By John Siddall and Gerald Gordon
Our once-vibrant communities are emerging from the COVID-19 quarantine battered and bruised.
Nationwide, millions are out of a job. Nearly 1 in 7 Americans who want to work are jobless, a rate that hasn’t been seen since the 1930s. In Virginia, unemployment stands at about 10%, with nearly 700,000 Virginians filing for benefits. Those who haven’t been furloughed or fired have seen their hours and income reduced. Others still are concerned about their personal safety as open-floorplan workplaces reopen.
Businesses forced to close under government shutdown orders just are starting to regroup. Some have languished so much that they will not be able to reopen. Industries already under stress before the quarantine — for example, old-style shopping malls — might see continued declines.
With so many people and businesses in distress, it’s no wonder our communities are suffering. For small and mid-sized communities, recovery will be slow and painful.
The good news is: Our hometowns and counties will bounce back. But recovery is not a hands-off, sit-back, wait-and-see process. Just as a person’s healing from COVID-19 infection can require tangible treatment steps — continued breathing assistance, dietary adjustments to regain lost weight and exercises to rebuild strength — communities must actively take steps to get their economies back on track.
Now is the time to revitalize. But how?
In our work with community economic development, we have found that the path to prosperity follows a common strategic planning structure: research; followed by the trio of communication, development and support; and finally, measurement and assessment. Five basic steps, taken with consistency of purpose, inevitably lead to growth.
Research: It is vital to get a clear understanding of the community’s specific situation. Determine who is unemployed and which businesses are unable to open. Study the current demand for the jobs that were put on hold, as well as the availability of workers with the skills necessary to fill them. From this research, identify short-term and mid-range strategies to address community needs.
Communicate: In these challenging times, everyone in the affected community must pull together. This means all plans and possible actions must fully be communicated to everyone involved. One voice then can become many, and the community’s story can begin to be told to all who need to be reached. A public education plan demonstrates that a community is ready for a safe and viable revival.
Develop: Strong leadership always is a key to victory, and even more so in challenging times. This often begins with the elected mayor, board, councils and appointees, but it must extend to business leaders and citizen leaders. Voices carry when everyone sings the same tune. This doesn’t always organically happen; sometimes this process needs to be coordinated, nurtured and encouraged. Communities must develop leadership to guide the creation of a business plan to get companies back to work in healthy ways and to revitalize tourism to attract visitors to safely visit local sites, attend local events, and sample local entertainment and hospitality businesses. Tourism carries the added benefit of bringing in dollars with little or no pressure on tax-supported services and schools.
Support: As revitalization takes hold, leaders must support recovering businesses and the local tourism industry. It also is critical that all businesses restart and recover as one. Communities best flourish when women-owned and minority-owned businesses are included in the general advance in our communities. Specific tactics, such as establishing mentoring programs, are proven to enable this coordinated growth.
Measure and assess: Finally, when recovery begins, it’s important to take a step back to analyze how the plan is playing out. Is leadership doing enough? Do businesses feel supported? Would more communication help?
Authentic and lasting recovery must be a partnership between the public and private sectors. Elected officials cannot do this on their own. Revitalization is not a “macro” endeavor; at its core, renewal is a “micro” effort. Community economic development must be of and for the people; public support is mandatory. While there might be future opportunities to attract new employers to the community, the real work of getting a local economy back on its feet involves the very people and institutions already residing there.
The first communities to figure out and implement this five-step formula will most quickly recover, capture much attention and eventually reap the greatest rewards. The sooner our communities begin to work, both as individual economies and then cooperatively across the state, the sooner Virginia can make real progress in economic recovery. And getting started is so important because this process takes time.
It is not trite to say that “we all are in this together.” Together, communities across Virginia face an unprecedented challenge and opportunity — to recover, to revitalize, to renew, to rebuild.