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South Hill looks to cash in on Pickett’s growth / June 06, 2018
A boon to the region’s economy has been set in motion by the federal government — and the Town of South Hill is making plans to grab its share of the action.

In nearby Blackstone, Fort Pickett is the designated site for consolidation of foreign affairs security training operations. Between 200 and 400 families are expected to move to the area once FASTC, the acronym for the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center, opens in 2019. An additional 8,000 to 10,000 trainees will need temporary housing each year during their training, since a planned 450-bed dormitory and large dining hall were scrapped from construction.

South Hill is looking to woo some of these newcomers and in the process stem the loss of jobs and population that Mecklenburg County has experienced in recent decades with the declines of its traditional farm and factory economic linchpins.

Convincing some or all of these families to make their permanent or temporary home in South Hill is the job of Brent Morris, the town’s business development manager. Last fall, Morris put together a team that includes members of the South Hill Chamber of Commerce, Lake Country Young Professionals, Mecklenburg Country Public Schools and VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital to meet with families who are planning their move to southern Virginia. Team members traveled to Summit Point, West Virginia, the current site of the nearest foreign affairs security training center, to pitch the many reasons these families should consider relocating to South Hill.

A second trip is planned for this fall.

“We’re competing against groups from Blackstone, Farmville, Colonial Heights, Lunenburg, Nottoway and Brunswick [counties] for these families,” said Town Manager Kim Callis.

South Hill officials have been approached by Enlightened Inc., the company hired to facilitate relocation of the families because of the town’s proximity to Fort Pickett.

“Enlightened drew a 30-mile radius around Fort Pickett, which included South Hill,” Morris explained.

Morris says convincing people to move to rural communities is often challenging, but many of the FASTC families will be coming to the area from suburban or rural towns in northwestern Virginia or eastern West Virginia. This area offers many of the same amenities these families find in their current neighborhoods, and Southside offers some additional benefits, he said.

Morris ticked off the short list of reasons to move to South Hill: the new VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital, the county’s new middle school/high school complex, a lower cost of living, historic sites, two recreational lakes, hiking and biking trails, boutique shopping, three (soon to be four) local wineries, a craft brewery, a distillery, fitness centers, world-class ball fields, local parks, dining from fast food to fine cuisine, high-speed internet, and easy commutes due to lack of traffic.

“One point we’re stressing is travel time and that we’re only 30 miles away [from Pickett]. Most of the people we spoke to said, ’30 miles, that’s far.’ We’re telling them 30 miles is 30 minutes. Right now, many of them face a one or one and a half hour commute.”

Callis offered a favorite description of South Hill: “We’re in the middle of nowhere but close to everything. If we don’t have it [an amenity] it’s only a 45 to 60-minute drive away.”

Callis added, “Our goal is to encourage at least 40 new families here, but we would love if 100 or more came. Imagine what this could mean for our economy — 50 new houses being built, new students in the schools.”

In 2016 the Center for Rural Affairs, a Nebraska think tank whose mission is to revitalize rural America, concluded what Morris and Callis have adopted as their mantra: “For rural communities to thrive, they must be places that people want to live.” The same study identified those assets families are looking for when considering a rural lifestyle.

They include strong, community-based schools. Morris remarked, “We have that. In fact [Superintendent of Schools] Paul Nichols put together a packet with renderings of the future high and middle schools and a summary of the curriculum” that will be available for the students. He plans to hand these out to prospective homeowners at their next meeting.

Also important to families are spaces for people to meet and interact. Whether it is at historic Whittle’s Mill, the ball fields at Parker Park or the soon to be built Kids=Play handicapped accessible playground, Morris noted, “We have that.” Callis added his own list: Rosemont of Virginia Winery, Centennial Park, the Southern Virginia Wild Blueway (for paddlers) and the Tobacco Heritage Trail (for bikers and hikers).

Livable communities have “social capital,” which has been defined as the desire of people in the community to work together to solve problems and improve community life. Morris checks this off noting South Hill is known for its thriving civic groups — the Market Square Committee, Lake Country Young Professional, the Lions and the Rotary and the Shops of South Hill, among others.

In this technological age, no town can grow or thrive without access to high speed internet services. It is a contributor to quality of life. “We have Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative and Buggs Island Telephone,” says Callis. The utility providers are working on separate projects to bring high-speed internet to underserved areas and Microsoft has plans to turn the nearby town of Boydton into a Wi Fi hotspot.

Both Morris and Callis say they grasp the economic import of the FASTC project and want its impact to be felt in South Hill. Their goal is for the town to continue to grow and thrive. According to the last decennial census, it is the only town in Mecklenburg County experiencing population growth, albeit very slightly.

In their meetings with Enlightened, Inc. and the FASTC families, they are doing everything they can to send the message, “We want you in South Hill and this is a great place to live.” A message emblazoned on t-Shirts and bags Morris hands out to potential residents says it all:

“You’ll love the view from South Hill.”

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