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February 23, 2022 | Tom Ballard

Remote worker phenomenon driving a new strategy in SW Virginia

Identifying successful economic development strategies for less populated, more rural communities is a priority for many states, and we just learned of one just across the Virginia-Tennessee state line in Duffield. The region, which is part of the Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol, TN-VA Combined Statistical Area, is focused on taking advantage of the remote worker phenomenon as an economic development driver.

The Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority (LPRIFA) is driving the initiative that goes by the name of the “LPRIFA Fuse Playbook.” The organization was chartered in 2019 and includes the City of Norton, VA and the Counties of Dickenson, Lee, Scott and Wise. Together, the four counties have a population of just under 100,000 people, so alternative economic development strategies make a good deal of sense.

“Instead of asking for help, we are flipping the narrative,” says Will Payne, Managing Partner at Coalfield Strategies LLC, a consultant to the project. “We are building a business attraction process that begins with a conversation about our capabilities and what we bring to the table. We are helping global and national companies address very real issues in talent attraction and retention.”

According to this news release (LPRIFA Fuse Playbook press release – Final), the project began with research that helped to confirm market demand and to catalog the region’s assets in terms of the new opportunity, which reaches beyond telework to include remote work. The “LPRIFA Fuse Playbook” introduces a model for building relevance by aligning the assets of the localities with market opportunities.

In terms of the telework and remote work phenomenon, the study identified four opportunities for LPRIFA communities based on changes in the employment market: (1) employers are offering new types of employment packages, including support for living remotely and using co-working spaces; (2) real estate needs have changed – companies are designing workspaces to accommodate workers who won’t be in the workplace every day and who might be working new hours; (3) customer service via teleworkers is growing in sophistication and pay scales, so the teleworking workforce must be able to learn constantly and adjust, to access more lucrative compensation and (4) there are more jobs than applicants, and companies are looking for partnership with communities to find and retain quality employees.

As a result of these trends, five conditions exist that localities must meet to be ready for private partners:

  • Ubiquitous internet connectivity and a reliable transportation network;
  • Downtown buildings with cutting-edge office space options that can offer connectivity and meeting space;
  • Diverse housing options that are affordable and walkable to retail and entertainment venues;
  • A tight network with academic partners to help companies with talent planning through upskilling and reskilling programs and employee experience strategies; and
  • The innovative mindset necessary to tailor Virginia’s telework incentives to the broader aspects of the elastic workplace.

Finally, the “LPRIFA Fuse Playbook” identifies seven essential actions that localities must take to capture the interest of companies and workers seeking a new work/life experience. They are:

  • Inspire companies to build with the region, not just in it;
  • Develop the downtowns;
  • Design communities around employers’ and workers’ lifestyle priorities;
  • Deliver universal internet connectivity ahead of schedule;
  • Help prevent talent attrition by leveraging higher education opportunities;
  • Involve current companies in helping new companies enter the region; and
  • Target community-minded employers to attract to the region.