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Guest View: The Appalachian-American Pivot

Guest View: The Appalachian-American Pivot

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This past week, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study that ranked Virginia 49th out of 50 states for its coronavirus testing rates per 1,000 residents. The current mark is around 6 tests per 1,000 individuals across the Southwest Virginia region, which isn’t far off the testing rates in Virginia’s more urban areas on a per capita basis.

As resources continue to be marshalled across the state and by the federal government, you can expect that testing in our region will increase in the coming months as more test-swabs become available and as additional clinical laboratories become active. The data will improve.

However, from a public health standpoint, this lack of data makes the decision-making process to “reopen” Virginia a very difficult one for the governor. Without a solid baseline and without actionable information, it is easier for me to understand why there has been hesitancy in Richmond and more deliberation that most of us would prefer when it comes to easing the stay-at-home order, as well as the restrictions on businesses, religious organizations, and our trails and parks.

At this point, more than 40 days since the governor’s Executive Order No. 53, it is safe to say that the final economic impact of this virus is even less clear. In a world of uncertainty, let me offer the following perspective.

This virus hasn’t destroyed our economy. Rather, our business leaders are planning new initiatives, adapting, implementing change and finding a path forward.

Consider the story of “The 1901 Group” — a growing tech company that established an Abingdon location in the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator in early March. The coronavirus hits, and the economy starts dragging. Instead of scrapping the company’s expansion into Southwest Virginia, the 1901 Group team is digging in, making hires, and preparing for the future demand in IT services and remote working. 1901 Group is an example of how we are pivoting to focus on high-demand, high paying jobs in our region.

Consider two innovative restaurateurs from different parts of SWVA: Jack Barrow at 128 Pecan in Abingdon and Torrece Gregoire (“Chef T”) at Ina+Forbes in St. Paul. Both restaurants could have made the decision to shut down after dine-in service was prohibited and business slowed. Instead, Mr. Barrow and Ms. Gregoire shifted their customer service models — Mr. Barrow renovated and built a take-out window at his Abingdon restaurant; Ms. Gregoire is now delivering Ina+Forbes food beyond Russell and Wise counties, even as far as Blacksburg. These folks stand out, not only because they are resilient and innovative, but because they are working to provide for others even during tough times.

Finally, consider Lebanon Apparel Corp. (“LACorp”) led by the Bodenhorst family in Lebanon, Virginia. LACorp is a cut-and-sew manufacturer, one of the few left in the United States. Like so many others, the coronavirus affected their existing contracts and supply chains. But, by working with their industry association and tapping their own entrepreneurial instinct, LACorp pivoted to become a contributing force in the national effort to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE). This is what regional economic leadership looks like, American made, right here in Southwest Virginia.

These stories are real, and they represent something taking place in our communities across the Appalachian region. They represent the beginnings of the Appalachian- American Pivot. This is an attitude-adjusting moment in our history. Will we slow even further and throw our hands up in frustration? Or will we seize this time as a “reset” and focus on re-writing our future?

As we emerge and adapt to this “new normal,” Appalachia’s economic success depends not only on the innovative business leaders like the ones mentioned above, but it also depends on our attitudes as consumers.

As soon as our local businesses are able to reopen, they will need your support. Most of these businesses have had to lay off 70%-90% of their employees and are not sure what post-virus consumer behavior will look like. So, when you are able, go back to your local shops, restaurants, theaters, community events, and farmers markets, and enjoy them.

Let’s put a renewed focus on creating an economy that can perform no matter what else is going on in the world — a truly sustainable economy — because this won’t be the last pandemic, challenge, or struggle that we face together.

I am confident that we can do this, and I’m hopeful that we will look back at the moment in time as a major economic resurgence of our region on a national scale. I’d like to hear your ideas about how to move toward this type of economy in our region. And, if you or your businesses need assistance during this time, please reach out to our office at delwwampler@house.virginia.gov.

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