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A Renaissance for Southwest Virginia?

Coal was once king of the economy in Appalachia, but with climate change and the advent of the pandemic, it’s a new day. And that has leaders in the region calling this moment a huge opportunity to finally diversify its economy and attract people who could live anywhere, to move here.

That’s what Mary Trigiani did. She’s an executive communicator who worked in Silicon Valley and Chicago. She recently came home to a place she believes is finally ready to create a diversified vibrant economy despite the obstacles.

“You’re running into a heartfelt, sincere, and valid devotion to the coal industry.” she says. “You're trying to navigate its clear demise, as we knew it anyway, with a broader sense of what humans can do in the face of this type of a change.”

Trigiani’s family emigrated from Italy at the turn of the 20th century and ultimately landed in Big Stone Gap.  The family didn’t work in the coal fields but most everyone else’s did.  Her sister, Adrianna Trigiani became a film maker, while Mary’s passion is the Italian Renaissance-- also a time of pandemic-- and she says that era taught her something about transformation.

“It struck me that if Italy could resuscitate after a plague that changed the entire labor landscape, changed the commerce landscape, then it's just a human story of what humans can do that is unlimited.”

Trigiani says now is the time to prove that.  And to explore new ways to live and work from anywhere, that have become the norm in the pandemic. So instead of being clustered in crowded cities, with high prices and little open space, she says, why not pick up your laptop and move house to a place like southwestern Virginia. And she says now is the time to lay the groundwork.

“The thing about this region is, there's a lot of moving parts in this because there are a lot of things we have to restabilize. But I fervently believe it's going to take an equal partnership between investors in the private sector, public sector funds, private visionaries, government leaders, and a willingness to try something new.”

And that’s an important goal that’s been on the agenda for the last 3 decades now, says Shannon Blevins, Vice Chancellor at the University of Virginia at Wise, Shannon Blevins. But she says now might finally be the time for this to happen.

“You know, a lot of folks are looking at this region because they say that you can have a quality of life, especially if you have the ability to bring your job with you. The investments over the last two decades in this region, in things like broadband, certainly have yielded the opportunities for people to bring their jobs away with them.

Blevins points to the outdoor recreational activities available in rural southern Virginia, affordable land, a robust and burgeoning tech sector, and just last week, Governor Ralph Northam announced a new 7-hundred-million-dollar infusion from the Pandemic Relief Fund for additional broadband in the region by 2024.

“These are all things that have to be part of this, and they have to be orchestrated and they have to be measured,” she says.

Again, Mary Trigiani:

“It can't be political machinery. It has to be productive machinery that includes politicians, business, the academic sector. We have an opportunity here to figure this out because we have a lot of smart people in the region thinking about this. It's an execution issue along with making sure everybody shares the vision.”


Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.