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Session 2 of the Virginia Rural Leadership Institute Highlights Rural Coastal Communities

The Inaugural Cohort of the Virginia Rural Leadership Institute (VRLI) convened in Tappahannock, VA from July 14th to 16th to participate in the Second of 4 Sessions throughout 2022. VRLI focuses on retaining, attracting, and developing rural Virginians into innovative, responsible, and civic-minded leaders who build strong communities.

DAY 1 – Exploring the Region

On Thursday, July 14th, Virginia Rural LeadershipInstitute (VRLI) Cohort members and staff excitedly arrived in Tappahannock, VA for Session 2 of the Virginia Rural Leadership Institute. The session kicked off at St. Margaret’s School, a private all-girls boarding school in the Tappahannock community, to reconnect as a Cohort and discuss the busy VRLI agenda.

The goal for Session 2 was to provide an opportunity for the Cohort to participate in rural-focused professional development and to visit and engage with leaders from a region that many Cohort members have never visited. In just three days, VRLI Cohort members were scheduled to visit both the Middle Peninsula and the Northern Neck regions, including the towns of Tappahannock and Warsaw along with, King William County. By the end of Session 2, while Cohort members may not have had a direct immersion as intended in each of these communities, they did receive a true lesson in leadership and saw the strength of a rural community in a time of tragedy.

Being in a waterfront community historically known as a center of commerce for the region, VRLI Cohort members started their regional experiences by participating in both a “Downtown Tappahannock Walking Tour” focused on economic and community development and a “Heritage Boat Tour” to highlight the important role of the Chesapeake Bay and its estuaries for the region.

Beth Sharpe, Executive Director of Tappahannock Mainstreet, led the “Downtown Tappahannock WalkingTappahannock Mayor, The Honorable Roy Gladding, and Wind Vineyards Owner, Tyler Windnddbe seen at every stop. VRLI Cohort members learned about the community’s recent successes in growing its Tappahannock Farmers’ Market from a small group of vendors providing only agricultural commodities to a large-scale event with over 100 vendors who provide multiple agricultural products, handicrafts, and services to the comm,,,unity.

Beth highlighted some of the exciting new economic development projects in the community. One visit was to a large plot of land recently purchased by the Town of Tappahannock from St. Margaret’s School to serve as the first multi-use community park in the area. She shared that county visioning sessions prioritized establishing this park as an asset to families and the community.

Beth also took Cohort members on a behind-the-scenes tour of the DAW Theater, which was the original Essex Theater that opened in 1930 and reopened in 1939. The DAW Theater continuously ran as the only theater in the area until it shut its doors in the late 1990s. In 2018, community leaders started working together to reopen the theater, now being reimagined to serve the community and surrounding regions with a variety of art, entertainment, and educational programs while revitalizing the 1930s architecture and décor that the theater was once known for.

The “Heritage Boat Tour” embarked from June Parker Marina, which has been owned and operated by the same family since 1986, to take the VRLI Cohort down the Rappahannock River showcasing the waterway and its role in the region’s history and cultural identity as well as the natural resources it provides to local communities.

Tour guides Richard Moncure of Rappahannock Roundstern and Nate Parker of June Park Marina enlightened Cohort members on the humble beginnings of Tappahannock from its first European visitor, Captain John Smith in 1608, to the economic hub the community was as a port town and steamboat destination throughout much of the country’s history.

Chris Moore, a Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, shared with the VRLI Cohort the many aquatic resources the Bay and its estuaries provide the region and the importance of sustaining these resources for future generations of Virginians.

His interactive experiences, including live crab demonstrations and showcasing local fish, allowed Cohort members to learn first-hand about how essential the “Save The Bay” efforts are economically and environmentally.

The Virginia Rural Leadership Institute capped off the night with a dinner in the newly built Tasting Room at Wind Vineyards at Laurel Grove. This beautiful facility is right outside of the town of Tappahannock and allowed VLRI to get a “taste of place” and to learn what is possible when a farm creates a vision to be one of the Mid-Atlantic’s premier agritourism venues.

