The New Economy Network on Investments to Reenergize Southwest Virginia
Southwest Virginia's New Economy Network (NEN) is a regional group of organizations and citizens that focuses on sustainable economic development and transition in the coal impacted counties of Southwest Virginia. We serve as an open forum for groups and individuals engaged in economic development, diversification, and transition work. NEN has representation from all seven coalfield counties.
The NEN works under four common principles:
Sustainable economic development is necessarily intertwined with sound environmental stewardship.
Issues of economic and environmental justice should always be considered and valued when making decisions about the future of our region.
We are stronger through collaboration.
Everyone's voice is essential and will be given equal consideration in discussions and decision-making.
NEN has collectively identified the following subjects as crucial pieces of a sustainable economic transition in Southwest Virginia in light of the elimination of the Virginia coal tax credits.
Equitable Land Ownership
The existing land ownership structures in Southwest Virginia are inequitable and have hindered local tax revenues, kept landholding corporations anonymous to communities, and restricted economic development opportunities in the region. To address this issue, Southwest Virginia needs support to change the tax structure on large absentee landholders so localities can raise tax revenues, incentivize development and use of the land, and encourage the sale of land back to our community. Counties need funding to provide public access to accessible and up-to-date virtual land ownership records that include landowner, acreage, and assessed value. We must also ensure fair and economically viable land access opportunities for local agriculture and other land uses by incentivizing multi-year leasing on undeveloped property.
Education and Workforce Support
In order to provide a viable economy, Southwest Virginia must see investment in our educational institutions, job training, and worker support structures which increase the available workforce. We need increased educational funding focused on training – and retraining— for advanced manufacturing, eco-tourism, trades, and other emerging job opportunities. We must increase access to basic life and family necessities such as affordable housing and childcare.
Cooperative and Small Business Support
In order to diversify and increase the resilience of Southwest Virginia's economy, the region needs increased support of small businesses and entrepreneurs. Information on new business models such as worker-owned and customer-owned cooperative businesses need to be made available by our local business support systems. Cooperative enterprises are more resilient during economic hardships and circulate more wealth locally. By building and diversifying statewide support of these business models, we are building resilience in our community.
Recreation and Tourism
Tourism has been identified as a significant piece of the economic future in Southwest Virginia. The Commonwealth must continue to enhance our eco and cultural tourism economies by investing in regional marketing efforts, training for key staff, and infrastructure. This must be done in a way that ensures the development of recreation infrastructure is conducted in an environmentally responsible and sustainable way.
Mine Land Reclamation
Abandoned mine lands, lands mined before 1977, across Southwest Virginia hinder economic development opportunities, negatively impact our environment, and endanger our communities. The Commonwealth must invest in restoring mined lands and brownfields across the region while improving our environment, creating jobs, and increasing economic opportunities in the most coal impacted communities of Virginia.
In order to transition from the coal economy, Southwest Virginia must have equal access to new energy development opportunities such as solar energy. Incentivizing and supporting local alternative energy businesses, manufacturing, and development is imperative. Development should be done in a way that maximizes the use of coal impacted lands, such as abandoned mine lands and brownfields, while preserving farmland. Access to cost-effective renewable energy should be incentivized for low-to-moderate-income communities. Shared solar programs should also be made available through our local utilities to increase accessibility to all community members.
In order to grow our workforce and provide adequate healthcare and recovery options, the Commonwealth must support individuals experiencing substance abuse and mental health needs. We need to provide better support for individuals recovering from drug abuse, ensuring a system to transition them back into the workforce and creating positive relationships with their communities.
NEN recognizes that this is not an exhaustive list of the needs of Southwest Virginia. As such, we believe that these conversations must be ongoing. Future listening sessions should be held in a more accessible and strategic manner that puts public engagement first. These efforts must be coordinated with the appropriate organizations as designated by the Commonwealth, including the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice, to ensure these critical opportunities for impacted communities are held in a just, lawful, and equitable manner. Engagement with Southwest Virginia communities cannot end here if we are to have a successful economic transition. Furthermore, allocation of and decisions about funding should also include the range of organizations in the region that are working to build a revitalized economy. The state should consider alternative funding mechanisms, including the creation of a just transition fund to be managed by existing state agencies.