Communities in the Northern Neck knew they had a problem. Young people were leaving because of a lack of jobs, the current workforce needed additional education, and there were few opportunities for those who wanted to stay in the area.
Four years ago these communities took steps to improve the situation by participating in the Stronger Economies Together program, which has allowed them to build a blueprint for regional economic success.
Today, the Northern Neck is putting its plan into action by engaging partners and leveraging the strengths of this diverse region. Communities have come together to form the Northern Neck Artisan Trail, which highlights the creative talents, foods, and agricultural products of the region, and to participate in the emerging Virginia Oyster Trail. The new trail offers visitors a way to enjoy Virginia’s seven different oyster regions, as well as to experience the unique culture of watermen in the Chesapeake Bay.
The region has received grant support from the USDA and the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to create the Northern Neck Loan Fund to help emerging entrepreneurs and small businesses gain access to capital. The USDA recognized the Northern Neck Economic Development Plan for its commitment to strengthening the area’s economies and identified it as a model plan for the program.
The SET program promotes collaboration among communities by pooling economic assets among municipalities and expanding the vision of local policymakers in rural areas to think regionally, beyond their own communities. Virginia Cooperative Extension partners with Virginia’s USDA Rural Development office, the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, the Virginia Tourism Corporation, and Virginia Tech’s Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics to deliver technical expertise that leads regions through the planning process.
“The guidance and support that we received from Extension has been invaluable to the region,” said Lisa Hull, tourism and economic development coordinator for the Northern Neck Planning District Commission. “Extension has helped keep the group together through this process.”
The Northern Neck and a section of Southside Virginia were the first two regions to complete the program. In 2015, three more regions — the Eastern Shore, the Mount Rogers Planning District, and northern Shenandoah Valley — were selected to participate and are currently forming their plans.
“The SET program provides communities an opportunity to map regions, think about who the stakeholders are, and invite new people to the conversation,” said Martha Walker, community viability Extension specialist and SET project coordinator. “Communities are able to come together and make real progress toward enhancing and building on the assets of their communities to spur economic growth.”