How do you market Floyd County?
Floyd County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director John McEnhill keeps it simple: “Quality of life matters,” he said. “We’ve got rural, small town charm and super-fast internet.” McEnhill recently attended a summit hosted by OnwardNRV at Radford University where business leaders, economic development professionals, chamber representatives and more came together to brainstorm ideas for how to promote the strengths of the New River Valley.
McEnhill said one of his primary takeaways from the event was that the “proactive” management of Citizens Telephone Cooperative in Floyd, which has supported the growth of a robust, affordable broadband network, has accomplished two goals. First, it has increased the quality of life for those already subscribed to Citizens’ services, and second, it has helped sell the region to others as a place where new businesses can take root and grow. High-speed internet can enable both home-based businesses and telecommuting, McEnhill explained.
While the summit encompassed the entire New River Valley, McEnhill offered some observations specific to Floyd. According to McEnhill, the manufacturing industry is still central to the economic growth and success of Floyd County. Yes, McEnhill said, automation and technology have replaced some manufacturing jobs in the region, but “there is more need for critical thinking and being able to manage and fix technology,” he explained. “The challenge is, especially in manufacturing, getting worker training for the new jobs” to help with that transition. McEnhill said there are state and federal programs that can support this job training, and that institutions such as New River Community College also play a “special role” in helping people stay abreast of new technology so they can remain in their chosen industry and be “gainfully employed.”
Marty Holliday, director of the New River Workforce Development Bureau, agreed with McEnhill’s assessment. “Manufacturing is still the backbone of our region…when you look at the numbers of actual wages, manufacturing is still king,” Holliday said. Holliday said the bureau focuses its energy on preparing people for “heavy demand occupations that pay livable and sustainable wages,” and manufacturing jobs fit the bill. Holliday cited Hollingsworth & Vose and Crenshaw Lighting as two success stories in Floyd.
According to Holliday, “We do a lot to support manufacturing because if we lost it, it would be pretty awful economically speaking.” This means supporting job training programs but also, educating students and parents about alternatives to attending a traditional four-year university after high school. Holliday said this starts with asking kids the right questions about their future. She said we should be “focusing on, what is it that you really want to do every day? Start with that, and then ask, what are the education requirements for that?” It’s important to help students understand all the opportunities in the region, and to get parental “buy-in” to the idea that their children can have fulfilling, stable careers without necessarily going to a four-year school, especially in rural areas.
“Their parents may still be thinking the best course of action is a four-year degree,” Holliday said. “In today’s world, that’s not necessarily so.” Holliday explained that many technical skill jobs require only two years of education and can offer starting salaries between $30,000 and $50,000 per year. “We’ve got some kids coming out with college degrees that can’t make that kind of money, and they’ve got student loan debt,” Holliday concluded.
The basis of a vibrant economy, Holliday said, are things you can “make, grow, or dig out of the ground.” In Floyd, Holliday said, this could mean manufacturing or industries like agribusiness or art. “Making things is the basis of an economy, and I love that in Floyd there’s a whole art community—some of those artists are pulling in money from outside the county, state and country. They’re making the pie bigger, because they’re bringing in money from somewhere else.” McEnhill echoed the sentiment: “Our best bet is small and medium-sized businesses with artistic focus,” he said.