It was once his family’s farm — the largest Black-owned farm in Albemarle County — but now we all own part of it

Roanoke is losing population two ways. What that means for the Evans Spring debate.

The Evans Spring area is the mostly undeveloped land across Interstate 581 from Valley View Mall. This is the view looking south, toward downtown Roanoke, as seen from the Lick Run Greenway. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the classic 1942 film “Casablanca”!

After Humphrey Bogart’s character shoots and kills a German major, the French captain who witnessed the murder diverts police by telling them: “Round up the usual suspects.” That wasn’t the first use of that phrase — it apparently originated in the world of New York police and criminals in the 1930s — but it was the usage that popularized the phrase.

It’s also a phrase that comes to mind when I rummage through the latest population estimates from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. One way to understand what’s going on beneath the surface of population gains and losses is to look at the two ways localities are either gaining or losing: Do they have more births than deaths or the other way around? Do they have more people moving in than moving out or the other way around?

These localities are losing population two ways. This chart shows which category is driving most of the population loss. Data source: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, the University of Virginia.
These localities are losing population two ways. This chart shows which category is driving most of the population loss. Data source: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, the University of Virginia.

There are 19 localities that lost population both ways — “double losers,” I call them, not to be pejorative, just accurate. Of those 19 localities, 17 are what I’d call the usual suspects — mostly rural communities in Southwest and Southside that have been losing population for a long time. I’ll have more to say about those double losers in a future column — teaser: some of them actually have some positive trends going down deep in the numbers. Today, I’ll turn my attention to the two outliers: Radford and Roanoke.

Radford is the easiest to explain. Virtually all of its population decline is due to out-migration. The city saw 727 more people move out than move in, while deaths outnumbered births by 23. While the data doesn’t say who those people moving out were or what their motivations are, it’s hard not to conclude that this is simply a function of Radford being a university town. Of course, people are going to be moving out of town. Even Charlottesville had net out-migration and nobody says Charlottesville is a market failure of a city. I’m inclined not to be alarmed by Radford’s figures.

That leaves Roanoke, which is more curious. Roanoke, which dropped to a population of 94,911 in the 2000 census, has been very proud of gaining (more accurately, regaining) population in the two decades that followed. In the 2010 census, the city was counted at 97,032; in the 2020 census, Roanoke moved back over the 100,000 mark for the first time in 40 years with just 11 to spare: 100,011.

However, the annual estimates since then have shown the city’s population declining and this latest round of data was no exception: Roanoke’s population is now put at 99,045, a drop of 966 people, or 1%, since the last census.

Why is this? Why has Roanoke’s growth suddenly stopped and gone in reverse?

Let’s dig a little deeper and see what we can find.

How Virginia's population has changed from 2000 to 20023. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
How Virginia’s population has changed from 2000 to 2023. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

As noted above, Roanoke is one of those double losers — it’s got both more deaths than births (683) and more people moving out than moving in (283).

The good news for Roanoke is that it’s a pretty explainable configuration.

Most localities in the state have more deaths than births, a consequence of both an aging population and declining birth rates. As cities go, Roanoke is on the older side of things, with a median age of 38.1, as compared to 34.4 for Richmond and 28.6 for Lynchburg. Yes, Lynchburg has the demographic advantage of being a college town, but the point is, Roanoke’s population skews older — which naturally means more deaths and fewer babies.

While it would be better to have more births than deaths, Roanoke shouldn’t be surprised by having more hearses than baby carriages; the localities in the state that have more births than deaths are almost entirely in the urban crescent. In demographic terms, no locality can stop people from dying and, realistically, localities aren’t going to reverse declining birth rates, either. That’s not just a national phenomenon, it’s one that we see across much of the world. That means the only thing a locality can do to make up that deaths-over-births deficit is to attract more young adults, who then proceed to have babies. Hold that thought.

The more worrisome figures are the out-migration numbers, because those do tend to reflect whether a community is a market success or a market failure — people really do vote with their feet.

Now here’s the curious thing: Through last year, Roanoke had net in-migration — 67 more people moving in than moving out from 2000 to 2022. Something has happened in the past year to turn that 67-person surplus into a 283-person deficit. What would suddenly cause such an outflow?

This data doesn’t tell us, so we’re left to surmise some things we know from other data. 

First, maybe we shouldn’t hang too much on a single year’s dataset. When we look year by year at the data from the previous decade, we see some years with net in-migration and some years with net out-migration. However, for the previous decade, Roanoke wound up on the plus side, with net in-migration of 342. In the first three years of the current decade, the city’s new net out-migration has almost wiped that out, so perhaps we ought to pay some attention.

Second, let’s think of the life cycle of a city. Often young adults start out in an apartment in a city, then graduate, so to speak, to a home. We know from migration reports from the Internal Revenue Service that the most common destination of those moving out of Roanoke is Roanoke County. It’s entirely possible that what we’re seeing here is the natural progression of things: A young couple moves into the city, has a kid or two, and then moves out to a house in Roanoke County or beyond. If that’s the case, then the question we don’t know the answer to is whether that family moved out of the city because they didn’t like the city or because they couldn’t find suitable housing in the city, but did find it elsewhere. Hold that thought, too.

This map shows which localities have seen more people move in than move out — or vice versa. Note that a county might see more people moving in but still lose population because deaths outnumber births — and the net in-migration. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
This map shows which localities have seen more people move in than move out — or vice versa. Note that a county might see more people moving in but still lose population because deaths outnumber births — and the net in-migration. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

All we do know is this: Roanoke’s net out-migration from 2000 to 2023 is unusual when compared with other cities in the western part of the state. During that time, Martinsville had net in-migration of 226. Galax had net in-migration of 233. Salem had net in-migration of 246. Lynchburg had net in-migration of 293. Staunton had net in-migration of 434. Waynesboro had net in-migration of 580. Danville saw net in-migration of 815, a surge that puts it in the same neighborhood as Chesapeake, a city nearly six times its size. (I’ll look more closely at this in a future column.) In losing people through a net out-migration of 283, Roanoke is more akin to Hopewell, which had a net out-migration of 268.

Ultimately, I can’t tell you why Roanoke had this net out-migration; the data doesn’t speak to it. It seems odd to me because I see Roanoke as a quite appealing city. However, I can tell you what these numbers lead to. The Weldon Cooper Center projects that Roanoke will see its school enrollment fall by 4% over the next four years. That’s not the biggest decline in the state — some localities are in the double-digit range, with Buchanan County at -16% — but it is one of the bigger ones in the immediate area. Roanoke County’s enrollment is projected to fall by 2%, Botetourt County’s is projected to remain flat. Only Salem’s drop comes in larger, at -8%.

Now come the policy questions that Roanokers must deal with. First, are they OK with the city losing population again? If so, then there’s nothing they need to do — just keep in mind that a smaller population doesn’t necessarily mean fewer expenses, because some costs are fixed. It costs the same to keep Patrick Henry and William Fleming high schools open no matter how many students are in them, for instance. If Roanokers aren’t OK with losing population, then they need to decide what to do about that.

Demographically speaking, the city needs more young adults — that’s how you ultimately reverse declining school enrollment. The city also needs to figure out how to keep more people from moving out of the city than moving in. Is that a more robust economy? Is that more housing options, and maybe more affordable housing options? Is that something else? We could make a long list of possibilities.

What’s next on Evans Springs

The Roanoke Planning Commission will hear a presentation on the city’s master plan for Evans Spring on Monday, Feb. 12.

The commission meets at 1:30 p.m. in city council chambers.

I mention housing because that’s a problem we see cropping up in lots of communities, and it’s one that looming larger in Roanoke for one particular reason: the question of whether the 151-acre Evans Spring property should be developed. That’s the largest undeveloped tract of land in the city, and it’s in a prime developable location, beside Interstate 581 and across from Valley View Mall. It’s also next to a predominantly Black neighborhood with a long memory of being treated wrongly by the city, dating to urban renewal in the ’60s. We’ve seen a movement spring up to “Save Evans Spring” in the name of preserving woodland and green space. All this is complicated by the fact that the city doesn’t own the land in question; it’s divided into multiple tracts owned by multiple owners, all of whom already have the right to develop the property to some degree — they just haven’t.

It’s understandable why some believe Evans Spring should be developed: If you think the city needs new residents to reverse these population declines, then they need a place to live. If not here, where? The challenge is it’s not particularly popular to be in favor of cutting down lots of trees, especially when the city has declared this to be the Year of the Tree.

It’s also understandable why some want to leave Evans Spring untouched: You can’t really go out and create new green space. The challenge is that because the owners already have the right to engage in some development, if you really want to “Save Evans Spring,” then the city needs to buy the property and turn it into a nature preserve or park.

The fight over Evans Spring may seem political, or environmental, but it’s really demographics that are helping drive this — a declining population, and declining enrollment, and the desire to reverse both of those. If Evans Spring is spared, where should the city develop new housing? Or is that not something the city should worry about?

This is a good test of Roanoke’s priorities.

Open house in Martinsville

Cardinal is kicking off a series of open houses around our coverage area. On Monday, we’ll be in Martinsville at The Ground Floor from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. If you’re in the area, come by to meet some of the Cardinal team.

The post Roanoke is losing population two ways. What that means for the Evans Spring debate. appeared first on Cardinal News.

New population estimates show a rural renaissance while Fairfax County loses big

This map shows which localities have seen more people move in than move out — or vice versa. Note that a county might see more people moving in but still lose population because deaths outnumber births — and the net in-migration. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

Fairfax County is losing population at a faster rate than some counties in Southwest and Southside Virginia.

People are moving out of parts of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads at rates not seen in our lifetimes — or sometimes ever.

Meanwhile, virtually every part of rural Virginia — with two clusters of exceptions — has seen an influx of newcomers over the past three years as pandemic-induced population trends reshape the state in sometimes unprecedented ways.

Those are three big takeaways from the annual population estimates released over the weekend by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. If some of them sound familiar to you, it’s likely because you’ve paid attention to our previous coverage of the state’s demographic trends that have shown all these trends coming at us, like a wave rolling toward the shore. What’s new is that these are new numbers — estimates of each locality’s population as of July 1, 2023 — and they paint a picture of the state’s population trends in even brighter colors than what we’ve had before.

I’ll mine several columns out of this data, but for now, here are some of the highlights:

How Virginia's population has changed from 2000 to 20023. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
How Virginia’s population has changed from 2000 to 2023. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

Virginia’s population growth has slowed to almost nothing

Hamilton Lombard.
Hamilton Lombard.

From 2022 to 2023, the state’s population grew by less than half a percentage point, from 8,696,955 to 8,729,032. “For Virginia, this is the slowest it has grown since the Civil War,” says demographer Hamilton Lombard at the Weldon Cooper Center. Since the 2020 census, the state’s population is up 1%. At that rate, Virginia is on track for its slowest decade of population growth rate since the 1870 census put us at 0.5% — a figure that was skewed by the wartime loss of West Virginia. Since then, Virginia’s slowest-growing decade was the 1920s, when the population grew 4.9%.

So why is Virginia growing so slowly? Which set of politicians can we blame? Demographers don’t really look at the world that way. Instead, they look at trends that often defy political solutions. Among them:

Birth rates continue to decline

This isn’t just a Virginia trend, it’s a trend across much of the world. In statistical terms, births have to be measured against deaths — what demographics call either “natural increase” (more births than deaths) or “natural decrease” (more deaths than births). Virginia still has more births than deaths, just a lot fewer than it used to. In 2019, the state saw about 27,000 more births than deaths. In 2022, there were fewer than 13,000 more births than deaths. These are trends with long-term implications — for K-12 school enrollment, for college enrollment, for eventual labor pools. The worker shortage begins at home, with declining birth rates.

I’ll examine some of the specific numbers in a future column, but you can look at them now on your own on the Weldon Cooper Center website.

