WISE — The fifth annual Southwest Virginia Economic Forum’s switch from a live May event to a virtual two-day conference inadvertently set the tone for Thursday’s closing sessions, and area business and education leaders talked about existing with COVID-19.
UVA Wise Chancellor Donna Henry joined Virginia Tourism Corporation specialist Becky Nave, Point Broadband General Manager Joseph Puckett and Appalachian Power Vice President Brad Hall in talking about how the COVID-19 pandemic dictated how their organizations are dealing with changes in the changed social and commercial landscape.
“It’s had a devastating impact on the tourism and hospitality industries,” Nave said. Last year’s available economic numbers showed $970 million in revenue — $2.7 million daily — being spent by tourists and travelers in the region. That translated to almost 9,000 related jobs and $67 million in local and state tax revenues, she added.
While the numbers for 2019-2020 will not be available for about another week, Nave said “we know those numbers will be different.”
“As a brand, the question we must respond to is, when it is irresponsible to ask people to travel and dine out, what do we say as a tourism brand?” Nave said.
Part of the answer has been two ad campaigns in conjunction with localities and tourism sites in the region, Nave said. “The ‘We’ll be waiting’ aims at getting people to remember attractions in the region for later visits,” she said. “ ‘WANDERLOVE’ is aimed at people and families considering road trips closer to home where social distancing is possible.”
With national surveys indicating that 40% of Americans are considering a road trip by the end of the year, she said the “WANDERLOVE” campaign will feature attractions such as small towns, “hidden gems” and LOVE signs in various Virginia localities such as Abingdon.
Virginia Tourism Corporation is also helping with 90 grants of up to $10,000 to help tourism businesses impacted by the pandemic, Nave said, and 27 of those grants have gone to Southwest Virginia. A recovery marketing grant program has also started, she said, and VTC also has an online industry recovery toolkit of resources. Information on those can be found at the VTC website vatc.org.
Point Broadband’s Puckett said the pandemic and the expanded need for school division broadband service has highlighted the need to expand beyond a strong basic network of broadband fiber networks in Southwest Virginia. He credited legislative and regional groundwork in the early 2000’s that included legislative efforts by former Ninth District Congressman Rick Boucher and work by the Southwest Virginia state legislative delegation to enable new internet and broadband ventures to develop.
“We still have a lot of work to do with respect to residential broadband,” Puckett said. Several grants to various groups in Southwest Virginia have helped expand residential service by providers other than cable television companies, he said, and the General Assembly passed legislation this year that allows power companies to add broadband fiber cable to their utility poles and lease that “middle mile” fiber to broadband companies. That allows those providers to put more resources into “last mile” connections to residential customers.
Puckett said that Scott County will see millions in USDA development money to bring “near universal” broadband coverage there.
UVA WISE’s Henry said that, despite the pandemic’s impact on class schedules and precautions to control COVID-19 spread on campus, the college has seen some positive milestones for the 2020-21 year. With just over 2,000 students enrolled, Henry said the college has seen its largest class of incoming transfer students since 2012. Enrollment is up about 5% from last year, she added, and the college was prepared in one way for the spring pandemic shutdown of campus buildings because of its Innovate2Elevate program begun seven months earlier.
All faculty, staff and full-time students were issued iPads to give all students access to computer technology, Henry said, and that gave faculty and students a common resource to allow virtual classes during the pandemic closure. That has helped the college move toward a variety of virtual meetings, connections between students and college administration and even a lower financial burden from textbook costs.
“There’s no playbook for this,” Appalachian Power’s Hall said of how his company and other businesses and residents have faced the pandemic. The utility’s role in maintaining and restoring power included meeting Centers for Disease Control guidelines for controlling COVID-19 spread.
Hall said Appalachian Power began suspending service cutoffs before state emergency orders called for that suspension. In addition to contributing to local food banks and to United Way chapters to help with personal protective equipment, Hall said, APCO also helped with providing internet hotspots to communities in the region.
While the pandemic has highlighted the need for the well-being of all members of the community in order for businesses to survive, Hall said the pandemic also highlights the need for businesses to help in workforce development so people in the region have the skills businesses need to continue to stay in the region.