Facilitating economic recovery and business resiliency measures remain paramount goals for the Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission (CPPDC) in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic as the organization prepares for community response activities in 2021.

Since the start of the 2020 pandemic, CPPDC has worked to connect businesses within the region to important economic recovery resources, including grant and low-interest loan opportunities made available through a variety of local, state, and federal sources. To aid in this effort, CPPDC added an economic recovery coordinator to the ranks of its staff in October. The coordinator will work on a full-time basis with the business community in the counties of Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, and Tazewell to foster more robust resiliency measures, connect businesses with needed resources and advance new job-creating projects.

CPPDC Executive Director Jim Baldwin noted the organization is playing a vital role in the region’s economic recovery.

“Early on, our counties and towns were not hit heavily by the spread of COVID-19,” Baldwin said. “However, due to health and safety mandates from the state regarding masking and social distancing, many of our small businesses struggled when ordered to shut down and then reopen with limited seating capacity or ability to serve customer needs in a traditional manner. We’ve seen negative impacts on the business community, regardless of the fact that we didn’t have a large volume of cases at the onset of the pandemic. Now, there is a serious outbreak in our region that will have even more of an adverse effect on businesses and we are here to assist in any way possible.”

One of the primary tools for the CPPDC in approaching economic recovery is the availability of its new CARES Act Revolving Loan Fund, which can help local businesses take advantage of low-interest loan funding, revamp operations, diversify revenue streams, and restructure storefronts to comply with social distancing requirements. According to CPPDC staff, marketing funding sources such as the RLF involves constant networking with local economic developers, tourism directors, chamber of commerce representatives, and other local government officials to ensure the business community is aware of any and all resources available to them for the purposes of economic recovery and business resilience.

“We are working to connect our businesses in the region to the proper resources and are looking at anything coming down the pipeline that might help our business community, including the CARES Act RLF, which we administrate,” Scotty Wampler, Economic Recovery Coordinator for the CPPDC, said. “We have already received several inquiries about this new fund, which was created thanks to a $700,000 award from EDA for the purpose of economic recovery.”

According to Baldwin, CPPDC is nearing approvals on multiple initial awards from the new RLF. Among the applicants is a local manufacturer that has struggled to maintain adequate revenue levels throughout the pandemic. The company’s project, which could soon be approved for funding through the new RLF, would result in a diversification of its existing product line, adding around 25 new jobs in the process.

Just as important in 2020 has been the organization’s efforts to further address high-speed broadband access needs in unserved and underserved areas of the PDC. Pandemic conditions only underscored these needs as teleworking requirements and virtual education environments have become normal aspects of daily routines for much of the populous.

During the summer months, as COVID-19 manifested itself, CPPDC participated in several efforts to expand broadband deployment to residential areas. In July, in cooperation with local government partners, the organization initiated conversations with broadband providers operating within local communities in efforts to rapidly expand high-speed broadband availability, ultimately partnering on most of these successful projects with Point Broadband.

“We had to look at how to best solve the issue of broadband access in short order,” Wampler noted. “In today’s world, broadband access doubles as a vital business connection, not just a luxury. We helped to facilitate the successful completion of eight broadband projects in Buchanan County alone, all of which are now complete or are scheduled to be finished by the end of the year.”

Wampler added these projects will extend high-speed broadband services to approximately 1,800 new dwellings in Buchanan County and were completed in less than six months, which was “a tremendous feat.”

The organization is also advancing new broadband deployment projects in Dickenson, Russell, and Tazewell counties. Follow-up projects will take place in early 2021.

According to Baldwin, the organization’s focus on broadband deployment will not only continue in the immediate future but could accelerate considerably. CPPDC is currently partnering with Point Broadband on a multi-million-dollar state broadband application that, if approved, would result in the deployment of fiber to a total of 14,000 new passings, primarily in Dickenson County.

That effort, Baldwin said, will complement other ongoing business resiliency activities, helping to shore up deficiencies that could prevent important employers from closing their doors permanently.

“We hope to play a crucial role in business retention and resiliency activities throughout 2021, with one of the primary drivers of that effort being access to low-interest RLF funding for creative economic development projects that strengthen our region’s valuable employers during this challenging time,” Baldwin said.

Added Wampler, “In these rural areas, local economic development offices often operate on skeleton staffs and it can be difficult for smaller organizations to have enough manpower to carry out these vital programs. Over the next 12 months, we hope to supplement that important work in our communities, staying as connected as possible to businesses within the PDC.”

In addition to these efforts, CPPDC staff are staying up-to-date on new programs for recovery and resilience by regularly attending webinars and virtual conferences, such as the National Association of Development Organization’s (NADO) annual conference in October. Staff are also always on the lookout for new information aggregators connecting the CPPDC region with vital recovery resources.

The Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission is one of 21 PDCs in Virginia and includes the counties of Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, and Tazewell. The largest town is Bluefield, VA and the entire district population is comprised of 110,000 people.

The PDC was formed in 1968 and provides technical assistance as well as local government assistance. The PDC has a strong track record of grant management and has brought over half a billion dollars in state funding for infrastructure, including broadband, which is one of the organization’s most impactful programs.