The Vibrant Virginia Initiative started in 2018 as a way to help higher education be a better partner around the state and promote scholarship across Virginia’s urban-rural spectrum. Now, the Vibrant Virginia team is preparing for the release of their new book: Vibrant Virginia: Engaging the Commonwealth to Expand Economic Vitality.

To celebrate the launch of the book, the Center for Economic and Community Engagement hosted a virtual event featuring book editors and authors.

President and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, Stephen Moret, whose chapter for the Vibrant Virginia book focused on the state-level efforts to bridge economic development divides, moderated the first panel, which included book editors Margaret Cowell and Sarah Lyon-Hill.

Vibrant Virginia has been a multi-pronged effort, said Cowell. Over the course of two years, the Vibrant Virginia team has held 15 community conversations and three campus conversations, and provided funding for seven seed grants. The book, which will be released in Fall 2021, will close out phase one of Vibrant Virginia.

The book is 15 chapters long with authors from a variety of regions, including Northern and Southwest Virginia, and Richmond and Hampton Roads.

“We tried to get a lot of geographic diversity and a diversity of opinions on various topics,” said Lyon-Hill. Just some of the topics in the book include entrepreneurship; STEM educational opportunities; public art; the addiction crisis; refugee, migrant, and community partnerships; and broadband access.

One of the main takeaways from the book is that local vibrancy is linked to regional, state, national, and even international vibrancy.

“No locality or community is an island,” said Cowell. “Thinking about how we can cooperate together and leverage the strength of our interconnectedness is important.”

“Throughout the book, we’ve curated a collection of narratives about vibrancy and woven them together in a way that we hope is meaningful, with the goal of bringing insights into vibrancy at various scales, from the block to the state level,” she said.

Reporter for Virginia Public Radio Michael Pope moderated the second panel, which included Conaway Haskins, director of Entrepreneurial Ecosystems at the Center for Innovative Technology; Evan Feinman, the Governor’s chief broadband advisor and executive director of the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission; and Liz Povar, principal of the RiverLink Group.

Panelists discussed barriers in Virginia, including the independent city structure. Out of the 41 independent cities in the United States, 38 are in Virginia. The independent city structure impacts broadband, public education, economic development, and transportation.

Haskins, who wrote a chapter on the Southside Community Gateway Project, a public art initiative in the Tri-Cities region of Virginia, noted that the independent city structure even impacts sculpture art and where it can be placed.

“I think it’s something that we need to consider, as Virginians. What does this continuous city and county separation mean for us in terms of our governance and policy-making structure?” said Haskins.

Broadband access is also a barrier in Virginia. While there are restrictions preventing municipal governments from operating broadband networks, as discussed in Erv Blythe and James Bohland’s book chapter, Feinman says municipalities can work around these restrictions by creating a broadband authority, which they can do by ordinance. Through this authority, municipalities can offer any kind of network technology to customers at any price.

Feinman argues many states with no constraints on municipal networks still continue to have rural broadband issues, however, due to reluctance of providers to invest in low-density areas when they can invest in more highly populated areas for a larger profit.

“We’re in a great spot in Virginia right now,” he went on to say. “We have supported connections to more than 140,000 homes and businesses in Virginia that didn’t have broadband access before Governor Northam came to office. That’s a tremendous number of Virginians whose daily lives have been improved.”

Focusing on the diversity of Virginia was a theme throughout the event.

“Historically, we measured Virginia’s success collectively,” said Povar. “The numbers were always very good. But they masked the diversity of rural and suburban Virginia. We had a one-size-fits-all approach to how we conducted economic development, which doesn’t fit in Virginia. What’s so thrilling right now is the way that the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, along with some of its partner agencies, Virginia Tourism and GO Virginia at the Department of Housing and Community Development, are looking at regional markets to think about regional strength.”

Also, Virginia is racially and ethnically diverse. “One of the things I think we need to keep in mind is to make sure there are more diverse voices contributing to books like Vibrant Virginia in the future. I think we could have much more diversity and better reflect the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Haskins.

“I see an opportunity here, as we’re pausing and thinking about the next steps, to think about how we can take action and hold space for our BIPOC partners, people for whom the economic development and community development conversations have not typically included,” said Cowell. “Ultimately, my goal is to continue to work to imagine possibilities and co-create solutions to economic and social challenges. I see that as our mission. That’s the Vibrant Virginia 2.0 we all aspire to create.”

Watch the full webinar here.

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