From enjoying the 2021 Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association Award-winning wines to hearing from the Tappahannock Mayor The Honorable Roy Gladding and Wind Vineyards Owner Tyler Wind, VRLI Cohort members were inspired to see how a rural community can “dream big” and invest in their community while allowing entrepreneurs to be successful.

DAY 2 – A Lesson in Leadership

VRLI’s 2nd day of Session 2 began with an agenda with presentations and experiences focused on economic and community development but as the day unfolded, the themes of true leadership, regional collaboration, and rural resiliency prevailed.

The Cohort began the morning with Delegate Keith Hodges who shared how local, state, and federal leaders have worked together to address the needs of the region. He encouraged Cohort members to identify and solve problems in their communities and connected the Cohort experiences from the tours the day before to the policies and programs created to address the unique challenges that are faced by rural coastal communities. Delegate Hodges highlighted many of the innovative solutions he has worked on in the region such as the creation of the Middle Peninsula Alliance, which is charged with the economic development of the entire region, and recent legislation to mitigate the effect of water, land erosion, and subsidence in the region.

VRLI’s next presenter Liz Povar, Principal of the RiverLink Group, Virginia Rural Center Board Member, and VRLI Advisory Committee Member provided an interactive opportunity for Cohort members to better understand how to “Build Your Network”. Liz shared her personal and professional success in building networks of economic development opportunities by connecting clients to resources, forward-thinking ideas, and advancing the client's needs. Liz encouraged Cohort members to envision their personal and professional connections as the threads in a tapestry. With Liz’s facilitation, the Cohort reflected on their networking skills and ways to build a “larger tapestry” by setting clear goals, focusing on character traits, being prepared for each interaction, acting on opportunities presented, and ALWAYS following up.

Next up was an exciting presentation on “Gaining Capital” by Leah Fremouw, CEO of Bridging Virginia and member of the Virginia CDFI Coalition. Leah shared with the Cohort members an in-depth explanation of the role of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) and how community-focused financing organizations can help build economic activity in their region. Leah’s expertise in identifying ways to bring additional financial and technical assistance resources to our Cohort’s communities and how to strategically leverage public dollars to unlock private capital resources led to very timely discussions between Cohort members and Leah on different scenarios in their communities and how innovative lending opportunities could potentially solve issues or enhance community goals.

Visiting the Northern Neck/Middle Peninsula region would not be complete without highlighting the importance of both VCU Health Tappahannock and Rappahannock Community College (RCC). The “Rural Health Partnerships & Opportunities” presentation from Liz Martin, CEO of VCU Health Tappahannock, and Dr. Shannon Kennedy, President of Rappahannock Community College, analyzed health data from the region to show the role social determinates of health play in education, the environment, workforce development, and economic stability for its communities. Both Liz and Shannon discussed how VCU Health and RCC have partnered together to improve the health outcomes for the region such as the collaboration to create a Diagnostic Medical Sonography and Echocardiogram Certification to meet the need for improved cardiac care at VCU Health Tappahannock and other rural VCU hospitals.

While the “Rural Health Partnerships & Opportunities” presentation was concluding; Jay Wolfson, the owner of NN Burger, was working with VRLI staff to set up the Cohort’s catered lunch. While discussing the importance of the program and expressing appreciation to the VRLI staff, Jay received a call from his business that a large fire had started near his building and that he needed to return immediately. Very quickly it became apparent to the presenters, Cohort members, community members, and VRLI staff that the fire was serious and while not immediately putting them in danger, it was detrimental to the Town of Tappahannock. VRLI staff immediately contacted local leaders to determine what steps needed to be taken for the safety of the VRLI Cohort, speakers, and the overall community.