Keep in mind that births and deaths aren’t the only way populations change. The other driver of population is people moving either in or or out, and for many localities, that’s been a bigger factor in their population gains or losses than the birth rate.

This map shows which localities have seen more people move in than move out -- or vice versa. Note that a county might see more people moving in but still lose population because deaths outnumber births -- and the net in-migration. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
This map shows which localities have seen more people move in than move out — or vice versa. Note that a county might see more people moving in but still lose population because deaths outnumber births — and the net in-migration. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

The pandemic years have seen people move out of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and into much of rural Virginia

That’s the simple version. The longer version is as complicated as each person’s individual story. We’ll aim for something in the middle. The two localities losing the most population since 2000 are Fairfax County (-10,911) and Virginia Beach (-5,865). Some rural counties in Southwest and Southside may be losing population at faster rates (Buchanan County has the steepest population loss on a percentage basis, at -5.7%) but the actual numbers are much smaller. The population declines that are doing the most to reshape the state are out of Fairfax County and many of the cities in Hampton Roads — and those population declines are driven by people moving out, not a declining birth rate.

In Fairfax County, births have outnumbered deaths over the past three years by 22,642. But 33,553 more people have moved out than moved in — which wipes out Fairfax’s birth rate and means the county has lost 10,911 people since the last census. Likewise, Hampton, Newport News, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach have all seen more births than deaths — but the moving van has left those cities losing population.

These are population trends of historic proportions. Since Virginia Beach absorbed Princess Anne County in the early 1960s, the city has never seen its population decrease in a census. Maybe the city will turn things around and won’t post a decrease in the next headcount, but it’s headed that way now. Fairfax County hasn’t seen a population loss since the 1830 census, but it’s losing now. Here’s some more context: Over the past three years, Fairfax County has lost population at a faster rate (-0.9%) than some counties in Southwest and Southside, which historicially have seen the biggest declines. Some comparisons: Nottoway County lost population at a rate of -0.1%, Mecklenburg County at -0.3%, Washington County at -0.6%. Looking deeper into the numbers, Fairfax’s out-migration rate has been higher than most counties in Southwest and Southside; the only real difference between Fairfax County and those rural counties in these latest numbers is that Fairfax County has more births than deaths; those rural counties don’t.

These figures for Fairfax County should be the brightest of red flags: Northern Virginia is the state’s economic engine. This is where our single biggest chunk of tax revenue is produced. If the biggest locality in Northern Virginia (not to mention the state) is losing population, that has fiscal implications throughout the state.

Other localities in Northern Virginia are still seeing their populations increase — but that’s because of births still outnumbering deaths and everything else. Beneath the surface, Arlington, Alexandria, Manassas and Prince William County all saw more people moving out than moving in. (So did Fairfax city, which, like Fairfax County but unlike these other localities, lost population overall). Lombard calls our attention to an even more telling figure: Loudoun County not long ago was the state’s fastest-growing locality, “attracting close to 10,000 more residents than left each year.” Last year, Loudoun County saw only 11 more people move in than move out.

I know Gov. Glenn Youngkin pays attention to metrics like this; others should, too. Demographically speaking, our world has turned upside down. I’ll get to the “why” shortly but before that we have one more big trend to take notice of.

This chart shows net migration for different parts of Virginia. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
This chart shows net migration for different parts of Virginia has changed over the past decade. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

Most of rural Virginia is now seeing more people move in than move out

Most of Southwest and Southside is still losing population but that’s simply because these localities have aging populations and deaths outnumber births — and everything else. There’s not much that can be done about that. However, the trend that matters most is beneath the surface — a surge of people moving in.

There are still two regions of the state where more people are moving out than moving in — the Wise County, Dickenson County, Buchanan County, Russell County, Tazewell County part of Southwest and the region from Patrick County to Halifax County (with Danville and Martinsville as exceptions).

Some notable numbers

Bedford County is now estimated to be bigger than Lynchburg — with Bedford at 80,759 and Lynchburg at 80,736.

Roanoke, after gaining population in the previous decade, is losing population again. Its population, which hit 100,011 in the last census, is now put at 99,045. About 70% of that decline is because deaths are outnumbering births, although there is some net out-migration.

Suffolk has now passed the 100,000 mark, almost double the city’s population in 1990.

Death rates in aging rural counties often mask the population changes taking place. Lombard cites this example: “Middlesex, a small rural county located on the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay, has, in recent years, attracted new residents at a similar rate as Frederick County — one of Virginia’s fastest growing counties — yet Middlesex’s population has only grown by 1 percent since 2020 because it had 400 more deaths than births during the period.”

Almost everywhere else, more moving vans are coming in than going out. This is something we haven’t seen since a back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s. “Virginia is experiencing a remarkable break from some of its longstanding demographic trends,” Lombard says. “In 2023, over three-quarters of Virginia’s rural counties outside metro areas had more people move into them than out, the highest share since 1975.”

In some localities, this net in-migration has been taking place for some years now. In others, it’s quite new. In last year’s estimates, for instance, Accomack County, Alleghany County, Lee County, Northampton County, Page County, Smyth County and Surry County were all registering net out-migration; now they’re registering net in-migration. Something has switched in the past year. Richmond isn’t rural, but it’s also seen net out-migration turn to net in-migration; more on Richmond to come.

This influx of new residents also has implications. “Since 2020, more people moving into Virginia’s rural localities has resulted in the fastest increases in home values in the state,” Lombard points out. “Earlier this month, the Weldon Cooper Center released school enrollment projections, which forecast that the ten fastest growing school divisions over the next five years will be mostly in rural counties. As death rates continue to fall during the 2020s, the surge in migration to Virginia’s rural counties should only become more obvious.”

Richmond is the new Northern Virginia

The biggest population gains — both in raw numbers and percentages — are in and around the Richmond metro. The biggest growth rate in the state is in New Kent County, east of Richmond, at 11.9% over the past four years, followed by Goochland County at 7.7% and Louisa County at 7.5%. In terms of actual numbers, the biggest population increase is in Chesterfield County, which has added 23,155 people since 2000. About 85% of that has come through people moving in, not births. That’s the equivalent of adding the city of Waynesboro to Chesterfield in just four years. We used to see these kinds of population increases in and around Northern Virginia; now they’ve shifted to the center of the state.

Here’s how profound this growth in the greater Richmond area has been, Lombard says: “Decades of migration into the Richmond Metro Area and weak growth in western Virginia has meant that at some point early this year, the size of the population in the Richmond Metro Area will have surpassed Virginia’s total population living west of the Blue Ridge Mountains for the first time since before the American Revolution.”

Remember that the next time we have redistricting and we see even more legislative seats depart the western part of the state. Now, for the big question, why is this happening?

We were seeing some of these trends before the pandemic, but the outbreak of COVID-19 has sent them into overdrive. What we’re seeing here is a Zoom-era migration. Last week, I wrote about how most localities have seen a sharp increase in the number of remote workers; here’s another measure. Rural areas and small metros have been the demographic beneficiaries. “So far this decade, among metro areas in Virginia, Northern Virginia has had the highest per capita out-migration rate, while the Bristol Metro Area has had the highest per capita in-migration rate,” Lombard said.

This chart shows population changes by parts  of the country. Courtesy of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.
This chart shows population changes by parts of the country. Courtesy of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

The politics of population

You’ll notice that all the drivers I’ve cited so far are demographic ones, not political ones – birth rates, migration. But ultimately politics do come into play. They’ll come into play in the state budget, if Northern Virginia starts producing less tax revenue, which means less money to get redistributed to rural counties whose schools are subsidized by the state. Just last week, we saw state Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax County, pushing a casino for Fairfax County; we used to think that only economically distressed localities needed casinos. Now we see Danville experiencing net in-migration but Fairfax is seeing net out-migration — and overall population declines. Those rising school enrollments will be welcome in many rural areas — until somebody has to come up with money to build a new school.

I also feel certain that the governor will seize on these numbers to make his case for why the state needs to reduce its income tax — because not everyone leaving Northern Virginia is moving to rural Virginia, some are moving out of state. (He’s probably already stopped reading this column and instructed one of his press aides to draft a statement.) Nationally, we’ve seen a general migration from northern and Midwestern states to southern ones. Or, as some prefer to see it, from blue states to red states — or from high-tax states to low-tax ones. That’s certainly true, although what we don’t know is how much taxes really play a role in those migrations. Are people moving to the Southeast because taxes are lower or because it’s warmer? Some have pointed out that, yes, people are moving to red states, but they’re moving to blue cities in red states. This is not the place today to delve into the nuances of that but, big-picture, these latest estimates do give the governor fodder to make his case. Of course, they may also give others fodder that something else should be done. With the General Assembly in session, they can hash all that out.

For now, what we know is this: We’re seeing an exodus out of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, while the central part of the state booms, and much of rural Virginia is much like Shrodinger’s cat — losing population overall even as it sees more people moving in.

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Inside the last-ditch effort to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline

As day broke over the small mountain town of Elliston, Virginia one Monday in October, masked figures in thick coats emerged from the woods surrounding a construction site. Three of them approached three excavators and, one by one, locked themselves to the machines, bringing the day’s work to a halt. As they did so, several dozen of their fellow protesters gathered around them, unfurling banners and chanting amidst the groaning and beeping of construction equipment.

They made their way across the field, over patches of bare earth, around sections of rusty pipe meant for burial beneath the mountain. Eventually the metal tubes  will form yet another section of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will soon carry 2 billion cubic feet of fracked methane from the shalefields of West Virginia to North Carolina each day. Their breath billowed in the crisp air. Beyond them stretched a bright blue sky, and mountains tinged with yellow. The past night’s rain pooled on the muddy and compacted soil beneath their feet.

Workers in highlighter-yellow vests and hard hats milled around, some looking amused, others frustrated. One or two engaged with the protesters, only to be told off by an irate site manager. A few miles away at the West Virginia state line, another three dozen or so activists did much the same atop Peters Mountain. One even managed to crawl under an excavator and lock herself in place, despite the cold. The others rallied around, enclosing her in a tight, protective circle.

Some might wonder why they bothered. After all, the project is, by the Mountain Valley Pipeline company’s estimate, 94 percent complete and will be wrapped up before summer. It  stalled for several years amid legal fights over various permits, but Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West VIrginia, almost single-handedly revived it in 2022 in exchange for his support of key Democratic priorities. Since then, the Biden administration and the Supreme Court have all but assured its completion. With the approximately 303-mile pipeline approaching the final stretch after almost a decade’s work, it might seem hardly worth fighting at this point.

A large contingent of steadfast opposition begs to differ, and will enthusiastically explain why. The pipeline is six years behind schedule, about half a billion dollars over budget, and, despite promises that it would be done by the end of last year, delayed once again. The remaining construction is over rugged terrain, with hundreds of water crossings left to bridge. The company recently postponed, shortened, and rerouted its planned extension into North Carolina, a proposal long stymied by permitting problems with the main line. And, just last month, Equitrans, which owns the pipeline and many others across the country, was said to be considering selling itself. The road to the pipeline’s completion remains rocky, its opponents argue, with many opportunities to make finishing it as difficult as possible.

“We cannot let them destroy our land and water,” said a young woman named Ericka. Like many interviewed for this story, she gave only her first name out of fear of reprisal from Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, which has begun suing protesters in a bid to silence them. She had brought her three children to occupy the land that day. “What are we going to drink? Where are we going to live? People have to come here and stop this.”

A protestor is chained to a piece of heavy construction equipment beneath a banner reading "Land Back."
A protestor locked herself to an excavator, bringing work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline to a halt. Photo courtesy Appalachians Against Pipelines

Killing the project is their ideal outcome. Barring that, those who have for almost a decade packed public hearings, spent weeks at sit-ins and even lived high in trees for 932 days want to make building pipelines so time consuming, so expensive, so plain annoying, that fossil fuel companies and the politicians who support them think twice about greenlighting any more.

