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Rendevous with destiny / February 07, 2018
The numbers are in, and boy are they ugly: Southside Virginia and most other rural areas of the Commonwealth are losing population, lacking opportunity and looking for answers. That’s the inescapable conclusion of population estimates released at the end of January by U.Va.’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, the state’s official scorekeeper on demographic trends in years between each census. Since the 2010 head count, Mecklenburg County has lost 4.5 percent of its population, or 1,463 people. (The current estimate of the county’s population is 31,264.) All this begs the question: What, if anything, do we do about the slow motion death of Southside and like regions?

The woes of rural America are no secret. If there’s any comfort in the latest information from the Cooper Center, it’s in knowing that misery loves company. Mecklenburg County’s population decline in percentage terms is second highest among surrounding Virginia counties — only Brunswick County, which shed almost five percent of its population, fared worse — but no one looks good in this picture. It’s not just Southside, either. As matters now stand, 64 of Virginia’s 95 counties are experiencing declines in “natural” population growth, defined as the difference between births and deaths. More people are dying in rural America than are being born here. You can figure out the rest.

True, “natural” rates of growth aren’t the sole determinants of an area’s population destiny. Migration rates — inflows and outflows — can matter just as much. But here, too, the news is not good, and this time arguably we’re our own worst enemy. We could (and should) be more welcoming towards immigrants, insofar as history shows immigration is a powerful engine of economic vitality. We should be doing more to keep young people from moving away from home. The problem with such a draw-them-from-afar strategy is that major investments are required — in schools, in downtowns, in quality-of-life amenities that don’t always produce obvious and immediate economic returns — before young people will want to plant their roots in a community. Asking taxpayers on the back end of their life trajectory to pony up big bucks to build (and support) gleaming schools, or hiking trails, or arts centers and the like is not the easiest thing in the world to ask for. Convincing the incumbent citizenry to open their arms to immigrants with different accents and unfamiliar ways can be an even bigger ask. Patience, tolerance, willingness to stick to promising but uncertain strategies: none exactly are traits which humanity is known for.

And yet: if we aren’t ready to acknowledge by now that the standard orthodoxies for rural economic development aren’t working, I don’t know when we’ll ever be. Mecklenburg presents an especially interesting case in this regard, as we’re home to the biggest economic development win in Southside Virginia in the past decade: the Microsoft data center. This billion dollar-plus project seems to have an almost unlimited growth horizon. Microsoft’s presence in the county goes a long ways towards explaining why Mecklenburg is now ready to build a new school facility to replace buildings that were built before Bill Gates was born, when the urgent need for modernization has been apparent for decades. Microsoft may be changing the political culture of the county, but for all that, it hasn’t stemmed the net outmigration of its people. Even with Microsoft, Mecklenburg is losing population faster than all of its peer counties, save Brunswick.

Back when Southside lost the traditional bulwarks of the local economy, tobacco and textiles, we got the lavishly-funded entity that was supposed to help the region rebuild its future: the Virginia Tobacco Commission (now renamed the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.) The Tobacco Commission has done some good things in its two-decade history, and many not-so-good things, but the organization’s premise has always leaned in the direction of providing incentives to prospective employers to set up shop here rather than addressing the root causes of why Southside might not be on their radar screens to begin with. Early on, for instance, the Tobacco Commission foreswore any role in helping communities improve K-12 education. It was uninterested in quality-of-life initiatives that didn’t have a business sponsor attached to them. The commission has broadened its outlook somewhat in recent years — albeit only after spending hundreds of millions of dollars with questionable impact — but the fondness for corporate welfare that has marked the Tobacco Commission since its inception remains strong.

By providing incentives for Microsoft, at least, the commission (along with the State of Virginia, which also ponied up goodies) scored a legitimate victory. But that success also underscored the necessity of investing in projects that have the potential for broad, unknowable benefits. The project that made Microsoft possible — the fiber optic internet backbone that runs along U.S. 58 — was an easy call for the commission inasmuch as it was a clear infrastructure piece needed to recruit new business. Yet its impact extends well beyond its corporate clients. Other broad-based social investments aren’t so obvious as the fiber backbone. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be making them.

As hapless as the Tobacco Commission has been at times, it’s only fair to note that even the best-run organization would have a difficult time stemming the tide of Southside’s decline. Our story — the story of rural America — is inextricably linked to the massive and worsening problem of wealth inequality in America. The causes and effects of this problem run the gamut from A to Z: with that first letter, look no further than the gross competition for Amazon’s second corporate headquarters, with states and localities offering lavish taxpayer-funded gifts to one of the world’s richest and most predatory companies, to the last letter, represented by the zombification of America’s manufacturing sector that once supported small and medium-sized communities such as our own. The enrichment of an extremely thin slice of the population tracks the rise of powerhouse segments of the economy: finance, tech, pharmaceuticals, medicine, entertainment, corporate America as a whole. The little people truly are getting caught underfoot. Developing a coherent response to this dangerous accumulation of power and privilege by a narrow elite poses a challenge for both the right and left, although there’s nothing to suggest the current Republican leadership in Washington cares or plans to do much of anything about the problem (except offer empty talk.)

What can be done? Let’s resume that topic in a future column. In the meantime, the most important word in this discussion is “opportunity.” Lacking that, rural Virginia and America truly have no hope. Yet opportunities can be created through broad-minded investments and a level-the-playing-field rmarketplace rulebook that is within our power to create. The greatest enemy of Southside’s future is the belief that things won’t be any different because this is how things were meant to be all along. Don’t believe it. Rural America’s decline is a feature, not a bug, of prevailing political and economic arrangements that lie within our abilities to reprogram. Don’t let a belief that change is impossible stand in the way of making it happen..

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