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McDonnell’s rural jobs council confronts economic challenges.
Monday, June 24, 2013
With little fanfare, Gov. Bob McDonnell in January issued an executive order establishing a rural jobs council.
Led by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, the panel was asked to identify obstacles to economic growth and to recommend strategies for improving the business climate and quality of life in Virginia’s rural areas.
The council produced its final report earlier this month, advancing recommendations that should be taken seriously by state and local policy makers as they wrestle with the ongoing challenge of growing and sustaining rural economies.
The council focused on strategies for improving K-12 education and the workforce pipeline, developing economic and infrastructure plans, and creating entrepreneurial cultures in rural areas.
Some of the council’s findings are not new. Many rural localities still lack the resources to independently address their economic development needs.
Insufficient access to health care, small business financing, broadband communications and reliable water and sewer infrastructure limit possibilities for economic growth. Skills gaps persist in key industry sectors.
The governor’s council came up with recommendations for addressing many of those challenges.
Some are broad, like a recommendation to promote more “regional capacity building” efforts in rural areas.
One example cited by the council was a community-based, regional economic development blueprint produced last year with the support of the Appalachian Prosperity Project, a collaborative effort involving the University of Virginia, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and the Virginia Coalfield Coalition.
Some recommendations are narrowly targeted, like the council’s call for a $500,000 investment in a state-administered program to plan, design and implement three regional water and wastewater initiatives, and for state funding to address water quality issues in communities outside the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The council rightly emphasized workforce development, calling for regional solutions to address skills gaps, expanded access to dual enrollment programs in “STEM-H” disciplines and a public awareness campaign to promote opportunities in skilled trades.
McDonnell has little time left in his term to follow through on the council’s recommendations.
But if his successor is serious about tackling the economic challenges of rural areas, the report provides a solid foundation to begin.
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