Even as pipeline crews continue steadily boring under rivers and felling trees, activists say each day they can delay construction is another day humanity delays the worst impacts of climate change. The increasingly grave personal and legal risks they face are, they say, worth it, if only for that.

“For  five f****** years, we’ve fought you without fear,” sang the masked figures on Peters Mountain, and “we’ll fight you for five f****** more.”

Morning ripened over the ridge, and the fog rolled in, then out. The pipeline workers retreated, mostly without complaint — followed by the protestors’ calls of “Paid time off! Paid time off!” Some of those gathered began to sing: John Prine songs about beautiful landscapes stripped for coal, union songs, and striking miners’ ballads that reverberated through the same ridges long ago. When their voices grew weary, someone blared dance music through a loudspeaker as police cars rumbled up the gravel access road. They tried not to be afraid as the sirens grew louder, knowing the risk they had taken in coming here and knowing, as many said, that the time of act is now.

As the nation’s fracking boom reached coal country about a decade ago, pipelines carrying methane began to snake across the landscape. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, or MVP, met instant fury when Mountain Valley LLC proposed it in 2014. Opposition to the project drew a wide range of people, from farmers in West Virginia to Indigenous tribes in North Carolina, together in a united front. Some were alarmed by what it would mean for their land: Razed trees, disturbed landscapes, water running brown from the tap, and, in the end, a frightening risk of leaks and explosions. A pipeline in Pennsylvania run by one of the companies involved in MVP blew up late last year; a couple and their child suffered severe burns and barely escaped with their lives. Then there’s the longer term, irreversible danger of the 90 million metric tons of carbon dioxide that will come from producing, transporting, and burning all that methane over the 40 to 50 years the pipeline is expected to operate.

Residents along the project’s path joined academics, local organizations, and environmental nonprofits in filing lawsuits, seeking injunctions, and packing hearings. As they worked the legal system, other activists staged equipment lockdowns, organized rallies, and took to the trees for months-long sit-ins. The efforts led to some wins. Opponents repeatedly delayed construction, got various permits thrown out, and leveled allegations of water quality violations and illegal work on national forest land. In late 2018, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a series of rulings annulling the pipeline’s access to federal land and striking down a key permit. The next year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered an end to almost all construction.

The project languished until the summer of 2022, when Manchin, a key Democratic senate vote who often challenges his party, made his support of Biden’s climate agenda contingent upon the pipeline’s completion. Last summer, he included a provision in the debt ceiling deal that effectively cleared away any remaining hurdles. A short time later, the Supreme Court lifted a stay on construction through a 3.5-mile stretch through Jefferson National Forest. Crews returned to work with renewed vigor.

So too did the protestors. Morning after morning, week after week, pipeline workers clocked in only to find their work impeded. Grannies locked to rocking chairs in the pipeline path, teenagers glued to construction equipment, worksites crowded by 20 to 30 people intent on stopping the day’s progress, more often than not, successfully. The campaign drew college students from nearby Roanoke, neighbors from across the mountains, seasoned organizers and newer activists with little experience, all part of a near decade-long coalition, all activated by the pipeline’s anticipated completion, and many ready to face legal consequences for opposing it.

Jammie Hale joined the movement to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline more than 5 years ago.
Photo by Katie Myers / Grist

Jammie Hale is a bespectacled and bearded 51-year-old from Giles County, Virginia. Before he joined the campaign to stop the pipeline five and a half years ago, he was depressed and struggling with addiction. It didn’t help that the ruckus of construction invaded his waking and sleeping hours as it got closer and closer to his home, which lies within the 500-foot blast zone that could level his house in an explosion. “After a while, you hear all that, it kind of gets under your skin,” he said with a gentle intensity. “You build these angers up inside you, and how do you release these angers? Through self harm?” He became sleepless, consumed with visions of his family, and the land he plans to deed to his children, going up in flames.

When people began to organize, he and others in the community joined in. He found a will to live in the work. “I’m five years sober because of this project,”  Hale said. “Because, you know, I wanted to be useful.”

Hale attended permit hearings, tested water, and, when people started sitting in trees, hiked up the mountain to support them. He brought home-cooked meals, blankets, and supplies, and rallied on the forest floor to boost their morale. “I instantly fell in love with these people because they were just so badass,” Hale said. He and his neighbors began to take more concerted action, filming and peacefully confronting pipeline company surveyors who came unannounced to survey their land for construction. Eventually, he found himself engaging in civil disobedience, fully aware of the risks he faces.

Hale is among a growing number of protesters the Mountain Valley Pipeline company has targeted with injunctions, a potentially costly legal hassle that could lead to jail time for anyone found on a construction site. Local authorities are taking an increasingly dim view of folks like Hale and show little hesitation in pursuing them for even minor infractions as the company continues to seize their land through eminent domain. These days, Hale supports protestors from afar by making signs and sharing food, among other things. There’s still some risk, he says, but if he lands in a cell or a courtroom, so be it.

“I’m not scared,” he said. “It’s kind of strange that they’re trying to get people for trespassing when they are the ones that have been trespassing.”

Another longtime pipeline fighter who goes by Larkin is no stranger to arrests, or to supporting people whose civil disobedience has landed them in court time and again. A soft-spoken health care worker from nearby Blacksburg, Virginia, Larkin, who is in her late 30s, has been fighting resource extraction in Appalachia since she was a teenager. She spent the better part of a decade marching onto dusty strip mines, locking herself to equipment, and demanding a federal ban on mountaintop removal coal mining. Ten years ago, that energy shifted toward the region’s multiplying pipelines. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was proposed alongside the MVP; it met with similarly vehement opposition, and eventually died amid mounting legal costs and project delays. In short, protest worked, Larkin said.

A crowd of protesters with Stop Mountain Valley Pipeline rally and wave pickets in front of the White House.
Protesters with Stop Mountain Valley Pipeline rally in front of the White House in Washington D.C. on June 8, 2023. Photo by Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

With the  Supreme Court greenlighting the MVP, it seems to Larkin and others that there’s only one thing left to do. That is, throw their bodies upon the gears, in hopes of at least slowing things down for one more day, every day, for as long as possible, by force if nothing else.

“We knew from the get-go that a chapter of the fight requiring an escalated level of resistance is going to come if folks have any hope in pushing back,” Larkin said.

Despite the risks, Larkin, and many others, feel they are taking ownership of their future and their dignity. When we fight, they say, we win, and it’s better that fossil fuel companies know their encroachments won’t go unchallenged. Larkin also feels it will deter future projects like the MVP. Without organized opposition, she feels the whole regulatory system will continue to rubber-stamp permits until the ocean overtakes Washington.

“Old men with no thought to the future are ruining things for all of us,” Larkin said. “It really is down to us to just be mad. And do it with our bodies and be in the way.”

She  knows she’s never far from becoming a target of the Mountain Valley Pipeline company’s ire. Over the years, she’s seen friends locked up and beaten down at various protests, and sometimes it makes her feel old. After so long in the fight, her knees and back ache, and she can’t spend hours sitting on the floor painting banners like she used to. When she began this work, she burned herself out quickly, believing that the world would end if she didn’t give everything she had.

 “When it’s so obvious that the world is on fire, it does feel like you have to put it out on the table all at once,” she said. “Just like, why think about the future, we have no future, kind of thing. And here we are, eight years later in this fight.”

Yet there are moments, even now, when the pipeline seems inevitable, when she feels the joy of having taken a stand, of having made lifelong friends, of having done the right thing.

“I freaking love to have daybreak on a new blockade that has gone up in the night,” Larkin said, smiling. “And I think the other thing that I love is that I have really met and built real relationships of trust and solidarity with neighbors, people in my community who I wouldn’t have otherwise known.”

The pace is fast and the emotions run hot right now, but the stakes have felt high for a long time, Larkin said. She’s watched friends get sick, both from burnout and from the environmental risks of living near extraction, and watched some die of environmental illnesses and illnesses of stress and poverty. When trying to pinpoint exactly how the fight has lasted so long, Larkin points to the constant influx of new activists, particularly energized young people from nearby towns and colleges, and from other, similar campaigns.

One activist who goes by Gator had only just turned 18 and drifted north after a working-class childhood on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. He felt disconnected and adrift at a military high school, beset by a gnawing sense of climate apocalypse and a bleak future. “My home is disappearing,” he said bluntly.

Gator found his way to the Weelaunee “Stop Cop City” occupation in Atlanta last summer. The connections he made there led him to the woods of Virginia and West Virginia, where he camped in the pipeline’s path and met people who shared his feelings of desperation and urgency.

He felt himself cross a Rubicon of sorts during a stint in jail after his arrest at another demonstration. He spent several days locked up, not knowing how much time had passed and listening to guards mock the people around him. As he sat there on the cold concrete bed, he knew there was no return to regular life, to regular expectations for himself.

“It used to be that you’d be like, ‘I want to keep my nose clean, because I have a chance of having a career and  having, at least for me, and the people I love, a comfortable life,’” Gator said. “But even that is disappearing.”

Protestors head toward a Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site in the mountains near Elliston, Virginia, in October 2023.
Protestors head toward a Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site in the mountains near Elliston, Virginia, in October 2023.
Photo by Katie Myers / Grist

The atmosphere in Elliston was, like the movement itself, at once nervous and defiant. Like environmental justice advocates most everywhere, those standing up to the Mountain Valley Pipeline are facing ever greater restrictions on their protests and increasingly harsh punishment for their actions.

In September, Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC filed a lawsuit against more than 40 individuals and two organizations — Appalachians Against Pipelines and Rising Tide North America. The suit  seeks more than $4 million in damages and a ruling prohibiting the defendants from accessing construction sites, planning demonstrations, or raising funds for protest activities. The company said it decided to sue because protestors endanger themselves and workers, and because they’re breaking the law.

“If opponents were truly interested in environmental protection,” said MVP spokeswoman Natalie Cox, “they would have engaged with us to address their concerns through honest, open dialogue, which we respectfully offered on numerous occasions, rather than wasting agency resources and burdening the courts to support their myopic agendas.” Cox also blamed protesters for disrupting landowners and limiting the region’s economic opportunities.

Such lawsuits — which activists and their attorneys often call a strategic action against public participation — are usually filed by corporate or government entities against people who speak out on a matter of public concern. Those fighting the pipeline say the suit is intended to chill protest and intimidate them. Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC has been regularly adding defendants to the suit, often after identifying them near protests or reading their names in the news. Many protesters have been charged with felonies in recent months, all for blocking construction.

Despite a relative lack of trouble at the Peters Mountain lockdown – authorities arrested two people and quickly released them – the arraignment later that week proved more contentious. The two young activists were unexpectedly re-arrested and prosecutors slapped each of them with a felony kidnapping charge – presumably, protesters say, for asking construction workers to leave their vehicles – and held without bond.

According to Appalachians Against Pipelines, another protester, who goes by Pine, turned themself in on a felony warrant; they were charged with kidnapping and theft for holding up a work vehicle. A judge set bail at $25,000. Another protester was sentenced to six months, with three of them suspended, for similar charges. They are free pending an appeal.

“This system is seeking to doom us to a future that will not even exist,” Pine said in a statement. “However, there is solidarity everywhere … these ridiculous charges that I received do not make me afraid, since I know I do not stand alone.”

Fear of arrest and imprisonment remains a restless undercurrent for many activists, said a young organizer who gave only her first name, Coral. She stepped away from fighting pipelines on tribal land to answer a call for support in central Appalachia..