After receiving confirmation that VRLI’s location was not at risk of the fire reaching it or needing to be immediately evacuated, VRLI staff adjusted the agenda to allow only the speakers who had already arrived in Tappahannock to present and cancel any additional in-person programming. As the fire grew, it brought power outages to large parts of the Tappahannock community, including the Session 2 host location at St. Margaret’s school. Even without power, our Cohort members and speakers valued the time and expertise of the presenters who had traveled to Tappahannock and wanted to move forward with the adjusted agenda. The VRLI staff stayed in constant communication with leaders in the community for any potential safety concerns or evacuation needs.

Dean Lynch, Executive Director of the Virginia Association of Counties, provided great insight on “Engaging with Elected Officials & Government” by having an open conversation with the Cohort about his rural background, how he learned to engage with elected officials through the General Assembly, and best practices to follow for every interaction with an elected official. Although the room was dark and the temperature began to rise due to the lack of electricity, Dean actively engaged Cohort members through discussions and Q&A on topics such as the importance of building relationships with your local, state, and federally elected officials, focusing on the issues and not the political party of the person, and how to gain support from adversarial elected officials.

The last presentation of the day would be “Rural Tourism” by Staci Martin, Partnership Marketing Grants Manager with the Virginia Tourism Corporation. Being a rural Virginian herself, Staci was prepared with paper copies of her presentation for Cohort members in case there were any technical difficulties or a lack of internet when she arrived. This rural mindset worked in her favor as the power outage prevented a slideshow from being possible. Staci discussed the role and economic impact of Virginia Tourism on rural communities and the opportunities for funding that many communities may not be aware of. The step-by-step explanation of each program allowed Cohort members to determine potential funds that could be used by their communities or the organizations and businesses in the surrounding area.

After Staci’s presentation, VRLI Cohort members and staff dismissed a day earlier than planned and traveled home to ensure their safety and to avoid being a distraction for the host facility or community leaders. Twenty-three fire departments from 10 different counties responded to help fight the fire that had flames reach over 100 feet high and claimed nearly an entire block of the Historic District of Tappahannock and causing over $10 million in damages. To fight the fire, firefighters had to draw water from the nearby Rappahannock River when the town’s water supply was not enough, and several firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion. While the fire devastated businesses and buildings, thanks to the quick action of first responders and community leaders, no lives were lost.

The VRLI Cohort continues to be inspired by the leadership, resiliency, and strength of first responders and leaders in Tappahannock and the surrounding communities.

DAY 3 – Re-Building Your Community

The final day of VRLI Session 2 occurred virtually through Zoom with all Cohort members safely back in their communities. After an update on the tragedy from the day before was provided, the VRLI Cohort had a chance to hear about “Building a Tribal Government” from Chief Frank Adams with The Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe. This unique opportunity allowed Cohort members to directly understand the process that Tribal Nations, often located in rural communities, must go through to become federally recognized and the economic impacts this recognition has on the tribe and the surrounding rural community. Chief Adams shared his experience of going from a Virginia State-Recognized Tribe with no staff in 2018 to now having multiple full-time employees, programs, and a new health center that provides essential services to all tribal members and the greater region.

Stephanie Heinatz, a Managing Partner at Consociate Media, closed out Session II of VRLI with an interactive presentation on the importance of “Communication & Listening”. Although it could be perceived as a simple topic, , many issues can be solved with effective communication and listening skills. Stephanie guided the Cohort through the 4 major pillars of building trust to effectively communicate your message to an individual or community. Building that trust through vulnerability, simplicity, transparency, and reliability while also actively listening to the individual or community to understand their issues, address their needs, and be able to leave the interaction with clear goals in place or new relevant information.

VRLI Session 2 in Tappahannock, VA was a real-life example of the importance of regional collaboration, leadership, and rural resiliency. VRLI staff and Cohort members would like to thank our speakers, local partners, and VRLI sponsors. A special thank you to the first responders and community leaders who fearlessly kept everyone safe.

We look forward to September for VRLI Session 3 in Southwest Virginia with visits to Pulaski and St. Paul, VA. Stay Tuned!




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