By Raymond Monasterski
The Rockbridge area is developing a clearer view of its economic future.
The Chamber of Commerce, the area’s three localities and four higher education institutions, are working on an economic development initiative to bring businesses and jobs.
“We need to be proactive about business,” said Gregg Amonette, partner with the Lexington insurance firm Emery & Amonette. “We can’t just sit here and think that business will come to us.”
The plan, called Rockbridge 2020, is intended to market the area for entrepreneurship and commerce, especially in environmental, medical and technology industries.
Amonette, who graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1977, serves on the Chamber’s economic development committee. He said locals often talk about what the region doesn’t have or what it needs to have, instead of working with what it does have.
The Rockbridge area is well known for its quality of life, with natural beauty, historic value and a low cost of living, Amonette said.
Governments and schools must work together
But one of the main challenges to the plan has been getting the three localities to work together. The Chamber is promoting cooperation among Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County, Washington and Lee, Southern Virginia University, Virginia Military Institute and Dabney S. Lancaster Community College.
“This brings them all together on a common ground,” said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tracy Lyons. “This wouldn’t be possible without all their support.”
Rockbridge County supervisors approved $20,000 for the project. Buena Vista added $15,000. Lexington City Council was expected to vote on funding Thursday night. Washington and Lee is the only university that has agreed to fund the project so far, contributing $10,000.
The Rockbridge area is battling stagnating population growth, which could lead to poor economic prospects.
The area’s population is expected to grow little, if any, over the next 20 years, according to data from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.
Meanwhile, about 20 percent of the Rockbridge area’s current population is aged 65 and older. Amonette said the Rockbridge 2020 plan will be necessary to recruit younger, highly skilled labor to the area.
“Millennials are tough to get,” he said. “Some of the assets millennials want, we just don’t have.”
Amonette hopes the Rockbridge 2020 plan will recruit what he calls working retirees, like himself, to the area, too.
He said a 10 percent growth in the population would be significant.
Consistency is key
Lexington City Manager Noah Simon said consistency is crucial to economic development.
“One thing that businesses want is for localities to work together, to be on the same page,” Simon said. “If we don’t, then that’s a reason they could cross us off their lists.”
Sam Crickenberger, Rockbridge County director of economic development, said it’s much better for the localities to focus on a regional marketing plan instead of three different plans.
Lexington, for example, already has a downtown development organization called Main Street Lexington. But Chamber of Commerce director Lyons said smaller, more localized organizations could contribute to the areawide plan as well.
While there isn’t easily developed property in the Rockbridge area to support a big corporation, vacant apartments, especially in Lexington’s downtown area, could house the start-up companies the region wants to recruit, Amonette said.
The Rockbridge 2020 plan is expected to advocate taking advantage of the alumni networks of the area’s universities in order to attract a younger demographic.
According to the Southeastern Institute of Research, a third-party firm conducting market research for the Rockbridge 2020 plan, the Rockbridge area has been unable to keep alumni from the four universities after graduation.
Chamber of Commerce officials say they will need to secure funding from Lexington before they move forward with multimedia packages marketing the Rockbridge area. The chamber will then engage the community and private investors in the plan.
Amonette said he hopes everyone involved will be able to reach a consensus that puts the area’s economic success above individual needs.
“Where else in this area are the three localities, four educational institutions and other organizations at the table?” said Amonette. “The answer is nowhere.”