A crowed of protestors gathers behind a banner reading "Respect existence or expect resistance" at a Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site in the mountains of Virginia.
Protestors gather at a Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site in rural Virginia in October, 2023, an effort to delay its completion.
Photo courtesy Appalachians Against Pipelines

“I’ve been grappling with the repression piece a lot because it is working,” said Coral, who identifies as Indigenous but would not state her affiliation for fear that it might help identify her. For her, and many of those fighting alongside her, the effort to stop the pipeline is a commitment to protecting unceded Indigenous land, and to building a world free from old, colonial, and extractive social structures. That obligation weighs heavily on her, though. The killing of an environmental activist at an ongoing forest blockade in Atlanta and the ceaseless violence against Native land defenders worldwide is never far from her mind. “Our people were persecuted and killed for fighting for our land,” she said.

And yet, despite it all, the pace of protest has increased since construction resumed. Few weeks go by without people locking themselves to equipment, blocking the pipeline route, or picketing banks that support the project and the company building it. Despite several frightening incidents, including one in which crews reportedly felled trees dangerously close to an activist, the blockades and lockdowns continue. The hope, many activists said, is to draw a critical mass of supporters to the region. The fight, they said, is far from over, and they hope to bring the same kind of energy sparked by the massive Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

In Elliston, as the crisp October day warmed, the crowd was as energized and raucous as ever, echoing demands that have evolved over decades of environmental organizing in central Appalachia. Many hands unfurled colorful banners connecting the fight against climate change to movements opposing war, genocide, incarceration, and the theft of Indigenous land. Before long, though, several police cars slowly rolled up the road from the main highway, blocking the group’s exit. As officers stepped from their cars and made their way up the hill, some protesters with children in tow began to worry about their safety but remained for the moment.

As the police amassed, a young person of about 20, bundled in warm clothing and locked to an excavator, called down to the crowd. Their face couldn’t be seen, but their voice sounded small and very young. “I’m here because…these mountains are beautiful,” they called, laughing. “Appalachia is beautiful. This planet is beautiful!” Some in the crowd, though anxious, smiled at the voice speaking for them. The crowd held one another and swayed in the breeze as the drums started up again.

“The judge has had it up to here with y’all,” one exasperated police officer remarked as some in the group talked him down from arresting everyone in sight, mothers and children and all. Other officers took photos of license plates and threatened to increase their retaliation if they saw any of the cars at another protest.

When the group moved on to a neighboring plot owned by someone sympathetic to their cause, the police followed them, threatening to cite anyone who stuck around. Everyone knew that probably meant being added to MVP’s lawsuit. They decided to move along, but vowed to return another day.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Inside the last-ditch effort to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline on Jan 16, 2024.

When its employees struggled to find child care, a small-town coffee company opened its own center

In 2018, the owners of Red Rooster Coffee in Floyd faced a growing problem.

Several of the company’s employees, including co-owner Rose McCutchan, were pregnant or had small children. They all wanted to stay in the workforce. And they all needed child care.

In Floyd, as in other rural communities, child care is hard to find.

Virginia does not currently have enough child care providers to serve the number of children who need care, according to a report issued by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission in mid-October.

When child care is unavailable — or, more precisely, when affordable child care is unavailable — parents are more likely to reduce their work hours, change jobs or drop out of the workforce altogether, according to that report.

The Red Rooster Coffee owners were not going to let that happen.

“We had some just really amazing people working for us and we thought, you know, they want to work, they want to stay in the workforce and see their careers stay on track,” said McCutchan’s husband and business partner, Haden Polseno-Hensley.

One of Red Rooster’s guiding tenets is that it will provide a livelihood and a fulfilling work life for the folks who work for the company. This was the perfect opportunity to put that into practice.

So Polseno-Hensley and McCutchan went to work.

Haden Polseno-Hensley with Aloysius and Twyla. Photo courtesy of Red Rooster.

Several of the families had already organized a collective babysitting arrangement in which their children went to the same in-home provider for child care each day.

“That was great. It was awesome. [My daughter] was close by whenever I needed to feed her and [I could] go see her whenever I wanted to,” longtime employee Indya DiPietro said.

The Red Rooster owners decided it was time to formalize that arrangement. They began exploring child care center licensing regulations for an on-site facility.

At the same time, Floyd Montessori was closing its doors and Ella Zander, one of the school’s certified teachers, was looking for a job.

A student’s mother told Zander that Red Rooster was looking for a qualified person to set up a licensed child care facility, the connection was made, and Zander was brought on board as program director.

Later that year, Yellow Hen Child Care was born. With space for only 16 students, it is one of the smallest licensed child care facilities in Virginia.

“It’s been a really cool thing to be a part of, to start from the ground up,” Zander said. Now she works alongside Yellow Hen’s six teachers to provide instruction, guidance, scheduling and program planning.

Ella Zander. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

Yellow Hen serves children ages 1 month through 12 years. It offers a pre-K and a toddler group as well as after-school care for older kids.

Most of Yellow Hen’s students are the children of Red Rooster’s 48 employees; enrollment is opened up to non-employees at a non-discounted rate as space allows. Polseno-Hensley noted that the center usually operates on a waitlist, however.

Red Rooster considers Yellow Hen an employee benefit and pays 70% of the cost of employees’ child care at the facility. Employees pay only $2 per hour per child, according to Polseno-Hensley. The rate increased from $1 per hour per child this month.

Outside of Northern Virginia, a typical family spends between $140 and $320 per week for full-time child care in a licensed center, according to the JLARC report, which notes that additional fees may be charged on top of these base rates.

In all parts of the state, these rates, which were self-reported by child care providers, exceed 10% to 20% of median household incomes of households consisting of one to two adults and at least one child. The federal government defines affordable child care costs as not exceeding 7% of a household’s income, according to the JLARC report.

In-home care typically costs less, the report stated.

Zach Wiley’s 2-year-old son, Simon, attends Yellow Hen while his dad works in the roastery. Prior to enrolling his son at Yellow Hen a year and a half ago, Wiley and his wife, who works at home, had hired a part-time nanny.

“It’s crazy how much you pay for child care. So I don’t know what we would do [without Yellow Hen] because we couldn’t … one of us couldn’t stay home,” Wiley said. He and his wife are expecting a second child this month.

Floyd County families are struggling to afford child care, according to Lydeana Martin, the county’s community and economic development director.

“It’s kind of a combination of the availability and the cost,” she said, noting that child care professionals’ wages have increased, thereby causing the cost of care to increase.

“That makes it cost [more] for people that themselves have very modest wages,” Martin said.

“When you’re in that position, especially in a small town with limited child care options, and in a place where maybe the expectation is that the wife or mother will stay home with the child, [or] if there’s a single parent, or if the mother wants to keep working, you sort of realize that … the options are really difficult. In many cases, you’re working for the cost of child care,” Polseno-Hensley said.

“It’s a really smart thing to do when your workforce is young and you want to be able to retain people,” Martin said.

In counting a demand for 140,000 additional slots for child care, the JLARC report found that 10,000 of those are in the western district, where Floyd County is located.

According to the Department of Social Services website, Yellow Hen is one of only seven child day centers in Floyd County. Five of them are licensed by the Virginia Department of Education; the remaining two are religious-based centers that are not required to be licensed.

Of those seven child day centers, four are clustered in or near the center of the town of Floyd, where Red Rooster is located.

Those centers currently offer 236 slots, the Education Department says, while there are approximately 734 children under age 5 who live in Floyd County, according to the Census Bureau’s latest estimates. Many of these places only provide half-day or half-week options, do not care for infants, or do not provide after-school care for older children.

“Most every community is really struggling to make sure that their families have access to child care opportunities … as well as being able to afford it,” said Kathy Glazer, president of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation.

“I love hearing about employers really jumping in and realizing that if they want their people to show up reliably for work that they need to figure out some creative solutions,” said Glazer. She referenced the combination child care/workforce hub that United Way of Southwest Virginia is planning in Abingdon, and the child care centers that Ballad Health has opened at its health care facilities in Southwest Virginia.

“[I’m] so thrilled to see those innovations happen, but I have been worried about families who work for smaller employers who may not have the resources and capacity to do it. I think that’s why I’m so thrilled to hear about Red Rooster. [It’s] really inspiring,” Glazer added.

* * *

Yellow Hen is mere steps from the Red Rooster coffee shop and roastery, through a locked doorway.

Entering the space, children and visitors alike are greeted with a smile and a reminder to remove their shoes and hang up their belongings.

Two large rooms dominate the space. One is for primary activities: reading, crafts and free play. The other is for recreation when the weather doesn’t cooperate for outdoor play: parachute play, freeze tag and oversized games of flyswatter hockey.

There is also a nursery, a napping room and a kitchen and snack area. The furnishings are small and cozy, built for small bodies and daily play.

This is a child’s space. The adults are merely visiting.

Rose McCutchan with her children, Aloysius and Twyla. Photo courtesy of Red Rooster.

“We’re nowhere near [as] formal [as] Montessori. But I have some of the setup that a Montessori school would use,” Zander said.

That environment includes open shelving to allow students to choose their own activities and individualized spaces for self-directed play.

“I hope that [the students] come away with all of the confidence that comes from growing up safe and respected,” Zander said.

She says that she wants the parents she works with to know that they work in a place where they know that their kids are safe and that they are right where they can see them if they look out the window.

To achieve that, though, Zander has to work through some tough scheduling conundrums.

The school is open when the roastery is open. That’s unlike what traditional child care providers and schools encounter when they set their schedules and plan their staffing needs, Zander said. Scheduling around 16 families’ work schedules takes a hefty dose of flexibility and creativity.

“Usually, the school sets out its plan and its classrooms and its schedule and then it takes the kids to fill the spaces that they have,” she said.

“For us, we start with the employees and the children that they have. We design the entire program around them, and so as the age groups shift, what we offer shifts as well.”

That means sometimes Yellow Hen might serve eight preschoolers and two infants, while those numbers might flip-flop at other times. The staffing and space requirements then change as a result, according to state licensing standards.

Zander might face similar, though possibly less dramatic, changes in a single week, or according to which staff members are working which shifts. Sick kids also affect the schedule, she said.

“We are extremely flexible, not just about things like that, but about scheduling and making sure that the staff that we have available is what is required for the kids who need to be here. Because all the parents have different schedules,” she said. Some Red Rooster parents work 40 hours a week, while some might only need child care for three hours in the middle of the day.

“If it were on a larger scale, I’m not sure it would be entirely manageable. I think that I spend most of my days managing schedules and trying to figure out who is going to be in at any given time, and that is not a normal situation,” Zander said.

“Things are very fluid and change frequently and we sort of roll with the punches,” she said, crediting Polseno-Hensley and McCutchan for finding compromises to work out what’s best for everyone in each situation.

“The benefits of on-site child care can’t be overstated, partly because it positively affects all parents’ ability to work, but also because it helps with the emotional part of going to work while raising small children by keeping the kids close and allowing kids and parents [to] still feel connected throughout the day,” McCutchan wrote in an email.

For Zander, Yellow Hen is more than a child care facility — it’s an extension of the Red Rooster family.

“A lot of the people who work at Red Rooster have known each other for years and years and years. A lot of their kids knew each other incredibly well even before Yellow Hen started. I don’t think that there’s anywhere else that I’m aware of that, you know, has as much of a close-knit community. It really feels like family,” Zander said.

The relationships that have formed at Yellow Hen are significant. They reflect the focus that Polseno-Hensley and McCutchan place on their community.

“Part of the nature of what we do and part of the thing that makes Red Rooster who we are is the fact that we’re from Floyd, the fact that we’re from this small town. You know, we produce world-quality, world-class coffee in a town of 450 people. That is a rare and unusual thing to find. And we’re really proud of it,” Polseno-Hensley said.

Indya DiPietro’s daughter has attended Yellow Hen since its inception. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

DiPietro and McCutchan were pregnant at the same time, DiPietro said. Her daughter, Violet, and Polseno-Hensley and McCutchan’s son, Aloysius, grew up in child care together, first at the collective babysitter’s home and then at Yellow Hen.

