During the Center for Economic and Community Engagement’s advisory board meeting in September, staff provided updates on center projects as well as an overview of the Regional Internship Collaborative and talent initiatives making an impact in GO Virginia Region 2. Leah Fremouw, advisory board member and CEO of Bridging Virginia, and Michael Evans, the director of Virginia Tech’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, also gave presentations on their work.

The center generated about $1.3 million in new funding this year, said John Provo, the center’s executive director. Since the start of the pandemic, this has meant about $6 million in new funding to address challenges and opportunities arising from the effects of COVID-19.

Some of the center’s ongoing projects include a visioning plan for Bridging Virginia – a community development loan fund offering small business lending at the $50,000 and under mark – and a talent attraction effort for GO Virginia Region 6 focused on promoting careers in aquaculture, in partnership with Rappahannock Community College and the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

Bridging Virginia was formed in 2020 as an effort to support Black, women, minority-owned small businesses which had been disproportionately hurt by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon after starting, the team recognized a more permanent need for access to affordable capital and services for small businesses in historically marginalized communities.

“We saw there was a market not being served, and that is what I would call small dollar lending,” Fremouw said. “And that’s $100,000 dollars and under. Not only in Virginia, but across the country, that is a huge gap in our capital market.”

The center is also collaborating with the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, Virginia. The project is a strategic plan for GO Virginia Region 3 focused on controlled environment agriculture (CEA), a form of agriculture that allows growers to manipulate aspects of a crop’s environment – including its light, water, and temperature. 

Evans provided an overview of controlled environment agriculture and spoke about the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center, a joint project between Virginia Tech’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and the Institute in Danville.

“The goal of the center is to create an ecosystem around controlled environment agriculture technologies. We want to attract production companies to the state and assist in workforce development to support these companies. We’re in a really nice position to help train people for these jobs,” said Evans.

For the past year, the center team has also worked on developing their own strategic plan, which will serve as a guide for the center as it moves forward. The plan covers four goals, focused on the following areas: project development, partnerships, communications, and administrative structure.

“The next step is to come up with specific action items and develop tracking sheets to continue our assessment,” said Elli Travis, economic development specialist for the center. “This has been a valuable process, and I’m excited to see how we implement the strategic plan and evaluation in the next three to five years.”