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Education, quality of life gains will set Halifax’s future

South Boston News
Market Street consultant Matt DeVeau speaking at the SVHEC Innovation Center.
SoVaNow.com / January 10, 2019
Halifax County is hardly alone among rural communities in the economic uncertainties it faces, but “bold action” will be required if the county is to avoid further stagnation and decline, a consultant told civic and business leaders Wednesday at the SVHEC.

Matt DeVeau with Market Street Services, a nationally-recognized economic development advisory firm, presented the findings of a “community assessment” that is envisioned as the first step in a turnaround plan for the county. The Atlanta-based consultancy was hired by the Chamber of Commerce to provide guidance to a steering committee of local leaders working on a growth strategy for Halifax.

Speaking Wednesday to a full house at the SVHEC Innovation Center auditorium, DeVeau offered praise for what the community has done to raise its profile among outsiders — mentioning the SVHEC itself, The Prizery, revitalization of South Boston and Halifax’s downtowns, among other moves — but he also offered a bracing assessment of where the county has come up short.

A key concern is loss of population, especially with the cohort that is moving away: families, people of working age, couples who are looking to have children and deciding to raise them elsewhere.

“That’s a concern,” said DeVeau, who pointed to data that point to population losses this decade in all age categories except the over-65 group. “Overall, what we see are some fairly concerning numbers right off the bat.

“The rubber meets the road with your public school system,” DeVeau continued. He said the perception of local schools is “a little bit more negative than what you see in most communities” and attributed much of the problem to the poor state of school facilities.

Based on the information from 1,579 local survey responses — “for a community this size, that is phenomenal,” said DeVeau — nearly two-thirds of the county believes Halifax County schools are outdated and not competitive with schools in nearby communities.

“Virtually everyone we talked to in the community agreed that this is something that has to be addressed,” DeVeau noted, highlighting the condition of Halifax County High School as a particular problem.

“Poor perceptions about a school facility can really be a tough blow for a community like this, especially one that is facing population loss,” he said. “A lack of curb appeal, the lack of perceived quality in public education … even if that’s not necessarily true, even if it doesn’t match the numbers, those perceptions can still be the reality.”

Halifax County, which once produced students moving on to two- and four-year colleges after high school at the same rate as the rest of Virginia, has seen the share of students with postsecondary educations decline dramatically over the decade.

“That is another thing that is a potential concern going forward, especially given the importance of educational attainment in your workforce competitiveness,” said DeVeau. “Even in traditional blue-collar fields such as manufacturing, two-year degrees, four-year degrees, certificates, [career] training is important to your ability to grow the kinds of jobs that every community wants.

“This is a critical component of your ability to grow a competitive workforce.”

However, the survey results also showed that while county residents are sensitive to the need for improved school facilities, Halifax County lacks consensus on how to pay for the new construction.

“That’s a big challenge going forward,” DeVeau said.

On the bright side, DeVeau said Halifax has assets it can build around, including Virginia International Raceway and South Boston Speedway. The county should consider ways it can create employment and business opportunities tied to motorsports, rather than look on VIR and South Boston Speedway simply as attractions that bring in spectators from outside the community.

There’s a “cultural fit with this business sector that is really quite impressive” — one the county may be able to build on, DeVeau said. Motorsports “is a competitive industry … but this community does have a value proposition and there’s something to that from a strategic standpoint.”

DeVeau also said Halifax is poised to capitalize on what he described as a modest resurgence in manufacturing, which tailed off badly in the past decade but has bounced back in recent years. He noted that Halifax’s manufacturing sector has been adding new jobs, and the county has the potential to accommodate more industries. DeVeau pointed to a ready pool of available workers: those who travel outside the county for employment and would like to work at home if they could.

“This community needs better economic opportunities for its residents. This community wants high quality jobs,” he said. “As you should.”

As the Chamber steering committee moves forward with its work — it expects to issue its strategic plan by March — DeVeau also stressed the importance of quality-of-life concerns: the variety of shops, restaurants and cultural attractions, and the ease with which people can find social circles they are comfortable with. He said Halifax has a lot going for it, especially its natural beauty and “two cool downtowns,” but it needs to do a better job in other areas, from cleaning up litter to instilling civic pride.

“Places that have a high level of attachment [between citizens and their local communities] have more economic success than those that don’t,” said DeVeau.

Of the challenges that Halifax faces, “you’re not alone,” he said, pointing to the troubles of rural communities around the country.

But, he added, “this isn’t something where you can paint around the margins. Bold action is required to take you to the places you want to go.” As a template for future action, he suggested looking towards the effort that went into the SVHEC and its offshoots, and said that should serve as the model for how Halifax County can move forward.

“This was a change that the community made for itself. … People recognize this has an important impact on the community, that it’s a great asset and something that improves the workforce, something that improves the pride of this community,” said Deveau. “The Prizery, the Innovation Center, the higher education center, these are really tremendous assets for a community this size, and a testament to what [happens] when people come together and take on the hard challenges and put in the work.”

The community assessment by Market Street Services is available online at http://www.halifaxvastrategy.com. The Community Strategic Plan is being sponsored by the Chamber, county and town governing bodies, the Industrial Development Authority, SVHEC and outside partners that include Dominion Energy and Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.



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Comments

WOuld like to know who they talked to. I did not get a survey. You can make stats look anyway you want. The sheepel that live here just take what these self made consultants, say as gospel without fact checking anything.

Comments

This is a greasing of the skids for an outlandishly expensive High School that is proposed to be built upon the same wet ground which has been blamed for ZERO maintenance/upkeep performed on the existing high school. Quick hire more consultants so the County can spend more money. No town believes its own prophets. Halifax is a great area for consultants to increase revenue. See the leaders out here detest the citizens input. You are all considered as naysayers and negative. Thats why the increase in closed door meetings by the BOS

Comments

VIR is a sinking ship. Don't get on board.

Comments

The information requesting survey responses was published in both papers. Everyone had an opportunity to provide their input.

http://www.thenewsrecord.com/index.php?/news/article/halifax_county_kicks_off_community_strategic_planning_effort/


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