The U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service, EPA and the Appalachian Regional Commission have teamed up with Smart Growth America, to deliver what’s dubbed “Cool & Connected” technical assistance, a workshop series designed to help rural communities find new economic opportunities by leveraging investments in broadband, or reliable, high-speed internet access.
Since the first two workshops in Zanesville, Ohio and Williamson, West Vs., the coalition has taken the effort to 11 more communities across the Appalachian region. Smart Growth America is a leading advocate for federal policies and programs that support great neighborhood development. Its research helps shape the national discourse around how development strategies can help improve lives for Americans everywhere.
One of the communities to reap benefits from the workshop is Bluefield, West Va., a community whose economy was once centered around coal and rail, but has taken strategic steps to diversify its economy and attract new opportunities for its residents.
Bluefield is battling many of the same challenges facing small towns across America: its population has nearly halved from its peak of 21,506 residents in 1950 to just 10,465 residents in 2014, and the downtown business district struggles with high vacancy rates.
Despite these challenges, the community has taken initiative to focus revitalization efforts on its urban core. Bluefield recently created a Community and Economic Development Department and hired a director who has set the foundations for new programs that help businesses start and thrive.
In 2016, Bluefield received a $2 million grant to set up small business incubators to support sectors ranging from manufacturing, technology, food, and destination retail. In 2015, it celebrated the opening of 15 new businesses. Bluefield also partnered with neighboring city Princeton to become a West Virginia Certified Arts Community to better promote the theaters, art galleries, and performing arts venues in Bluefield. And in the days leading up to the workshop, Bluefield conducted an inventory of its vacant buildings and their owners.
The Cool & Connected workshop with Bluefield built upon the city’s momentum to foster entrepreneurism. Participants focused on new ways to provide digital literacy classes for business owners, market broadband access to new businesses, and to attract Bluefield’s youth to downtown for recreation, shopping, and job opportunities. Workshop participants developed a community action plan to install public wifi in the downtown, set the wheels in motion to develop apprenticeship opportunities for students, and storefront programs for downtown businesses.