“They’ve been friends their whole lives,” DiPietro said.

DiPietro has worked for the company for at least 10 years, she said. Now, she is a managing partner of the Red Rooster Cafe and Bakery, the coffee shop that is attached to the roastery.

“I was a single mom. And so working was what I had to do. And then having just enough to afford my bills and take care of my baby… so having something that was affordable —” DiPietro said, trailing off.

“As an owner, I might have a slightly different experience, but the ability to visit your child … and if you’re a nursing mother, for example, and to be able to just go and see your child and sit with them for a half-hour at a time … I think it brings so much peace of mind to the parents,” Polseno-Hensley said.

The post When its employees struggled to find child care, a small-town coffee company opened its own center appeared first on Cardinal News.

Community colleges are helping with housing, gas and food to keep students in class

A student gets off of a short blue bus.

Peja Reed lives in Bristol, about 10 miles from Virginia Highlands Community College. But it usually takes her an hour to get to class in the morning.

Four days a week, she wakes up at 6 a.m. to be ready for the school’s #CollegeExpress bus. Driver Jeb Turner said Reed is always waiting in front of her house when the bus rolls off nearby Interstate 81 and collects her from her street on the north edge of the city around 6:45 a.m. Then Turner picks up a few more students closer to downtown Bristol before heading to campus in Abingdon, about a dozen miles back up I-81.

Reed then has almost two hours on campus before her 9:30 a.m. biology class. “I’ll do my school work,” she said. “But that’s what I was trying to do this morning, and I fell asleep.”

Transportation challenges are common for students at Virginia Highlands, which has an enrollment of about 2,000 students — and a service area of more than 1,000 square miles. Many students live far from the bus stops that serve the region’s commercial core, and even those bus lines have gaps that can make it difficult to get to campus.

That transportation challenge could be the breaking point for some people who are thinking about enrolling in an academic or job-training program at the community college.

Help paying for tuition is plentiful: Beyond federal and state student aid, Virginia also offers free tuition for a variety of job-training programs in an effort to place more workers in growing industries. And high school graduates going directly to community college can often get free tuition thanks to local “last-dollar” programs that pay for what’s left over after federal and state aid are applied.

But free tuition doesn’t mean much if a student can’t get to campus.

The #CollegeExpress is one example of how community colleges are trying to meet the evolving needs of their students in Southwest Virginia, a largely rural corner of the state facing widespread challenges driven by systemic changes in the region’s economy.

And as the population of fresh-out-of-high-school students levels off, community colleges must also figure out how to better serve adult learners who are seeking new skills that can lead to better-paying jobs, and who are dealing with their own financial, transportation or child care barriers.

From handing out grocery gift cards to offering laptops on loan, some campuses are finding ways of providing “wraparound” services to help students not just enroll but also complete their programs, earning degrees or certificates that can boost their earning potential.

Reed would like to study international business economics at East Tennessee State University, an hour over the state line from Bristol, or at Mary Baldwin University in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. For now, she’s a first-semester student in the general studies program at Virginia Highlands. If she didn’t have the #CollegeExpress, she’d need to ask her father to fit pickups and dropoffs around his shifts at a gas station.

She doesn’t have her driver’s license yet, but she’s been putting away money from her part-time fast-food job to buy a car in time for the fall 2024 semester. So far, she has $300 saved.

The Virginia Community College System has implemented a systemwide platform to match students with resources to provide for some of their most basic needs. But system leaders acknowledge continued struggles to serve the diverse student body.

One of the few things that unites every community college in the state system is “the significant need for wraparound services for the students they serve,” said Jennifer Gentry, vice president of institutional advancement for the state community college system.

Peja Reed, 18, laughs at a comment from driver Jeb Turner as she rides the #CollegeExpress bus after attending biology class at Virginia Highlands Community College. The bus takes students who lack transportation to and from classes. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

Community colleges as essential education hubs

Virginia’s community college system has come under increased pressure to bolster the state’s economy in recent years, in part to fill jobs left vacant by population declines in the southern and western parts of the state.

In rural parts of Southwest and Southside Virginia, students come from expansive geographic areas that have been transformed by the decline of the coal, tobacco and textile industries. Rural areas have increasingly aging populations, and four-year college students are more likely to leave Virginia than stick around after graduation.

Community colleges in these places must serve a wide array of students with a range of education and career goals. Reasonable costs and open access are part of the draw, whether students plan to transfer to a four-year university or take their credentials earned over a matter of weeks or months into the workforce. The cost per credit hour to attend a community college in Virginia is $155; it costs almost three times that to attend a public four-year college in the state.

Virginia ranks seventh in the nation for educational attainment beyond a high school diploma, according to analysis by the Lumina Foundation. But the affluent Northern Virginia region around Washington, D.C., plays a significant role in that ranking. As you move into rural Southwest and Southside Virginia, the attainment level declines considerably. In Lee County, at the very southwestern tip of the state, only 18% of adults 25 and older have at least an associate degree.

In the 2023 spring semester, Virginia’s community colleges enrolled about 133,000 students in academic and workforce training programs, 70% of them part-time. Fields of study range from commercial truck driving to dental hygiene to music theory.

Financial aid, including federal and state grants, is critical at these 23 schools spanning 40 campuses. Nationwide, about 1 in 3 community college students receive federal Pell grants, reserved for students with the greatest financial need, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. In Virginia, that number jumps to almost half. At some rural community colleges in the state, it’s closer to 60% of students receiving Pell grants.

But while traditional financial aid might cover some or all of tuition and fees, it may not stretch to cover the cost of books, required software or uniforms such as nursing scrubs. Nor does it pay for living expenses such as housing, fuel, food or child care.

The state community college system knows that many of its students are struggling. The system, too, is trying to do more with less.

Funding for community colleges in Virginia pales in comparison to what the state Legislature  sends to four-year schools. For fiscal year 2022, Virginia ranked ninth from the bottom for state appropriations per full-time-equivalent student at two-year schools.

“We educate the learners that are the most challenged and therefore need more help accessing these resources. And yet we are funded 57 cents on the dollar for every dollar that goes to a four-year university,” said David Doré, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System. “An investment in our learners is an investment to get people into high-wage jobs that will stimulate the economy.”

The current state funding structure provides limited financial support for wraparound services, leaving it up to individual schools to obtain grants or contributions to cover the costs of such programs.

The majority of community college graduates remain in the commonwealth, Doré said, so “Why would we not be investing more in that?”

Laura Pennington, vice president of institutional advancement at Virginia Highlands, said some schools can better address basic student needs than others.

“It takes money,” she said. “And you’re very often not going to be able to use state money or federal money to address those” basic needs. Foundations and community-based organizations are crucial for continued success of low-income students, she said.

Each school’s philanthropic foundation has an emergency fund for students that’s supplemented by a statewide foundation, the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education.

The state foundation has distributed nearly $13 million to local community college foundations over the last five years to help students with costs related to attending school.

“The niche is to fund where the state doesn’t fund,” said Gentry, vice chancellor of the  community college system who also serves as executive director of the foundation. “We try to fill in where students have the greatest needs, and we count on the colleges to identify what those needs are in their local communities.”

The foundation’s major initiatives include financial support for former foster youth attending community college, workforce development in rural areas and services for student parents, along with covering unexpected expenses that can derail a student’s progress.

Virginia Highlands has used money from the state-level foundation and its own philanthropic arm to build its transportation and food assistance programs.

The #CollegeExpress bus started as a carpool matchmaking effort by college staff to help bridge the transportation gap for students who live outside its base in Abingdon. The school’s service area covers two counties and the city of Bristol, for a total population of just under 100,000.

In Virginia, about a third of community college campuses lack a public transit stop within walking distance, according to analysis by the Civic Mapping Initiative of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, which promotes access to public services.

When Virginia Highlands’ carpool matching became too unwieldy, the school secured a $25,000 grant from the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education and contracted with the local transit agency to provide service for its students.

The #CollegeExpress launched in 2019 with one route to Bristol and just a handful of regular riders; it now has three routes, and 37 students are signed up to ride.

The bus service, which picks up most students within a block or two of their homes, evolves with student needs. Karen Cheers, who runs a program at the college that supports low-income, first-generation college students, said a student recently called her on a Tuesday because she found out she didn’t have a way to get to class the next day.

Cheers coordinated for the bus to add her to a route on Wednesday.

Lelia Bradshaw, dean of students at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, gives a tour of the campus food pantry. The pantry, which has been open for about 10 years, offers a variety of dry and frozen goods along with baby formula and diapers for students in need. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

Responding to critical needs

Leigh Ann Adams couldn’t figure out why all the milk was gone.

Adams coordinates the PHIL Station at Virginia Highlands, a food pantry posthumously named after a beloved faculty member. Tucked away in a building that has low foot traffic for privacy, the modest windowless room offers an array of nonperishable options and quick-prep meals.

If anything, Adams said, students are shy about using the food pantry, concerned that it will take away from another who needs it more. But one day during this fall, she said, all two dozen of the small containers of milk she had purchased just a few days earlier vanished from the minifridge. Concerned about possible theft, she asked campus security to check the camera mounted in the corner of the room, to find out if one person had taken the milk, or many.

“That many people had come in,” she said, and had taken all of the milk.

Last spring, Adams restocked the pantry every three weeks. This semester, she says, “I could probably go to the store twice a week, if I had the time and we had the funds to do that.” She said the pantry easily goes through $325 worth of food weekly.

The PHIL Station food pantry at Virginia Highlands Community College is open for students looking for a meal to eat between classes or for groceries to take home. The pantry opened in January 2020. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

Initial funding for the pantry came from a grant from the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation, which has supported community college food pantries across the state. Now, the college relies on local donations to keep it going. This year, Virginia Highlands raised more than $6,000 on Giving Tuesday to keep the PHIL Station stocked, thanks to a combination of individual contributions and a matching program from the VFCCE and Aetna Better Health of Virginia.

Every community college in Virginia has some sort of food assistance program, though they’re all different in size and scope depending on the college’s resources and partnerships with community organizations. In a survey of more than 10,000 Virginia community college students in fall 2020, 32% said they had faced food insecurity in the previous month.

The PHIL Station was open for only three months before the pandemic forced students off campus. Gift cards to the regional Food City chain of grocery stores were crucial in keeping students fed while the physical pantry was closed, Adams said. She still routinely sends gift cards to students who ask for them, in amounts ranging from $25 to $100.

Inside each envelope, Adams adds a handwritten note wishing the student well in their program, which she looks up and mentions by name. “[I’m] just trying to make them feel like somebody knows them as a person, not just as the kid who needs,” she said.

Map by Robert Lunsford.

Sixty miles away from Virginia Highlands in the town of Big Stone Gap, Mountain Empire Community College also has about 2,000 students enrolled each semester. It’s more rural than Virginia Highlands, serving a mountainous three-county area that stretches more than 90 miles from its most northern point to the southwestern-most tip of Virginia.

The food pantry at Mountain Empire has been open since 2013, driven by a rise in student requests for emergency aid to pay for groceries. The college’s philanthropic foundation helps fill the shelves with nonperishable and toiletry items that line three sides of a wide room. Two refrigerators are packed with frozen items and microwaveable meals.

Dean of Students Lelia Bradshaw recalls being able to fill the pantry at the beginning of a semester and having the supplies last almost until final exams. But now the food pantry needs a monthly restock. Some students will fill a bag with groceries to take home, while others pop in to microwave a hot lunch.

The school’s laptop loan program was also prompted by a critical need.

Campus staff noticed that many students starting at the college had Chromebook laptops that they’d used in high school. But many fields of study require a computer that’s more powerful to run specialized software. The college ordered a few laptops in 2019 and started lending them out. “And then COVID hit, and everybody needed a computer” to complete classes online, said Bradshaw. “So we ordered a big round [of them].”

