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Community Conversations Visits Petersburg

Tom Barkin addressing an audience in Petersburg, Va.

During his first tour of Petersburg in three years, Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin, along with members of the Bank’s Community Conversations planning team, noted the concerted effort the city is making to create a bright future. 

“I was impressed,” Barkin said. “We’ve seen a community really build some momentum in a short period of time.”

Community Conversations are the vehicle through which Richmond Fed leaders focus on a particular region and meet with small groups of stakeholders to learn about the well-being of the communities in that region, and about looming issues these towns and cities face. The Richmond Fed also explores ways to collaborate that may benefit these communities, and shares and gathers information about the economy.

During the February 23–24 visit to the Petersburg area, Barkin, Virginia Regional Executive Renee Haltom and Virginia Community Development Manager Tiffany Hollin-Wright visited with civic and business leaders, developers, nonprofits, and health and education administrators.

Virtual pre-event meetings were held with Virginia State University president Makola M. Abdullah and with leaders from the Cameron Foundation, and on February 25, the Bank’s Economic Education team hosted a Richmond Fed on Campus event at VSU.

“One broad takeaway for me was the importance of mindset to a region,” Haltom noted. “Petersburg leaders are working to change the narrative of Petersburg from one of longer-term decline to one of promising workforce opportunities, redevelopment around the region’s rich culture and history, and affordable housing.”

One of the most exciting discussions, according to Haltom, took place with a group of leaders working to build a pharmaceutical manufacturing cluster in the region. The cluster is the result of legacy manufacturing assets, innovative technology born from the region, government investment to onshore the production of critical medicines and urgency from the pandemic. The cluster has received both a GO Virginia grant and a federal Build Back Better Regional Challenge grant – one of only two afforded to Virginia – to strengthen regional clusters, which serves as a signal to other investors about the viability of the effort.

“The cluster effort shows the value of a community getting organized,” Haltom said. “This has allowed Petersburg to not only proactively change its fate, but it was positioned to react to government funding opportunities and a changing environment, like a pandemic and overgrowth in nearby Richmond.”

Barkin and Haltom also met with the mayor, who described how he worked with his staff to turn around the city’s financial challenges. Taxes are being collected consistently and efficiencies in spending were made in areas that have allowed the city to begin shoring up its resources.

A health care workforce roundtable revealed significant investments from the Cameron Foundation and the Claude Moore Charitable Foundation in youth STEM education, apprenticeships and wrap-around social services. Through partnerships with academia, a strategic policy agenda, sector technology enhancements, and employer engagement and investment, the Crater region (as the region is known) continues to tackle labor shortages in health care that are impacting the region. Barkin indicated that this could be an opportunity for whole spectrum leadership, from exposing students to heath careers much earlier, to creating career pathways and collaborations with hospitals and schools to training new professionals.

Petersburg’s school superintendent is doing her part. While meeting with the Community Conversations team she shared the school district’s Diploma Plus initiative, with a goal of ensuring that 80 percent of students who graduate high school by 2024 will also have an Associate’s Degree, transferrable credit, workforce-ready seal, JROTC ranking or industry credential. Her team is actively building partnerships with businesses and colleges to create these opportunities.

Additional meetings included an affordable housing roundtable, a visit to the Metropolitan Business League’s new business incubator, and meetings with nonprofit leaders, lenders, developers, and administrators of other cities and counties that surround Petersburg – some of which were also attended by Becky Bareford, the Bank's First Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. In the affordable housing roundtable, participants proposed avenues to preserve affordability in Petersburg’s housing stock, while creating wealth-building homeownership opportunities for current residents, especially those earning low- and moderate-income wages.

Hollin-Wright noted that getting the various leaders in the room together was in and of itself a win in Petersburg, as it is during most Community Conversations visits throughout the Bank’s Fifth District region, which encompasses Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., and part of West Virginia.

“The roundtables bring together people who know each other, as well as newer voices in the region who are doing similar work,” she said. “During these dynamic conversations, the light bulbs start going off. Upon hearing each other’s perspectives and projects, people start to envision innovative partnership opportunities. We hope to continue fostering these new connections.”

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