Small Town, Big Lesson: Economic Development Strategies in Floyd, VA
By Kristen Mitchell, Manager of Infrastructure & Development, Maryland Department of Planning
Floyd, Virginia, home to about 400 people, offers a compelling story of rural prosperity rooted in the land, the townspeople and its unique heritage. A farming community, Floyd sits on the Blue Ridge Plateau amid the scenic and natural wonders of Southwest Virginia. But Floyd does not rely on the annual influx of autumn leaf-peepers to sustain its economy, nor is it paralyzed by longing for a large company to move to town and create hundreds of jobs all at once.
Instead, for the last several decades, and in particular since 2004, Floyd has built and sustained its economy by offering residents a great quality of life in an authentic small town; supporting local businesses, especially artisans; celebrating its heritage, particularly its deep ties to traditional music; bolstering its recreational assets; and boosting its visibility through participation in the Crooked Road, one of the most creative heritage trails in the country, and the ‘Round the Mountain Artisan Network.
Floyd is one of 19 counties, four independent cities, and many towns in Southwestern Virginia working together and with the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation to fortify the region’s unique identity and creative economy. Their economic development efforts focus on economic opportunity and build on natural, cultural and human assets.
Key to this whole effort: Residents and business owners know they are central to conversations about and planning for the future of Floyd and its economy. They know they are included – wanted – and that the town views their success and happiness as the town’s success.
Thus, through conscious effort, Floyd has managed simultaneously to become a tourist destination and a more comfortable place to live. While tourism may serve as an immediate goal, it is not the ultimate goal, which is to inspire people – particularly young, college-educated people – to move to and/or open businesses in Floyd.
The Friends of Southwest Virginia recently released an Economic Impact Analysis Report for the region, which seems to indicate that the strategy is working. It connects the dots between nurturing the creative economy, attracting tourists, and increasing population. The Sustain Floyd website explains the creative economy as a focus on cultivating “the natural and intellectual assets of the community to develop a more secure and diverse economy.” Among the Economic Impact Analysis Reports findings: “Localities that have been actively participating in the creative economy (such as Floyd, Galax, Washington, Montgomery, and Wythe) have seen the largest increases in their population over the last ten years.”[i]
The town used $1.4 million in CDBG funds between 2007 and 2009 to create the necessary infrastructure – a revolving loan fund, façade improvement grants, gap financing for building renovations, and the creation of a new center, including public restrooms, in the heart of town – to grow local businesses. As of early 2016, this initial expenditure has leveraged more than $2 million in private investment and 25 new businesses.
Today, Floyd’s business directory includes a local coffee shop, bakery, hotel (more about that in a minute), a well-stocked country store/cafe that also hosts Friday night jamborees, a world-famous bluegrass music store, antique shops, artisans, galleries, commercial farms, wineries, cider mills and breweries. A quick look at the Hotel Floyd website reveals that the owners of this hotel employed local artisans in the creation of its logo, reception desk, front doors and furniture, which crystallizes exactly what Floyd is all about – supporting the local guys as much as possible, and keeping money circulating within the community. By doing so, Floyd’s residents and business owners reinforce the unique qualities of the town, which in turn heighten its appeal.
World-renowned for its Friday Night Jamborees, which feature local gospel musicians, bluegrass, dance bands and – naturally – dancing, the Floyd Country Store extends the fun through the weekends: Saturday afternoons are filled with Americana music and Sundays with traditional mountain music. Yet, importantly, the Floyd Country Store has not forgotten its roots or purpose as a community store. The first store opened in this building in the early 20th Century; today, residents can still buy every day goods here, including clothes, housewares and toys, or sit down for a meal. Like the Hotel Floyd, the Floyd Country Store supports other local businesses, in its case by selling locally-produced goods, from soaps and lotions to music and books. This business, beloved by residents and visitors alike, serves residents first and foremost by offering a place to shop, dine and socialize, as well as potentially incubate a business or launch a career.
Each year, Floyd attracts increasing numbers of tourists in search of the area’s special mix of peaceful beauty, outdoor recreation, authentic music, and growing network of artisans and purveyors of local food and drink. Yet Floyd has not sacrificed its identity in pursuit of tourism dollars. In fact, its economic restructuring activities are intentionally designed to “make Floyd more like Floyd.” Floyd has grown its tourist economy, but on its own terms, and in a way that attracts residents and nurtures the growth of the creative economy. That the characteristics which appeal to tourists are found in a comfortable, livable setting, in a town so clearly supportive of independent entrepreneurs, makes it easier for tourists to picture themselves transitioning to residents.
This gets to the heart of what makes Floyd’s story so special and worth keeping in mind when other communities contemplate their economic development path: If a place works for and appeals to residents and entrepreneurs and builds on its special qualities, it will attract tourists, but it will not have to depend solely on them for its well-being.
For more information:
[i] Economic Impact Analysis Report, Friends of Southwest Virginia, 2016, p. 8