Floyd, Va., is a rural town found near the Blue Ridge Parkway in the New River Valley. The small town of Floyd carries a rich sense of place and has a reputation for its creative cadre of artists, some of whom have lived in the community since the 1960s.
As in other small, rural Virginia communities, farmers and others struggle to create a vibrant economic future, said Lydeana Martin, Floyd County’s community and economic development director. Martin, who also received a graduate business degree and a master's in urban and regional planning from Virginia Tech, said more than half of the working population leaves the county to get to their jobs, driving to Blacksburg or Roanoke and beyond in pursuit of paychecks.
Enter a group of skilled graduate students from Virginia Tech. The Floyd project became their primary work assignment in a class called Economic Development Studio @ Virginia Tech. The students proposed new green business opportunities that entrepreneurs could nurture and adopt in Floyd County.
“Our Economic Development Studio class looks at real-world problems and helps communities solve them,” said Mel Jones of Columbia, S.C. She is working toward two master’s degrees: one in urban and regional planning from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and the other in agricultural applied economics from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Unlike communities that seek to attract industries or opportunities from the outside, the students learned through conversations with community leaders that no “smokestack chasing” would be allowed.
“Floyd wanted to use endogenous methods of development – which means produced, originated, or growing from within – and which are key to achieving sustainability,” explained Thomas Moore, of Norfolk, Va. Moore graduated in May 2010 with a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. “They wanted to expand their local economy by employing local people, using local assets, and not chasing or waiting idly on the outside world.”
The class of eight students began with a market analysis of Floyd County's assets and then worked to determine what business opportunities might be the best fit. The students tailored their proposals to the community’s wishes for sustainable development.
“The students faced the challenge of working within constraints,” said John Provo, associate director of Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development, who teaches the studio class. “The businesses they proposed were required to promote economic development, reduce environmental impacts, and improve social well-being. These were all things the people wanted.”
Keeping in mind startup costs, needed labor skills, and employment possibilities, the class came up with four recommended green businesses.
Wood pellet manufacturing: Wood pellets are made from sawdust, wood shavings, and wood chips. They are then used as home-heating fuel in wood-burning stoves. This idea appealed to residents in part because wood waste is available from two wood-flooring plants in nearby Patrick County, Va.
A micro dairy: A micro dairy is a small-scale dairy that could produce simple cheeses along with yogurt and butter. This idea would support Floyd’s dairy farmers, some of whom are struggling to survive.
Flooring and countertops manufacturing: Using reclaimed glass and other recycled materials, Floyd’s artisans could design and create hand-crafted products that would be marketable as elements of high-end home décor.
A “sustainable living” training-and-education center: While such a center might need to be structured as a nonprofit organization, it could help retrain displaced manufacturing workers, align well with current tourism efforts, and entice more people to get into farming.
The students presented their ideas at a community meeting at the Floyd Country Store.
“The community people were very excited that we were taking on this project,” Moore said of the reaction. “They applauded our efforts. They were really happy that they had young scholars taking this step forward to make their community more sustainable.”
“I was so impressed with the students I met with,” Martin said. “They were serious and intense about it being a real project. They weren’t treating it as just an academic exercise.”
Martin pointed out that many such studies “go on the shelf and never get looked at” – but not this one. “We plan to use it, and it’s pointed up some really good information for us.”
It’s still too soon to say which idea – or variation on a theme – the community will choose. Feasibility studies must be carried out while investors are sought.
But according to Provo, even if the community doesn’t adopt the students’ blueprints, the team’s work is part of a solid foundation for the town’s economic future. “And what’s cool is we can replicate this process for other communities,” he said.
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