Emphasizing support for small businesses and access to broadband for all communities is key to the commonwealth’s economic recovery, according to graduate students in the Center for Economic and Community Engagement’s 2021 studio class.

During the 2021 spring semester, students in the Urban Affairs and Planning program in the School of Public and International Affairs created a recovery toolbox to help Virginians emerge from the pandemic. 

The class, led by director John Provo and associate director for research development Sarah Lyon-Hill, was supported by U.S. Economic Development Administration CARES Act funding and was focused on developing a resource for economic recovery leaders in communities in Virginia, and beyond.

“The coronavirus crisis brings challenges and setbacks, but also new opportunities,” said Associate Director Scott Tate, who revised the toolkit and helped secure the CARES Act funding. “Our hope is this toolkit will give communities a starting point, raise awareness of what resources are available, and help them find what they need to recover from the effects of the pandemic.”

The toolkit draws on a wide variety of information and cases that demonstrate progress in the face of shocks such as natural disasters, economic downturns, and public health crises.

The interactive toolkit includes links to resources and can be viewed online.

Anna Nagorniuk, who earned her Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning and now works as a project specialist for the Center, said one of her favorite parts of the class was getting to work with people from different backgrounds and hearing their perspectives.

“I learned a lot about groupwork. It’s important to make sure everyone’s voice is heard yet also create a cohesive project. I hope that our toolkit will be helpful to many economic development practitioners,” she said.

A focus of the toolkit is small business support, as the number of open small businesses in Virginia decreased by almost 30% at the peak of the pandemic shutdown, and existing disparities worsened for minority-owned businesses.

One of the toolkit’s recommendations for community leaders and planners is to take measures to ensure that local small businesses and entrepreneurs are given the opportunity to share their thoughts on current conditions, trends, opportunities, and challenges through thoughtfully designed surveys, interviews, or other outreach methods.

Students also looked up ways that communities can help to close the broadband gap. One case study included in the toolkit is the Equitable Internet Initiative (EII), run by the Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP), which is an affiliate of the nonprofit, Allied Media.

DCTP works with community organizations including Grace in Action, Church of the Messiah, and North End Woodward Community Coalition (NEWCC), to invite members of the neighborhood to join the Digital Stewards program. Participants in the program take a free training course on computer skills, network installation, hardware installation, and digital literacy. After completing this course, they work with DCTP to set up wireless networks for residents without Internet access.

“DCTP started the Equitable Internet Initiative because 38% of Detroit homes lacked Internet access and 63% of low-income homes had no in-home Internet,” said Nagorniuk. “This project was grassroots-funded and the people involved have made such a difference. They’ve put internet in about a hundred homes in three neighborhoods, free of charge. Also, members of the neighborhood were able to become certifiably skilled in network developing and coding. So, it not only involved some very creative funding but also skills building.”

“The community was very tight knit with strong social bonds, which really helped build momentum. If there is that kind of social capital in Virginia communities, then I definitely think something like this could be replicated,” she said.

Midway through the semester, the students presented their draft project to economic developers in the region to receive suggestions.

“What stuck out to me from the audience’s feedback is some of the answers require systemic changes. However, we shouldn’t get discouraged by that while looking for local solutions,” said Cat Woodson, a Master’s student in the Urban and Regional Planning program. “It’s important also to use university resources and lean on them more than has been done historically, building those university and community partnerships.”

Josh Lewis, executive director at Virginia’s Industrial Advancement Alliance, advised the students to come up with solutions that can serve multiple issues. “Focus on how you can do the most good with the resources that you have and how you can address problems happening in multiple areas,” he said.

“The students worked on solving real-world problems affecting the commonwealth and created a product that will assist Virginians with economic recovery and provide them with a path forward,” Provo said.