President Trump’s recent disparagement of Baltimore has a precedent. In last year’s U.S. Senate race in Virginia, Republican Corey Stewart spent much of his campaign talking about how bad things supposedly were in Danville.
Stewart’s reward: Not only did he lose the election, but he posted the lowest share of the vote for any Republican statewide candidate in a decade and the second lowest in 29 years.
If the election results weren’t educational enough, Stewart may find more insight in a recent flurry of reports about Danville — in The Atlantic, in Non-Profit Quarterly and in Broadband Communities. All make the same point, best summarized by Andrew Michael Cohill, a Blacksburg-based broadband executive: “In just a decade, Danville has gone from having the highest unemployment in the state of Virginia (19% at its peak) to attracting national attention as an excellent small city with a low cost of living, world-class technology infrastructure, revitalized downtown live-work spaces and a workforce trained to meet the needs of today’s high-tech businesses.”
Danville still has plenty of troubles, of course — the Ikea plant there recently announced its closing. But economic development everywhere has always been several steps forward and several backwards at the same time. The big picture is that Danville is undergoing a remarkable transformation, from a Southern mill town without any active mills to a poster child for how to build a new economy out of the ruins.
The recent four-part series in The Atlantic by writers Deborah and James Fallows is particularly important — and ought to be required reading for community leaders across Virginia. The Fallows have spent the past six years travelling across the country visiting small cities in “the heartland.” They’ve produced both a book — “Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America” — and an ongoing series in The Atlantic that make the same point. A lot of small communities are in the process of re-inventing themselves, and that’s not something that ever makes its way into our polarized national conversations over politics.
The transition from the industrial age to the information age has put many of those communities at a disadvantage, because the new economy puts a premium on something the old economy didn’t — an educated workforce. “The weakness is Danville’s distance for established, big research universities,” the Fallows write. “We heard time and again that the lack of higher-ed centers reflected the wishes of mill leaderships during Danville’s long run as a tobacco-and-textile town. In those days, it was more convenient for the mills if the locals lacked choices in schooling and occupation.”
Danville’s attempt to fix this is The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research that brought a Virginia Tech presence to the city. Fallows calls the institute “an impressive operation” that “has evolved to offer many of the spinoff functions you’d associate with a serious state university: Research projects, start-up spaces, training partnerships with companies, alliances with local schools and NGOs [non-governmental organizations], development centers for advanced manufacturing, and a general sense of involvement with the economic future of the community.”
Now comes the kicker: Some of the initial funding for the institute came from the state’s tobacco commission — the entity funded by Virginia’s share of the settlement with tobacco companies in the 1990s. It’s common in Virginia to refer to the commission as “the much-maligned tobacco commission” and there are certainly lots of examples of how the commission has been short-sighted in its expenditures. That makes it easy to overlook all the ways that the commission’s funding has paid off. Here’s a big one.
The Fallows’ assessment: “The Danville region’s transition to a new economy got a significant boost from shrewd reuse of after-effects of the old economy.” They also make this prescient point: “It makes you wonder what a ‘master opioid settlement’ might do for parts of the country that have suffered most grievously from this scourge.” (That’s a good reason for localities to sign on to the lawsuits about opioid manufacturers).
The Fallows’ praise for the tobacco commission — “creative use of a onetime historical event” —ought to give Virginia politicians a different way to frame the tobacco commission. (And perhaps a challenge to make sure that future expenditures live up to that billing as truly transformative projects.)
The Atlantic writers also look at how much of Danville’s comeback has been funded by “a relatively new form of philanthropy” — the community foundation established by the sale of the local non-profit hospital. When a non-profit hospital is sold to a for-profit chain, the law requires that the proceeds go to a non-profit foundation. In Danville’s case, that was the Danville Regional Foundation, created in 2005 with $200 million. Since then, it’s given out $116 million in grants “and through the magic of investments and the market, its endowment is now larger than when it began,” the Fallows write. More importantly, “almost everything under way in the vicinity . . . bears the mark of the DRF.” This raises questions about whether similar foundations in Martinsville and the Alleghany Highlands created after the sale of hospitals there measure up in the same way. Maybe they do; we just don’t know.
The Fallows’ final point is “the importance of public investment in infrastructure, specifically in broadband capacity.” The lack of broadband in many small communities still comes as a surprise to the Fallows; it doesn’t to those of us who live in them, of course.
The Fallows’ Danville series is particularly instructive, and not just because it deals with a city a few hours away. The Fallows highlight three things that have powered Danville’s comeback —and not a single one has been directed by the federal government. Even the state role in all three has been indirect. Whatever Danville has done, it’s mostly done on its own, which ought to be a pretty powerful message but also perhaps a scary one to some communities. National politicians can be glib about assigning blame — be it foreign competition or rapacious corporations — but local leaders need to ignore all that and get to work fixing their own communities. The lesson for voters: If your local elected officials aren’t doing that, replace them with ones who will. Danville provides a pretty good “up-by-the-bootstraps” example of what can be done.