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Research Hosts Community Conversations During Pandemic

Despite the need to pivot to a remote working posture this year, the Richmond Fed found ways to connect with small business and community leaders throughout the Fifth District in a series of Community Conversations.

Launched by the Research department last year, Community Conversations is the vehicle through which the Bank’s Regional Executives, Community Development Regional Managers and Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin spend one-to-two days in a particular region meeting with small groups of stakeholders to learn more about the wellbeing of and looming issues in those towns and cities, and ways the Richmond Fed can help. The team also keeps an eye out for innovative solutions that communities have found to their challenges, in hopes of sharing those ideas with other regions, as well as helping Richmond Fed researchers better understand what works on the ground. The visits also provide an opportunity for Richmond Fed leadership to share and gather information about the economy.

“In order for us to work on ways to strengthen our communities, we have to know them, and the best way to do that is to directly engage and to go to meet them where they are,” said Ann Macheras, group vice president of Research.

Two sessions of Community Conversations took place in North Carolina in February, before the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed in-person gatherings. North Carolina Regional Executive Matthew Martin and Community Development Regional Manager Erika Bell hosted visits in Durham and Chapel Hill with university leaders and students, and later that month, met with business leaders and community college leaders in Raleigh and Fayetteville.

Virginia Regional Executive Renee Haltom partnered with Community Development Regional Manager Tiffany Hollin-Wright to host visits to the Hampton Roads area and to the Shenandoah Valley. Their partially virtual and partially socially distant tours included a roundtable on how Hampton Roads planned to rebuild after Covid-19, as well as tours of two Opportunity Zones in Norfolk. In the Valley, the Bank explored entrepreneurship, broadband access and challenges facing the agriculture sector.

In late September, Maryland Regional Executive Andy Bauer and Community Development Regional Manager Peter Dolkart hosted visits to towns on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Barkin and the Community Conversations planning team also conducted visits to the north central West Virginia cities of Buchannon, Elkins and Bridgeport, where broadband, and community and economic development finance were among the topics of discussion. They also visited the North Carolina cities of Hickory and Morganton, which included a tour of a workforce center and a plant that employs textile workers, and also a tour of Hickory’s revitalized downtown.

The most recent Community Conversations took place on Nov. 18–19 in the southern Maryland towns of Lexington, Leonardtown and Saint Mary’s. A key takeaway was how important collaboration has become to leaders in each town as they work together to improve education, enhance workforce development, and foster business creation and development.

“They appreciated our taking the time to listen to their stories and learn about what makes that region’s economy special,” Bauer said. “We’ll use this insight to help us improve our research into regional differences.”

The events were designed to ensure that Barkin received timely and relevant insights from each region.  While he has participated in 90 virtual speaking engagements, 33 press interviews and 272 virtual or socially distant one-on-ones since the start of the pandemic, being able to set foot on the ground across the District was meaningful, he said.

“There is nothing quite like being in a town to understand what is going on, especially now when the economic data we’ve usually relied on can’t keep pace with what is happening on the ground,” Barkin said. “Being able to walk up and down the main street of a town to see what is open and what isn’t or even have a socially distanced one-on-one with a community leader – you learn so much from those experiences.”

Our Regional Executives agree, and they are already planning Community Conversations for 2021.

“It’s important that we stay connected to the leaders and residents in our region, both to remain aware of their needs and to continue learning how the Richmond Fed can make an impact,” Martin said.

Haltom concurs: “As we plan our schedule, we’re always open to ideas about areas we should consider visiting and stakeholders with whom we should connect. We invite leaders and residents in the Fifth District to suggest things we should see and people we should talk to in order to get to know our communities.”

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