Mountain Empire began the fall 2023 semester with about 80 loaner laptops but ran out within the first few days. So the school ordered 50 more. Anyone who’s enrolled and taking at least six credits a semester (or an equivalent for shorter career and technical programs) can borrow a laptop, charger and carrying case, thanks to a combination of funding over the years that has included COVID federal relief money, Virginia Department of Social Services funds, and other similar sources totaling about $60,000.

Mountain Empire also has graphing calculators available for loan for students who can’t afford to buy the devices, which cost about $150.

Emergency funds meet unexpected needs

Beyond everyday basic needs, emergency expenses can trip up students and prevent them from completing their classes. Nationwide, about 70% of all colleges and universities offer some type of emergency fund to help students stay enrolled despite unexpected costs.

At Virginia Highlands and Mountain Empire, students can request help with financial emergencies, with funding coming from each school’s philanthropic foundation.

There’s often a gap left after federal and state funding are applied to a student account, said Pennington at Virginia Highlands. “Even though I think students are grateful for what they get for tuition [aid], there’s never enough for books and access codes” for online tools and software, she said.

Pennington has purchased quarts of oil for a student’s car to hold them over until they could get repairs done. She used the emergency fund to pay for hotel nights to help a student get out of an unsafe housing situation.

In October, she helped two students in a practical nursing program who each needed to buy $790 worth of books and software for the year. She was able to give $500 to each.

The campus at Mountain Empire Community College. Many students drive for more than 30 minutes to attend class, and car repairs and fuel are among the top requests received by staff managing the student emergency fund. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

For many students, she said, one modest financial crisis can wreak major havoc on their lives.

“And many of them don’t have families who have a long history of college attendance, and a lot of them don’t have a real deep bench in terms of support at home,” Pennington said.

At Mountain Empire, students fill out an online form to request emergency aid; the help is capped at $700 per semester and $1,400 during their tenure at the school. The MECC Foundation provides about $20,000 annually to fill student requests. Bradshaw said money for vehicle repairs and gasoline is often requested, as many students drive more than 30 minutes to attend class.

A challenge: Measuring return on investment

Community colleges often measure the success of these emergency funds and basic needs initiatives in terms of program completion: the rate of students who go on to graduate or earn a credential.

Measuring workforce success is more difficult, as there’s a delay in the data for the employment rate of community college graduates. The most recent year of Virginia data, from 2020, found that almost 80% of career and technical students were employed 18 months after graduating from community college. The rate is comparable to the outcome for the classes of 2018 and 2019, but it will be several years before the true picture of pandemic and post-pandemic outcomes crystalizes.

Having multiple strategies working in tandem to help students can amplify their impact.

A 2023 study looked at four Arkansas community colleges that converted their food assistance efforts from simple pantries into holistic hubs for basic student needs, providing connections to public assistance programs, financial and career advising and life skills training. Students who used the hubs were up to 8 percentage points more likely to reenroll the following semester and the following academic year, and to ultimately earn their credential.

The education journey for community college students can be far from linear, with completion sometimes taking far longer than the typical standards for measuring student success.

Bradshaw of Mountain Empire said that “life issues” can easily take students away from campus. Sometimes they’ll attend for a semester, take the next one off to focus on work or family obligations, then return in the summer. The ultimate win, in many cases, is when students remain enrolled despite a financial hardship — when they come back semester after semester for however long it takes to finish their degree or credential.

“It’s like a revolving door,” she said. “We have a lot of students who live in a multigenerational household. So you’ve got parents and grandparents and nieces. … We see a lot of that, and … [sometimes] school just falls by the wayside.”

While enrollment remains fairly flat across the state’s community college system after years of gradual decline, program completions and degrees have increased. The increases are notable at both Mountain Empire and Virginia Highlands. In the 2017-18 school year, Virginia Highlands awarded 548 degrees and certificates. In 2021-22, that had risen to 705. Over the same period, Mountain Empire jumped from 650 to 975.

Bradshaw said a recent focus on short-term programs can help prospective students anticipate challenges and plan for them. An eight- or 10-week program to earn a technical certification may not be students’ ultimate career goal, but they can take that certification into the workforce immediately and start to see the benefits while planning their next steps.

Students have Single Stop for help

In 2021, VCCS launched the Single Stop platform at all 23 of its community colleges. The program, operated by a national nonprofit, allows students to input basic information about their household and income and learn if they’re eligible for SNAP (often referred to as food stamps), housing assistance or other social benefit programs.

Becky Kell, who manages Single Stop for Virginia Highlands, said food assistance and health insurance access are common benefits for students. But Single Stop also can connect users with tax preparation help, affordable internet service and utility assistance programs.

The platform has been especially helpful, she said, for students who may not be eligible for benefit programs but can get connected to local resources for help. Kell said most Single Stop users at Virginia Highlands are in their 20s or 30s and are often the heads of their household.

Since VCCS rolled out Single Stop across its system in spring 2021, more than 45,000 students have used it, accessing more than $35 million in social service benefits across the state, said Jim Babb, communications manager at VCCS.

Single Stop helps track the number of people who receive assistance and the value of ongoing aid, but it’s sometimes hard to get students to complete a profile to see what their options are — it’s just one more form for them to remember to fill out. Mountain Empire has offered grocery store gift cards to students who complete a Single Stop profile. At Virginia Highlands, students are asked to fill out a profile before they can request a second grocery or gas gift card.

But Single Stop can’t solve all the social infrastructure challenges facing students.

Child care still a barrier for many

One of the biggest barriers to signing up for and completing an education or training program at the state’s community colleges is child care, which is an increasingly critical area of focus for school leaders.

Even if students can afford child care, it’s often hard to find a reliable source. Nearly half of Virginians live in a child-care desert, according to research from the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, meaning there’s a severe shortage of child care providers.

Mountain Empire President Kris Westover has been talking to United Way and Head Start in the region to discuss options for offering child care on campus. “It’s probably one of the biggest barriers to our students being able to come and be successful right now, is child care,” she said.

Doré, who became chancellor of the state community college system less than a year ago, said the need for child care for student parents struck him during his initial tour of the system. A handful of campuses have or are about to open child care centers, but they’re usually operated separately from the community college, which typically don’t have the means to do so independently.

“The most effective approach … is if we can provide the space at one of our colleges and then partner with a community based organization to offer the childcare services,” Doré said.

“We just don’t have a lot of options,” Bradshaw said of the area surrounding Mountain Empire.

Sometimes students bring their kids to school with them, which the faculty has supported. A few years ago, the only way the school could field a nursing aide course was to use grant money to offer child-minding, which let parents drop their children off at the campus gym before going to night classes.

The school plans to restart that program in 2024.

This reporting is part of a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit NewsRural News Network, and the Cardinal News, KOSU, Mississippi Today, Shasta Scout and The Texas Tribune. Support from Ascendium made the project possible.

The post Community colleges are helping with housing, gas and food to keep students in class appeared first on Cardinal News.

Rural Realities

Voters didn’t have a say in nearly 75% of local Central Virginia races this year — because there weren’t enough candidates

People sit in evenly spaced desks in a gymnasium. Each desk is outfitted with a screen to shield it from view. Printed on the screens are the words, "I voted."

Most local races this year were already decided for voters in Central Virginia, where more than 60% of candidates were running unopposed and more than 12% of contests didn’t draw enough registered candidates to guarantee an elected official will fill the seat.

The lack of choices follows a years-long trend that has magnified a weakness in democracy: without competition, the power in who is elected to serve isn’t exactly with the people.

This can leave residents at risk of inadequate representation as school boards set district policies, city councilors vote on new housing developments and county supervisors decide what to do about skyrocketing tax rates  — and having a lack of people in top local positions makes it difficult for governments to get things done.

But getting more people to run is a complicated issue plaguing localities nationwide.

The jobs are time-consuming with little-to-no pay, threats against elected officials have scared some people off and, unless you’re a Republican in a rural area or a Democrat in a major city, the odds of getting elected aren’t favorable.

“You get who shows up and sometimes that is not the best candidate to be there,” said Amanda Burns, one of four people who ran unopposed for Charlottesville City School Board. “I think it is important to understand policy decisions, and sometimes when we’re not engaged or involved in the process, we don’t always get the right people in those spots.”

Elected officials face threats and intimidation

Burns, a first-time candidate and mom of two boys who have been students in City Schools, said she weighed the physical and mental toll of joining the School Board amid instances statewide where members were facing aggressive pushback for their policy decisions.

Last year during a Page County School Board meeting, a Virginia mother said she would “bring every single gun loaded and ready” if mask requirements stayed in place. She was later charged with making an oral threat on school property.

Amelia King addresses the Page County School Board on Jan. 20, 2022 to express her opposition to mask mandates during which she said, “I will bring every single gun loaded and ready” if mask mandates remain. Screenshot of Page County School Board video posted to YouTube.

Brenda Sheridan, a Loudoun County School Board member, received anonymous death threats and faced a recall campaign led by Fight for Schools, an organization that has protested at board meetings over teachings on racism and COVID-related closures.

“I don’t think anyone grows up dreaming of being screamed at until one in the morning by angry crowds at town meetings or school board sessions,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “But increasingly, that’s the price of admission.”

Reports of physical attacks remain rare, but roughly half of local officials nationwide have been insulted and a third have been harassed, per a September report from Princeton University and CivicPulse.

Threats and harassment are higher for women and people of color, according to the analysis.

The potential for violence can be difficult for people who feel that running for political office could mean endangering their families or their neighborhood, said Lynlee Thorne, political director at Rural GroundGame, an organization recruiting and supporting Democratic candidates in rural Virginia — a place Democrats have historically languished in.

“That is the number one challenge,” said Thorne, a Rockingham County resident. “[There’s] a real lack of accountability, lack of pushback and lack of taking this very, very seriously and recognizing we’ve made a very distinct and troubling shift in terms of our acceptance of how it’s OK to engage.”

More about criticism directed at Charlottesville leaders

Running for office has always required taking criticism and opposition, but some officials say the attention has negatively intensified in recent years.

In conversations Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook has had with potential candidates, the greatest hesitation is not wanting the stress that’s come from politics becoming “extremely nasty.”

Snook’s seat was 1 of 3 City Council races that went uncontested in Charlottesville — which also had four School Board slots go unchallenged, a fact Snook classifies as “pretty unusual.”

As a criminal defense lawyer for the past 40 years, Snook said he isn’t personally phased by the vitriol because there’s not a name he hasn’t already been called. But not everyone can brush off the chaos and hurling of insults, Snook added.

“These are supposed to be your friends,” Snook continued. “These are people who you’re going to see in the grocery store. Your kids play on the same sports teams together. Why are you doing this?”

Local governments rely on volunteers for a time-consuming job with little-to-no pay

Rural counties have the added challenge of smaller populations, where there’s barely enough people to fill the seats that need filling and “you do just start running out of people who can or are willing to serve and who can stick around,” said Zachary Bullock, who served on Scottsville Town Council from 2017 to 2023.

If people move even a little bit, they can be deemed ineligible due to not being within town lines.

That means that in a roughly 550-person town like Scottsville, which is tucked among Albemarle and Fluvanna counties, it’s hard to get more than just the six council seats plus the mayor slot filled — or to have any competition for the town’s unpaid positions.

Statewide, the pay varies widely county-to-county. While Scottsville’s council is unpaid, a councilor in Mineral can make $100 per month while one in Charlottesville earns $18,000 per year.

Keeping the six-person town council up and running relies on new people and fresh feet in the race to keep Scottsville moving, and “if you don’t have the population base to do that, that is a risk to the town,” Bullock said.

