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Editorial: Will pandemic spur a rural renaissance? Or is that just wishful thinking?

Editorial: Will pandemic spur a rural renaissance? Or is that just wishful thinking?

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A headline in The Boston Globe caught our eye recently. “The thrill of city living is gone,” it read.

The premise: Maybe living scrunched up so close to people isn’t the best idea when there’s a highly contagious and potentially fatal virus going around.

The subhead: “Maybe a takeaway from the coronavirus is that the suburbs really are better.”

To which we’d pose another question: Is this the moment that will finally reverse the demographic decline of rural America?

Before we attempt to answer that, let’s issue some mighty big caveats: It might be too early to start drawing too many conclusions from how the pandemic will change life in America. It’s possible that this is one of those bright-line events through history that we can use to measure “before” and “after.” It’s also possible that we don’t learn any lessons from this at all.

We’ve also heard an impending “rural renaissance” proclaimed many times before. Specifically, we were told that the internet would bring about “the death of distance” — that it would enable people to live anywhere they wanted and work remotely for a business located someplace else. Instead we’ve seen rural areas continually lose population while the tech business, in particular, clusters in a relative handful of cities.

So we’re not proclaiming that the pandemic will lead to a rural renaissance. But it does seem worth asking what effect the pandemic might have on demographic trends. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 3% of American had moved due to the pandemic, although it’s unclear where they’ve moved. If people decide not to live in major cities, they have to live somewhere. Maybe the suburbs will see a growth spurt now — but how many people might decide for an even more radical change of scenery?

The pandemic has shown us just how many people really can work from home. It’s a lot more than anyone thought. In 2000, only 3.3% of American workers worked from home. By 2017, that number has crept up to 5.2%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Now, the Gallup Poll says that 62% of Americans are working from home. And that switch happened just like that — in a matter of weeks. When the pandemic is over, how many of those will go back to their offices? Some will, probably most will. But this is revelatory moment for employers and employees alike. If an employee can be just as productive sitting on their couch with a laptop and a phone, does it really matter where that couch is? It does not. For employers, that means their potential labor pool is no longer limited to the city where the office is located. For employees, that means they can live anywhere they want.

Even before the pandemic, the Roanoke Valley had the state’s second highest-rate of telecommuting with 7.3% of the region’s workers setting up shop from home (and one of the highest in the country). Here’s how astounding that figure is. We’re talking about more than 10,500 telecommuters in the Roanoke Valley. For comparison purposes, there are 15,644 workers in manufacturing. (We’re indebted to business writer Casey Fabris who unearthed all these figures for a story she wrote on telecommuting back in March.) That’s big enough to make telecommuting a real economic sector — and one that’s growing. “The remote worker phenomenon will be stronger than ever now and in the future,” says Beth Doughty, who heads the Roanoke Regional Partnership economic development agency. “This experience has shown employers it’s possible and workers prefer it to a surprising degree. It’s a game changer out of this.”

Here’s why this matters, other than the obvious: More people in a community means more people spending money at local businesses. Add enough new people and you start to change the demographic trends. Depending on who these telecommuters are, you might see more kids in local schools at a time when enrollment is declining as the current population ages.

Here’s the real question: Will any uptick in telecommuters simply help the Roanoke Valley, or could it help rural Virginia, as well? The Roanoke Valley has been gaining population, however slowly, even in the worst of times. Not far away, though, we have vast swaths of Southside and Southwest Virginia where localities have been losing population for decades. Could we see enough people abandoning cities and moving to rural areas to reverse those population declines?

Reality check: We’d have to see a lot of new people move in. Over the past nine years, Alleghany County has seen its population decline by 1,298, according to the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, the state’s official storehouse of population data. Are 1,298 people now going to move into Alleghany County? That would be a glorious thing but we shouldn’t count on such a major migration. In Washington County, the population declined by 1,459. In Buchanan County, the population declined by 2,803. In Henry County, it went down by 3,132. In Tazewell, the figure is 3,712. We could go on but you get the idea. We don’t mean to be dispiriting, just realistic. However, anything that can offset those numbers is a good thing, and it’s possible the pandemic might provide that impetus. The low infection rates of rural America (well, parts of rural America) are a selling point, the biological equivalent of our low crime rate. What’s not a selling point? The lack of rural broadband. That’s not a problem in the Roanoke and New River valleys but get outside the more developed core and sometimes it’s a struggle to get enough internet to even send an email — much less start trying to do business.

Fortunately, that’s something that can be fixed – and there’s broad bipartisan agreement that it should be. We don’t need to sell our readers on the value of living in this part of Virginia. But now is the time for local governments that want to address their population decline to start making the case to potential residents. We don’t mean to try to sell advertising in somebody else’s newspaper, but it sure looks like The Boston Globe has already told its readers that maybe living in the city isn’t the best place to be. Maybe it thinks some of its readers might like to live in suburban Suffolk County, but maybe some of them would really rather like to live in Southwest Virginia. Who will make that pitch?

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