The US Census’ 2019 Community Resilience Estimates rate counties, down to the census block level, according to their population’s exposure to various risks. The risk factors from the 2019 ACS include:
- Income to Poverty Ratio
- Single or Zero Caregiver Household
- Communication Barrier
- Households without Full-time, Year-round Employment
- No Health Insurance
- Age 65+
- No Vehicle Access
- No Broadband Internet Access
From the above map, the Northern Neck has over 30% of the population with at least three of the risk factors listed above. See Covid-19 impact planning reports for each county at the end of this document.
With respect to economic resiliency, the region has a head start through the work of the ODU Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience. The institute developed a Coastal Virginia Small Business Resilience Self-Assessment and Guide for the RAFT ((Resilience Adaptation Feasibility Tool). The Guide articulates four basic principles that can allow businesses to assess their level of resilience and to craft a plan to increase resilience.
For self-assessment, the Guide divides the effort as having four categories to explore, including:
- Business planning including strategic planning, planning for use of E-Commerce and online sales and succession and exit planning;
- Emergency and disaster planning regarding risk and assessing their vulnerability, preparedness, continuity of operations and planning for crisis and emergencies (including communication options);
- HR and staffing, including hiring, training and retention of employees;
- Insurance and other protection for risk management, to insure, protect and secure physical assets and cybersecurity.
The Guide goes on to include a questionnaire that allows local businesses to conduct self-assessment for resiliency and to help build stronger resiliency. This ongoing support, strengthened by the RAFT program, is a tremendous resource for businesses in the region which, in turn, strengthens the regional economy in the face of future disasters.
Regarding the regional economy, the NNPDC has already taken the lead through development and regular updating of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, which ensures strategic planning and regional coordination, both important to recovery and resiliency.
Nevertheless, there are issues of industry and infrastructure that will help determine the degree to which the region stabilizes, grows and prospers.
First and foremost, may be the ability of the Northern Neck to grow its tourism industry. The Northern Neck boasts several lovely and charming small towns, all of which appear healthy and active. This applies to the philosophy of “play to your strengths”.
But for tourism to flourish, the region needs:
- Qualified hospitality staff for restaurants, hotels, and BNBs, all of whom are struggling now to staff their venues
- More accommodations that can handle travelers
- More entertainment venues
- More forms of tourist activities and entertainment
- More funds spent on marketing and
- An Aggressive campaign to promote the new designation as a National Heritage Area, once Congress acts on the measure
Perhaps the single most important new element in the future of the Northern Neck is the impending designation of the region as a National Heritage Area. According to the National Park Service, this can be a turning point for travel and tourism to the region, can help bolster the historic and cultural identity of the area and bring needed resources to the Northern Neck economy.
The Northern Neck Tourism Commission states:
“Under this legislation, and as approved by the NPS [National Park Service] study, the heritage area would be managed by the Northern Neck Tourism Commission, which would serve as the NHA’s local coordinating entity.”
The NHA goes on to state that, this legislation would also make federal funding available to the region and empower the commission to carry out an area management plan, including by:
- Protecting and restoring relevant historic sites and building
- Carrying out programs and projects that recognize, protect, and enhance important resources
- Developing recreational and educational opportunities in the area
- Establishing and maintaining interpretive exhibits and programs
- Promoting a wide range of partnerships among the federal government, state, tribal and local governments, organizations, and individuals
- Increasing public awareness and appreciation for natural, historical, scenic, and cultural resources in the area; and
- Ensuring that clear, consistent, and appropriate signs identifying points of public access and sites of interest are posted throughout the area
It would be unfair to characterize the National Heritage Area designation as the only key to regional rebound and growth. However, according to the National Park Service, some of the long-term benefits of NHA activities include:
- Sustainable economic development – NHAs leverage federal funds (NHAs average $5.50 for every $1.00 of federal investment) to create jobs, generate revenue for local governments, and sustain local communities through revitalization and heritage tourism
- Healthy environment and people – Many NHAs improve water and air quality in their regions through restoration projects, and encourage people to enjoy natural and cultural sites by providing new recreational opportunities.
- Improved Quality of Life –Through new or improved amenities, unique settings, and educational and volunteer opportunities, NHAs improve local quality of life. Education and Stewardship – NHAs connect communities to natural, historic, and cultural sites through educational activities, which promote awareness and foster interest in and stewardship of heritage resources.
