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Northam turns to far Southwest Virginia during economic recovery tour

Northam turns to far Southwest Virginia during economic recovery tour

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Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday turned to one of the most economically challenged places in Virginia to hear how the pandemic has affected businesses and families and what they need to recover.

“We want to do what we can to bring all of Virginia back, especially rural Virginia,” Northam said during a virtual roundtable organized by the United Way of Southwest Virginia. “We’re here to listen. We don’t have monopolies on ideas here in Richmond.”

The United Way put together a task force in March as the pandemic was shutting down schools and businesses. The meeting came as the local health department issued a warning about the steady rise in COVID-19 cases.

Lee, Wise and Scott counties and Norton have had more than 1,300 cases with 103 hospitalizations and 23 deaths. Ballad Health earlier this week said hospital admissions are exceeding its capacity.

Northam did not address the current impact of the virus on the communities; rather, he said he wanted to hear what types of actions would help with recovery.

Meaghan Healy, the governor’s chief workforce advisor, said the region’s United Way was the first group that came to mind when the governor’s office decided to have an economic recovery listening tour.

“When I met with you in July, it was about actions, and it was really about solutions. It wasn’t about complaints that we need this or we need that,” she said. “I’m so impressed with the work that you have done.”

Executive Director Travis Stanton said their goals from the start were to make sure that the nonprofits that provide health and human services were still able to do so, that people who fell through eligibility cracks didn’t go hungry, and that at-home workers and school children had access to internet services.

The United Way has already spent more than $800,000, and has plans to spend millions more to help 1,700 children have child care, 200 unemployed workers learn skills for new jobs and 100 nonprofits obtain the money they need to keep going.

As business and government leaders took turns telling Northam what they’ve experienced and where they still see needs, access to child care and broadband kept coming up.

Sonu Singh, CEO of Abingdon technology firm 1901 Group, said his employees continue to work from home but face difficulties with both those issues. The company was able to provide wireless access points, though speed remains a problem.

The pandemic has not brought about a decrease in business.

“We’ve been super fortunate because of the nature of our work. But the reality is, it’s a tough slog and mentally difficult for a lot of folks to wake up, trudge over to their home office and then have to deal with kids that are home, so anything the United Way is doing is just amazing,” Singh said. “We’re fortunate but there is a lot of work left to be done.”

Duane Miller, executive director of the LENOWISCO Planning District, said they have installed Wi-Fi hotspots in 15 downtown areas.

“We’ve seen a positive response, especially from school-age children’s families. They are able to go and sit outside and have access, or to drive into a downtown area and download some of the schoolwork they couldn’t download at home because of the internet service,” Miller said.

The planning district also partnered with United Way to create outdoor learning centers. Miller said a mom wrote to say that her 11-year-old could sit at a picnic table and do school work while her 3-year-old played on the playground.

“Any of us that are parents understand the significance and benefits that provides,” he said.

Stanton said that the pandemic left the region with only 20% of its childcare providers and that efforts have been ongoing to build a network.

Pulaski County Administrator Jonathan Sweet said that the shutdowns and restrictions have made it harder to identify school children who are in need, and that local government officials worry about the financial, physical and mental health of their residents.

“This is going to be a long roller coaster ride with lots of ups and downs,” he said.

Contact Luanne Rife at luanne.rife@roanoke.com or 981-3209.

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