The risk could include policy decisions — like determining where houses and businesses go, how to resist being overwhelmed by Airbnbs and improving conditions of the parks and farmers market — being slow to move forward, he said.

But there’s a general consensus among residents that volunteers are the backbone of the town, and that “one way or another, we will get it done,” said the Mayor Ron Smith, who jokes that he’s a lifetime “volunteer-holic” himself.

A man in slacks and a blue sweater stands in front of an unused industrial building.
Scottsville Mayor Ron Smith describes himself as a “volunteer-a-holic.” He’s served in various leadership positions in Scottsville since moving there 16 years ago. Credit: Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

In college, he was in a service fraternity before joining the Navy. He later joined the government services committee to get a feel of what council and local governance was like before being appointed to Scottsville council in 2010 when a member resigned due to health issues.

He won against Charlotte Staton-Joyner in 2020 in the mayoral race in a 59-to-9 vote per state elections data.

There have been a few years where the number of candidates didn’t match the vacancies, but Smith said he can’t remember a time where they weren’t filled at all in his 16 years in Scottsville.

Dillwyn’s town council in Buckingham County only had 3 of 6 needed candidates certified prior to election day — all were existing council members — but state elections data shows it’ll have a full board due to additional write-in people being voted in.

In Mineral and Gordonsville, there was only one candidate for the singular town council positions open.

The one Scottsville Town Councilor seat this year that the Virginia Department of Elections site said didn’t have a person running would be filled with a write-in candidate who Smith says had a paperwork issue that kept them from being certified by deadline. The elections site hadn’t updated with a name as of Wednesday but showed the write-in receiving 92 votes.

Aileen Morse, who was appointed in March to replace Bullock after he resigned, won the other available seat.

The downside in Scottsville, however, is that relying on a core volunteer group to show up no matter what the project is — whether it’s keeping the trails trimmed or putting signage up to mark a pathway — raises the potential for burnout, Bullock said.

Some moved there recently. Others grew up in the town. Many are on multiple committees, and those who are appointed or elected are doing it with their free time, said Town Administrator Javier Raudales.

The time commitment can be grueling for those with full-time jobs. Bullock recalled going from a day of being a teacher for Charlottesville City Public Schools to hours of committee meetings or looking over developer plans and hearing concerns from residents.

For Smith, a day could start with a 9 a.m. Chamber of Commerce meeting, be interrupted by a call that he’s needed at the funeral home he owns for a few hours and then continue back with mayoral business into the late evening.

Another day could be completely different.

“That’s what’s fun about it. You never know what’s gonna happen,” Smith said. “And you got to be ready to jump when the phone rings.”

Political polarization means many communities are governed by a single party

Most local races are considered non-partisan, but that doesn’t mean party politics doesn’t influence them. For example, in Virginia, more than 400 candidates this year were registered as Republicans. More than 150 were Democrats. The rest, nearly 1,700, were Independents, per data from the state Department of Elections.

In Charlottesville, there’s the expectation that the Democratic primary for City Council is “almost like the real election” because a Republican or Independent is unlikely to win — so they don’t run, said Michael Payne, a city councilor who ran unopposed.

Charlottesville Tomorrow reached out to the Republican Party of Charlottesville, along with several local Republican committees, and did not receive any response.

You get who shows up and sometimes that is not the best candidate to be there.

—Amanda Burns, one of four people who ran unopposed for Charlottesville City School Board

The problem with the primaries deciding the general election is that it puts the power of lawmaking into the hands of the small percentage of the electorate who votes in them, said political science professor Farnsworth.

The aftermath is a state where the red areas are getting redder and the Democratic parts are getting bluer.

Farnsworth noted that a part of the reason why so few races are contested can also be tied to the decline of local media. Half of the more than 3,000 counties nationwide only have one newspaper, and almost 200 have none at all, according to a University of North Carolina Chapel Hill report on news deserts in the U.S.

This can obscure awareness that these seats are going unchallenged in the first place due to lack of coverage. It also means that residents aren’t in-the-know about what local politicians do — and how they affect their day-to-day lives.

“Media outlets are squeezed to the point that even covering the meetings is a challenge,” Farnsworth said. “Because they’re not covered, they’re not really part of what the public is thinking about.”

The lack of competition can turn residents away from voting — due to a belief that their vote doesn’t count since the election is already decided — and from entering a race where they have unfavorable odds, said Lauren Coletta, senior advisor at Common Cause Virginia, a voting and government transparency advocacy group.

“The reality is, no one’s going to invest a lot in a Democrat in central Virginia outside of Charlottesville because their chances of winning are so low,” Coletta said.

So in rural counties, Republicans usually have the stronghold in state and local offices and continue to keep it.

There was a national push from Democrats to pump money into hyperlocal races, like school board and city council, in rural GOP territory this year in states like Virginia to make inroads in reversing the trend. It’s unclear how successful that push was.

In some places like Greene County, which has historically leaned Republican in state races, interest from the Democratic party is building as more Democratic voters move to the county, said director of elections Jennifer Lewis-Fowler.

Of the 12 local races in Greene, 7 went uncontested; two were filled with write-in winners; one for Soil and Water Conservation director position didn’t have enough candidates; and two — Board of Supervisors and School Board — were competitive. All ran as Independents.

You do just start running out of people who can or are willing to serve and who can stick around.

—Zachary Bullock, who served on Scottsville Town Council from 2017 to 2023

Thorne from Rural GroundGame said changing the pattern will rely on asking good questions and making space for people to be heard in an otherwise hostile political environment.

“Which is such a hopeful thing,” she said. “But to me, that’s part of the solution.”

And the solution won’t be easy. Political science professor Farnsworth says Virginia is seeing a “Washingtonization” of its politics, with “two armies in the trenches, fighting each other with no middle ground.”

Burns, one of the newest Charlottesville City School Board members, said the lack of education and mentorship for people navigating the process is yet another hurdle on top of the hyper-polarization.

But Smith, Scottsville’s mayor, remains as optimistic as Thorne despite the glaring challenges and long road ahead to mending them. This could be, in part, because in a place where neighbors take the time to know and trust each other and where residents want to make their community better, it’s easier to find those who want to be engaged.

“You just have to keep working on people and eventually, most of them will come around,” he said, chuckling.

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The first Black speaker of the House of Delegates takes pride in his rural roots

Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, the designated first Black speaker of the House of Delegates, outside the new General Assembly Building in Richmond this week. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

At first glance, Don Scott doesn’t come off as someone who can relate to the oftentimes hard life in rural Virginia. The U.S. Navy veteran, trial attorney and lawmaker from Portsmouth, who was just nominated by the House Democratic caucus as the first Black speaker in the legislature’s 404-year history, is rarely seen without one of his many fitted designer suits and alligator-skin cowboy boots. Pictures of his dark-blue electric 2022 Porsche Taycan 4S have made wide rounds on social media.

But behind the flashy facade is a humble and thoughtful man who says he is proud of his roots in rural Texas, who has done hard time in federal prison and, most recently, who has formed an unusual friendship with Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County.

“I’m country as hell,” Scott said, smiling, during a recent interview at his House minority leader office on the 14th floor of the new General Assembly Building in Richmond. His desk is bare, the bookshelf behind him is empty, and his belongings are packed up in numerous boxes scattered around the room, ready to be moved to his new, much bigger office down the hall.

As the designated 58th speaker of the House of Delegates, Scott is aware that many voters in the western part of the state are skeptical, even concerned about what his party’s recently regained control of the General Assembly will mean for their livelihoods.

But Scott, 58, vows that he will always take seriously and listen to the people in Southwest Virginia and Southside — including those who’d never vote for him.

“Southwest Virginia, Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, Southside and Central Virginia all benefit from the commonwealth. The rising tide is what lifts up the boats, right?” Scott said. “We are the commonwealth of Virginia. We’ve got to get rid of this parochialism and this animosity of one against another. I want to be just as focused on Southwest Virginia’s success as I am on Northern Virginia’s success, because at the end of the day, you have to be able to empathize with everybody.”

Hackworth, one of the most conservative senators in the legislature, who has tried to ban abortion altogether in Virginia, believes that Scott’s interest in the Southwest is genuine.

“When we first connected, I told him that I’m a businessman, and Don is a businessman, and that was the first point we connected on,” Hackworth said in a phone interview. “Whether you’re an attorney or a small-business owner, you have to run things, you have employees to take care of, and there’s still a lot of common ground where we connected. And he said, ‘Travis, I like you, I’d like to get to know you better.’”

State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County. Photo by Markus Schmidt.
State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

Just recently, Hackworth invited Scott and his wife, Dr. Mellanda Colson Scott, a dentist in Norfolk, and their daughter to spend a long weekend with him and his wife, Angel, and their daughter. Scott accepted, and on the third weekend in December both families plan to tour the Pocahontas Exhibition Coal Mine & Museum in Tazewell County, hike the trails in the far Southwest, visit a finished stretch of the Coalfield Expressway and, they hope, see a few of the Rocky Mountain elk that were relocated into Buchanan County from southeast Kentucky.

“I want to show him what tourism has done to transform Southwest Virginia,” Hackworth said.

Naturally, the new friendship between the two lawmakers is also driven by mutual economic interests. Hackworth is hoping for more government funding for the 5th Senate District, which he represents, and other parts of the Southwest.

“We’ve done well with the limited resources that we have, but being able to have Don come down as the new speaker of the House is a unique opportunity,” Hackworth said. “We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for a hand up, just help us. The dollar value in Southwest Virginia is really good because we know how to stretch a dollar.”

There are plenty of nonpartisan issues for Republicans and Democrats to come together on, Hackworth added.

“We are miles apart on maybe some social issues, but other kitchen-table issues, those are definitely things that I think we can connect on, like cleaning up waste coal in Southwest Virginia and making it a better place for drinking water and the environment, education, housing, which we desperately need, and workforce development. All that is nonpartisan,” Hackworth said. “I think that these are the areas where I want to connect with Don. That’s the reason I asked him to come down, he accepted, and we are really happy to be able to do that.”

Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said that Scott’s background and willingness to connect with Republican legislators from Southwest is unusual for a Democrat, but it could benefit both sides.

“Given the fact that the Southwest Virginia delegation is almost entirely Republican, the political influence of the region is greatest when there is a Republican majority. And because Democrats tend to do poorly in the region, a number of Democrats might not be interested in focusing on the region’s concerns,” Farnsworth said.

“But the incoming speaker’s background suggests more familiarity with the concerns of rural areas and an expressed willingness to reach out to the region, even if it doesn’t elect members who are Democrats.”

While Scott is proud of his country roots — he grew up in Jasper, a town of 7,000 in Deep East Texas about 40 miles west of the Louisiana state line — he said he feels comfortable moving in all population settings.

Don Scott. Photo by Markus Schmidt.
Speaker designate Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

“I also spent a lot of time growing up in Houston, which means I know both rural and urban well,” he said in the interview. Upon graduating high school, he went to Texas A&M University, majoring in agriculture.

Following his undergraduate education, Scott served as a Naval officer until 1991, when he received an honorable discharge. He went on to obtain a law degree from Louisiana State University Law School, but shortly after his graduation in 1994, he was arrested by federal agents on a single charge of conspiracy to possess, related to a crack cocaine distribution ring.

Despite pleading no contest as a first offender, Scott was sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison, of which he served seven and a half.

More than 22 years after his release, Scott looks back at his time behind bars as a life lesson that has taught him important traits, such as empathy and relatability.

“I think there are some people who, when some adversity hits, they fold up,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to be able to overcome adversity, which gives me a different insight into what folks are going through and what they might need, to be able to empathize. I’m grateful to be in the role that I am, and I am also grateful for all my experiences, and for my mistakes and scars, because you learn from scars and then you can move on.”

