovation. At the Virginia Department of Agriculture where I work, there are programs that help with planning agricultural and forest industries. That’s a recent program in the last couple of years. There is a facilities grant and a planning grant component. So if you are planning for how that agricultural industry, or how that agro-tourism policy might work in your locality or your town, then that could be something that you could take advantage of.
What’s the worst mistake you’ve made as a planner?
That is a good question. Probably not knowing sooner how important it was to connect with other people who have been there and done the job before. Thinking, coming out of planning school … my degree is in environmental planning and public administration. Coming out of that thinking, “Oh, now I’ve got my degree I can do anything!” But where you really get your experience and where you really get your knowledge is doing that job and talking to others that have done the job before you and learning from their mistakes. Learning what went well for them and what didn’t. If I had known earlier on that the quicker I connect and get to know the folks that have “been there and done that,” then I would have been able to probably be more effective earlier on. So that’s something that I try to do; I see new planners and new folks in organizations, and I try to connect them in with a network and resources so that they know that there has been somebody that has done that type of thing before and can help you.
What’s the best thing about planning for small towns?
The best thing about planning for small towns is that each town is unique and has their own thing they can bring to the table. That they can capitalize on and highlight. I think that a lot of places worry that it’s going to be difficult to bring people there. “Why would people want to come here?” Because they might live there and see the things they see every day. But if you’re somebody coming from somewhere else, there might be unique features there that there aren’t in other places that you can highlight and capitalize on. And so as a small town you really have the ability to step back and look and say, “What makes us unique and why would people be interested in coming here?” Every town has that. Whether it’s their history or whether it’s their geographic location all of those different things, you know that’s pretty neat. A lot of small towns are old and they’ve got architecture that they just can’t build anymore. Things were built in a manner that either isn’t available anymore or it’s a style that maybe cannot be duplicated because of the cost, and that’s something that if you try to recreate it as you do in modern development, it’s very expensive. And that’s a lot of things that small towns have. They also have all this infrastructure. They’ve got the buildings, they just need somebody with a vision.
Would you be open to having mayors give you a call?
Sure! And you know if I can’t help them with a particular question then I can get them to a source who probably can.