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Bank Team Discovers Economic Potential in Southwest Virginia Town

A street corner showing shops in downtown Wytheville, Va.

The Richmond Fed’s Community Conversations team visited Wytheville recently to learn more about the steady growth taking shape in the town and surrounding region.

Bank president Tom Barkin, Regional Executive Renee Haltom and Community Development Manager Jarrod Elwell met with a variety of regional stakeholders on May 23–24, including the mayor and community leaders in the manufacturing, banking and housing industries. The team learned that Wythe County, in which Wytheville is situated, has seen steady growth, with small businesses like a coffee shop, movie theater and boutique hotel populating its main streets, and manufacturers continuing to find the area attractive.

“It’s a small town with a lot going for it, including a prime location at the intersection of two highways, the presence of key institutions like a community college and bank branches, and a vibrant, healthy feel when you drive around,” said Haltom, the Richmond Fed’s regional executive for Virginia. “And just like other small towns experiencing growth, they are struggling with workforce needs and producing adequate housing options.”

The workforce challenges include the high labor turnover that many firms have experienced since Covid. This labor shortage is resulting in more automation, which in turn creates a need for tech-adjacent skill sets.

“Multiple firms are installing robotics and AI,” Haltom said. “This creates a new challenge, because the firms then need robotics technicians. The technology is increasingly there, but the capital to purchase it is challenging.” The employers also discussed that promoting the region’s strong Appalachian culture is one opportunity for enticing young workers to stay local.

The team gained insights about how inventory adjustments are affecting data on the overall economy. Some of the manufacturers indicated they have found themselves bloated with inventory as supply chains corrected, while others are still struggling to find needed inputs.

Housing is an issue for a broad swath of Wythe County’s 28,000 residents, from young adults to the aging, Elwell noted. While the area has a need for 1,000 more units of housing, there are not enough developers in the area, nor enough skilled workers to support the construction of the needed housing units. An additional challenge is that while there are large swaths of land, not all of it is immediately available for development into housing.

A plus is the region’s strong school system, which is performing at levels comparable to more resourced school districts. There also is a thriving community college.

Bottom line, Haltom said, “This community is a desirable place to be.”

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