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Regional Collaboration Helps Mountain Towns Get Creative

View of Highlands General Store
The Richmond Fed's Community Conversations visit to Highland County included a stop at the Curley Maple store in Monterey.

A Community Conversations visit to two counties in rural western Virginia showcased inviting landscapes that offer opportunities for economic growth.

During meetings and tours in Alleghany County and Highland County, which border the Allegheny Mountains, Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin, Regional Executive Renee Haltom and Community Development Manager Jarrod Elwell discovered that the natural resources and beauty in the area offer prime possibilities for drawing more residents and industry.

“Both regions have strong tourism potential and have invested significantly in a ‘sense of place’ to retain current residents, interest new workers and capitalize on tourism,” Haltom said, noting that Alleghany’s natural materials and history in mining and railroading are rich foundations upon which they can build.

During their stop in Alleghany County (which includes the city of Covington and town of Clifton Forge), the Community Conversations team hosted a business leader roundtable and met with several CEOs to hear their perspective on the region’s strengths and challenges. Alleghany’s Vision 2025 strategic plan, which was developed about a decade ago, continues to focus on community engagement and regional collaboration to make the mountain town enjoyable for current residents and attractive to transplants. The team also learned about a thriving arts ecosystem that goes back decades in Clifton Forge.

While Highland County boasts just 2,200 residents, the Community Conversations team found that it has some easy draws, including an annual Maple Syrup Festival attended by tens of thousands of people. The county is on a quest to better host and leverage that volume of visitors, and perhaps lure some of them to settle. Efforts include maximizing the usage of the Highland Community Center and restoring the Highland Inn, a 100-year-old hotel — both of which leaders hope will complement tourism with regular weekday and business traffic, as well as serve the existing community.

The Community Conversations team hosted a roundtable of leaders from the arts community in Alleghany County.

The Community Conversations team hosted a roundtable of leaders from the arts community in Alleghany County.

Drawing the next generation of residents to Highland County is key because it is one of the oldest (in population age) counties in the nation. “We heard that would-be residents have no problem finding Highland County and considering living there, and after seeing its natural beauty and peaceful quality of life, we understood why,” said Haltom.

However, the county’s remote location makes daytime commuting a challenge, and continuing to expand amenities and housing options for potential new residents is key to the strategy.

The Community Conversations team was highly impressed with the grassroots leadership in both counties that seem determined to make strides with the resources available to them.

Highland County is currently conducting a housing study, and in Alleghany County, the county and city of Covington realized a $450,000 savings and no job losses last year after an award-winning execution of the consolidation of their school systems. Alleghany County is finishing a new rental housing project that will provide quality housing at reasonable rent levels to retain current workers and attract new ones.

“It was clear that the leaders in both counties are working toward economic growth and sustainability,” Elwell said. “There are stakeholder groups in each community that are leading collaborative efforts. We witnessed this, and it seems genuinely in the best interest of these two regions.”

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Jim Strader (804) 697-8956 (804) 332-0207 (mobile)