Scott said he was among thousands of nonviolent felons who had their civil rights restored under former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, which eventually allowed him to run for public office. Scott added that he was “really disappointed” in Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who all but ended the restoration programs of his three predecessors — including McDonnell — that automatically restored the rights of at least some people convicted of felonies who have served their terms.

People with felony convictions seeking to have their rights to vote, run for office and serve on a jury restored are now required to file an application given to them once they are released, but critics have called this process arbitrary and less transparent, pointing out that several thousand Virginians have been removed from the voting rolls without explanation.

“I think he says one thing and does something else,” Scott said of Youngkin. “When he claims what his values are, he doesn’t make decisions in line with those values. So I’m always concerned when I see that type of hypocrisy.”

Scott said that under his leadership House Democrats will “look into how all of those people were disenfranchised. We don’t know where those people were, where those votes were, which districts they were in, but we are going to get to the bottom of that.”

While it isn’t known if Youngkin’s new policy has impacted last week’s election one way or another, Scott said that those affected deserve better either way.

“These people’s rights were restored by another governor, and then this governor comes along and takes them away,” Scott said. “They don’t know if they can get them back, they don’t know if a mistake was made. Even if they were notified, they don’t know what this means. Sometimes folks don’t know.”

Youngkin, Scott added, may not really understand the impact it can have on someone when they lose their civil rights.

“But I know what that means,” he added. “And I think when you do that and you play with people’s lives like that, you probably need to have some self-reflection on who you are and what you are doing, because that’s just wrong.”

However, Scott signaled that he does not want to see his life reduced to the image of the former felon-turned-politician who understands the system because he has lived it.

“I also want to talk about the fact that I’m a trial attorney, that I have a great marriage, a great family,” he said. “I’ve been vetted by my voters now three times in my district, I’ve been vetted by my caucus, I’ve been in leadership twice now. I think I’ve been blessed, and I am grateful to be in this position, because I don’t think you earn this kind of stuff. I think it’s only by God’s grace that I get to be in these kinds of roles.”

Scott was first elected in 2019 to represent what then was the 80th House of Delegates District, which includes Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Suffolk. He ran unopposed in the primaries and defeated James Evans, the Republican nominee, and independent candidate Ryan Benton with 66% of the vote.

Two years later, Scott won his second term in the House, topping Republican Deanna Stanton, again with 66% of the vote. Because Democrats lost their majority in the House during that election, Scott in April 2022 led a revolt to oust Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, the former speaker, from her leadership role.

A little over two months later, House Democrats elected Scott as their new minority leader, after fending off challenges from Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, who also competed for the leadership spot.

Just days after Democrats regained the House majority last week, Scott’s caucus nominated him for the chamber’s top job on Sunday. Within just four years, his rapid ascent to speakership was complete.

But Scott denies that it was impatience that put him on a fast track to the third highest office in Virginia. “I would not say that I’m in a hurry, I’m 58 years old, man, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, laughing.

“Look, I’m not impatient, I don’t know the plans of God the almighty,” Scott said. “I’ve been in a position where I have stayed true to my faith and my purpose, and true to my vision, and I have been propelled by, I believe, just trying to stay in that will and at the same try to serve as many people as I can to do the most good.”

Despite his short time in the legislature, Scott said that he isn’t worried that he may not have the experience and the skill set needed for his future role.

“I think I’ve demonstrated that I’m a pretty quick learner, I think that’s what it takes here,” he said. “I’m well read, I love reading the rules, I love knowing what’s happening. I think I’m prepared. But don’t get it confused, I know that I have much, much more to learn, I know that there are things that I don’t know that I don’t know yet, so I’m going to be a sponge to try to continue to learn as much as I have and to continue to be an asset to the commonwealth of Virginia.”

After Scott was nominated Sunday, outgoing Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, turned to X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, to assure his successor his full support.

“I want to congratulate Don Scott on being chosen by his caucus to make history as the next speaker of the House,” Gilbert wrote. “Serving as speaker has been the greatest honor of my lifetime, and I will work with the incoming speaker to ensure a seamless transition of the institution.”

Scott said in the interview that he is well aware of the historical significance of being the first Black American among Virginia’s 58 speakers of the House.

“I am grateful for this role, I know there were people who came before me who were Black and who probably were more talented and gifted than I am, probably greater orators, who never had this opportunity because of their skin color,” he said. “I know that I stand on the shoulders of giants and that my ancestors, who probably were here, had their humanity discounted during the time that this Capitol was being built. I think that I will always carry that with me.”

But at the end of the day, Scott said, Virginians want leaders who are “competent and empathetic, who have been going through some adversity in life, and I have. And that’s why I am grateful to be the first Black speaker, but I’m also grateful to be the speaker who just happens to be Black, and I think that’s a big difference.”

Despite Scott’s historical moment, he is aware that despite their gains in the legislature, Democrats still face working with a Republican governor who will likely scrutinize every piece of legislation they will send him.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Photo by Markus Schmidt.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

Talking to reporters at Richmond’s Capitol Square on the day after the election, Youngkin said that the close election has shown that Virginians want both parties to work together.

“Virginia has historically moved back and forth from control of one party in the legislature to the other, the governor’s races with very thin margins, and we saw that on display again last night,” Youngkin said. “And I think what that reflects is the fact that we are a state that is very comfortable working together, across party lines, in order to get things done. That’s exactly what we have done over the course of the last two years, where we have worked with a legislature that has had a divided government, and we are going to continue to do this.”

While Scott agrees that last week’s Democratic victory doesn’t equate a mandate, he added that a lot of races that candidates from his party lost were very close. “I think this shows us that’s where most voters are, they want us to work together to get some things done, but they also want their freedoms that they rely on to be protected,” he said.

“I think that voters told us that they don’t like the government in our bedrooms, that they want people who are responsible gun owners and they want to continue to protect them,” Scott said. “Voters also told us that they want an economy that works for everybody. The fact that the governor would propose a billion-dollar tax cut in this environment for corporations while we still have schools that aren’t fully funded is a misplaced priority.”

Still, there are areas where Democrats and Republicans are likely to find common ground, Scott said.

“I think we can work together on things around education, around mental health, around stemming the tide of opioid addiction, around making sure that we have gun violence prevention and safety-focused, responsible gun owners,” he said. “I think those are the things that we can agree on with the governor, and we look forward to working with him on those things.”

The Republican defeat, Scott said, is Youngkin’s opportunity for “a reset and refocus” on Virginia.

“I think he had some other goals maybe, but now he gets the opportunity to really be a governor for everybody, as I view myself. I’m not the speaker for the Democrats or the Republicans, I am the speaker of the people’s House, and I take that responsibility very seriously, and I want to make sure I’m fair to everyone at all times, no matter what political party you serve in.”

Stepping into his new role, Scott vows to share his blessings with everyone in Virginia. “I think this country has been great to me, the commonwealth of Virginia has been great to me and my family, so the vision that I have for my own family, I want that for every family.”

And despite his personal setbacks and adversities in the past, Scott is determined to look forward. “I think persistence and resilience pays off in the end, and as Dr. King said, ‘It is best that the arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, and I think we continue to bend a little closer to justice.’”

Don Scott with Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke. Photo by Markus Schmidt.
Del. Don Scott with Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, who will be the only Democrat west of Charlottesville in the new legislature. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

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15 months after a flash flood devastated parts of Southwest Virginia, state aid is on the way

Dozens of homes were destroyed or damaged across parts of Buchanan and Tazewell counties by a July 2022 flash flood. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

More than a year after a devastating flash flood hit Buchanan and Tazewell counties, residents whose property was damaged or destroyed can finally start the process of applying for state flood relief money.

Delegate Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, who was instrumental in securing the $18 million, said Friday he hopes those who qualify will receive the money before the end of the year.

To help affected residents get the application process started, information sessions will be held Wednesday in Bandy and Whitewood.

“Many of the flood victims lost everything they own with no ability to rebuild. The assistance will give them hope for a better future,” said Morefield.

Morefield said a crowd is expected at the meeting in Whitewood, where there was a lot of property lost and damaged.

Buddy Fuller, a retired resident of Whitewood who has rental properties in three counties, said he plans to be at the meeting Wednesday. He hopes to recoup some of the money he’s spent cleaning up a trailer park he owns off Dismal River Road and wants to rebuild, an apartment building in Whitewood, a number of damaged rental properties and a barn, and replace some sheep that got washed away.

Flood relief information sessions

Meetings about how to apply for state aid will be held Wednesday for residents of Buchanan and Tazewell counties whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the July 2022 flash flood.

Tazewell County: 4:30 p.m., Bandy Community Center, 3290 Bandy Road

Buchanan County: 7 p.m., Whitewood Community Center, 7424 Dismal River Road

He said those in the community don’t seem to be angry over the budget impasse that held up the relief funding because they knew it would eventually come through.

“We’ve just been waiting,” Fuller said Friday. “I know with our legislators, Morefield and Hackworth [Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County], if there’s any way to get the money, they’re going to get it for us.”

As with the relief fund for those hit by flooding in August 2021 in the town of Hurley in Buchanan County, the money will go through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, which is hosting the community sessions. The meetings are open to the public and no registration is required, Morefield said.

The meetings will include information about the application process, eligibility requirements and program guidelines to assist residents in applying for the disaster relief program, according to DHCD.

The relief program will offer a grant of 175% of the local assessed value for property that is classified a total loss or had major damage. For properties that can be repaired, eligible applicants can receive assistance to make repairs or be reimbursed for work that has already been done.

The devastating flash flooding hit parts of eastern Buchanan County and western Tazewell County on the night of July 12, when about 6 inches of rain fell over just a few hours. The resulting flooding damaged roads and bridges, destroyed homes and caused power and water outages. There were no reported deaths or injuries.

According to an online dashboard maintained by United Way of Southwest Virginia, a lead agency in the recovery effort, 21 homes were destroyed; as of Aug. 31, six had been built to replace them. Another 25 had major damage of $10,000 or more, and 18 had been repaired. Twenty-five more homes saw damage of $10,000 or less.

So far, United Way has spent $574,441 on the repairs and construction and $225,049 remains, the dashboard states. All of the money came from donations.

Less than a year earlier, a similar storm occurred in the Guesses Fork area of Hurley, a community about 30 miles away. It also resulted in major flooding, the destruction or damage to dozens of homes and the death of one woman.

Following both storms, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied financial help to individual homeowners, saying that the damage wasn’t significant enough to warrant aid. Most of the homeowners did not carry flood insurance.

FEMA’s response to the Hurley disaster prompted Morefield to propose a statewide flood recovery fund that would pay for property losses that weren’t covered by insurance or federal aid. There was a budget earmark of $11.4 million for Hurley relief.

Initially, Morefield had sought $11 million in relief money for the areas hit by the July 2022 flooding, but he increased the amount to $18 million when local damage estimates increased.

Those in Hurley also had to wait for state relief money due to a budget stalemate, although it had been ironed out by June 2022. The first state funds went to Hurley residents in December 2022 — 16 months after the flooding.

It’s been 15 months since the Whitewood flooding.

Local and state officials have said the Hurley flood left them better prepared for the Whitewood disaster, and they decided that the framework developed for the Hurley relief money will be used for Whitewood.

As with the Hurley flooding, those who want to be reimbursed for work that’s already been done must provide receipts, Morefield said.That requirement slowed down the process in Hurley, as did a shortage of contractors to do the work.

Applicants in Buchanan County can apply at the Buchanan County Department of Social Services in Grundy, while those in Tazewell County can apply at the Tazewell County Administration Office on Main Street in Tazewell.

“We are excited to start taking applications and get the much-needed assistance to the flood victims,” Morefield said. “The program is unlike any flood relief program in the United States and the governor referred to it as a model program. Our region is grateful the General Assembly and the governor offered their support for our request during a time of crisis. I have been extremely impressed with the Department of Housing and Community Development and all of the local partners for their commitment to help.”

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