Conference on problems facing rural communities seeks solutions

Leaders meet at Virginia Tech Monday, Tuesday

BLACKSBURG, Va. – A two-day conference that began Monday in Blacksburg, headlined by Gov. Ralph Northam, has the goal of helping rural communities thrive.

Concerns over jobs and education were two of the focuses at the Inn at Virginia Tech. The conference is designed to get leaders from localities all over the commonwealth to share ideas about how to solve problems in rural areas.

Northam said too many people who grow up in rural areas end up leaving to take jobs elsewhere.

“What we really need to start hearing is, ‘I live in rural Virginia. I work in rural Virginia. I raise my family and enjoy the wonderful quality of life,’” Northam said to the more than 200 attendees.

Northam gave the keynote address at the 2019 Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity, hosted by the Virginia Rural Center. He outlined five key areas for improvement: transportation, health care, broadband access, tourism and workforce training.

Small business owners said they are eager to tackle the issues.

“We need to bring new jobs to rural areas. That’s important. Health care in rural areas, that’s important,” said Hugh Joyce, a central Virginia small business owner.

Lawmakers said it’s critical to discuss these problems.

“If we get together and think about them and talk about them together, sometimes bright ideas come out of that,” said Sen. Frank Ruff, a Republican who represents parts of Southside and Campbell County.

Members of the General Assembly also said they are frequently hearing about these concerns.

“Walk through the crowd and talk to people here. You got some really bright people,” said Del. Danny Marshall, a Republican who represents parts of Southside. “We’ll get there. We’ll survive and we’ll thrive.”

The conference comes as, this summer, University of Virginia researchers projected that many rural counties in our region will see a population decline over the next two decades.

10 News asked Northam what Virginia can do to keep people where they are. He said he’s optimistic the commonwealth will find solutions.

“The key, the bottom line to the economy, is Virginia continuing to keep that classroom to career pipeline open, and that’s what we’ll try to do,” Northam said.

Northam also mentioned the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville as a good example of how localities can build a workforce.

Local schools said they are focusing on workforce training.

Virginia Tech officials said their agriculture students are interested in learning about how they can be leaders in helping these communities grow.

“They’re continuing to look at opportunities to contribute to that rural economy. Agriculture and natural resources is a good (industry) for them to pursue,” said Alan Grant, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Northam said the commonwealth needs to try to get more students to pursue agriculture and forestry -- two of the top industries in the commonwealth.

“When we reach out to our students and talk to them about the exciting career paths of the future, certainly agriculture and forestry has to be one of those,” he said.

The annual event is hosted at different locations throughout the state. Organizers said this year’s conference is the largest yet with more than 200 attendees.