- Community Engagement and Pride – By engaging community members in heritage conservation activities, NHAs strengthen the sense of place and community pride.
And, finally, the NPS offers facts about NHAs:
- Fifty-five NHAs have been designated by Congress since 1984. Each NHA is created through individual federal law.
- NHA designation recognizes the national importance of a region’s sites and history.
- Through annual Congressional appropriations, NPS passes funds to NHA entities. Although most entities are authorized to receive up to $1 million annually over a set period of time, actual annual appropriations range from $150,000 – $750,000.
- The financial assistance component of the program is secured with legal agreements, accountability measures, and performance requirements for NHA entities.
- NHA designation does not affect private property rights.
The region will also need a more aggressive business retention and expansion program, which means mapping out a plan and backing it up with resources.
Business Retention and Expansion would require more staff at the county and/or regional level, plus more resources for hands-on business assistance and training. This is also part of the challenge in growing and training the workforce to accommodate business current and expansion needs. There is genuine concern that without available workers, the region may even lose some of its current businesses.
This puts at a premium the ability of the Workforce Development Board, NNPDC, RCC and other trainers, including Vocational Education Programs at the public schools along with local employers, to continue to build forms of communication and collaboration that afford better matching of current workforce resources to business needs. Moreover, the Northern Neck will need to find ways to attract more workers in order to amplify the overall workforce.
The following are key issues regarding recovery and resilience that emerged from on-site and Zoom interviews with businesses, government officials, educators, community leaders and various interested parties in and around the Northern Neck. Most have been mentioned one or more times in earlier sections of this report.
“Workforce is a major factor; the region needs to market to attract workers to support the health and growth of existing businesses.”
“Fishing, Aquaculture, Agriculture must grow to maintain and grow the economy. Explore creating a co-op; attract more wholesalers; explore a Food Hub; Attract or start more food processing facilities; find ways to get more food to market affordably; find a way to make more refrigerated trucks available for food delivery out of the region.”
The Water Issue: “…we must address this or it will eventually shut down development in the region. NNPDC could issue an RFQ for a reverse osmosis plant; and could attract rainwater harvesting companies who would have a ready market.”
“Entrepreneurship should be more proactively encouraged as a way of strengthening the business community and making the region attractive to younger workers. Attract and nurture entrepreneurs, possibly with a business incubator/accelerator; incorporate entrepreneurship into more RCC courses.”
“More Opportunities for Attracting Businesses should be explored.: Data centers, Food Processing Plants, Hotels…all could be courted with marketing and incentives. The region might possibly succeed through development of one or more business parks, and offering Incentives.”
In the end, the keys to recovery and resiliency rest with partnerships, proactivity, and patience. The local counties and the NNPDC will have to work even more closely together to identify business needs and address them as best they can. These government partnerships should include the NNPDC, RCC, the Workforce Development Board, the Tourism Commission, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, and, where appropriate, federal agencies like EDA, with its grant and loan programs; HUD, which controls CDBG along with the states, the Department of Labor, which controls the Workforce Investment and Opportunities Act resources, the United States Defense Department under which Dahlgren falls.
Proactivity means that the region cannot rest on its laurels, while a relatively stagnant economy withers. This updated CEDS relies heavily on the robust, yet still fragile industry mix to map out a path for present and future economic strength and growth. But, as the pandemic continues to challenge businesses and governments alike, the need to grow local programs and resources to provide even more support to the business community becomes increasingly compelling. Will governments in the region find a way to provide direct technical and financial support to their businesses? Will the local government find resources to provide and improve needed infrastructure? Will the business community accept the challenge of making sure that the current workforce is optimized by making sure that there is communication with educators and trainers?
The answer to these questions will help determine the future of the Northern Neck economy.
Patience will be required to turn around several years of important economic indicators flatlining or going down, including median incomes, population and percentage of the population working. At the same time, it will be a slow change waiting for other indicators to go down, such as the percentage of people below the poverty line and the average age of the population. It will take some time to see the turnaround, but gradual change is more likely to have a lasting impact. It will take time and a commitment to long-term change to start and keep the economic upswing. Yet, given all of the natural advantages of the region, coupled with the presence of first rate professionals in government, education and business, we are optimistic about what will be found by whoever conducts the next CEDS update.