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Congratulations 2022 Virginia Rural Leadership Institute Graduates

The Virginia Rural Leadership Institute Session 4 & Graduation

Day 1 – Coming Together One Last Time

On Thursday, November 17th, the 2022 Virginia Rural Leadership Institute (VRLI) began its last

Session, in Staunton, VA, the birthplace of Virginia’s last United States President, Woodrow

Wilson. As rural leaders from across the Commonwealth gathered at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential

Library & Museum, Cohort members shared the progress and successes of their Community Impact

Projects, an integral part of VRLI. This project-focused approach for VRLI allows Cohort Members to

quickly apply knowledge and skills in their communities- providing benefits for individual Cohort

members and their locality while also providing a return on investment on a larger scale for

supporters of VRLI.

After detailed discussions, VRLI Cohort members were joined by Katie Frazier, Chief Marketing &

External Affairs Officer at Farm Credit of the Virginias, to learn how to better navigate difficult

conversations and how to improve our relationships personally and professionally when dealing with

disagreements or decisions making. This interactive conversation allowed for real- life examples to

be used and VRLI Cohort members to reflect on situations that they have encountered and see the

positive impact of the strategies provided by Katie.

The day ended with a dinner at the Blu Point Seafood Co, located in the heart of downtown Staunton.

Before this successful restaurant opened in 2019, the space sat empty for nearly 6 years. It was

very fitting for VRLI to highlight the ingenuity of a rural business owner who had a vision for a

seafood restaurant in the Shenandoah Valley that could serve regionally sourced seafood and


Day 2 – Exploring the Shenandoah Valley

The second day began with breakfast at the Blackburn Inn & Conference Center, formerly the Western

State Hospital, and recently revitalized into a boutique hotel that opened in 2019 but has almost

200 years of history. As the lodging location for Session 4, VRLI Cohort members were able to

immerse themselves in experiencing all that the hotel had to offer.

A highlight of every VRLI session is exploring the local community and learning about the successes

and opportunities that each unique community faces. To showcase Staunton, VRLI was lucky enough to

work with Bill & Kathy Frazier, co-founders of Frazier Associates, along with Sheryl Wagner,

Director of Tourism for the City of Staunton. After a history lesson on

Staunton and learning about the town’s revitalization efforts, VRLI Cohort members departed from

the RR Smith Center for Art & History to explore the historically preserved downtown that is home

to more than 300 businesses, restaurants, and stores. It was clear through the walking tour why

Staunton is an award-winning community when it comes to revitalization and preservation while also

working with local businesses to create economic vitality.

After exploring downtown Staunton, VRLI Cohort members were excited to hear from some of the

Commonwealth’s top experts on rural issues. Larry Roberts, Executive Director of the

Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership kicked things off with a group discussion on

“Advocacy and Civic Engagement”. This topic led our Cohort to discover the important cross-

section of government and politics and how our rural leaders must continually build relationships

with key decision-makers across the Commonwealth to ensure advocacy for rural issues remains

a priority in Richmond and Washington D.C.

Next, the VRLI Cohort immersed itself into the rural demographics of Virginia to help our rural

leaders with “Understanding Data” and how it can be used in our rural communities. Hamilton

Lombard, Estimates Program Manager for the Demographics Research Group at the University of

Virginia Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, shared his deep knowledge and love for

demographics to highlight the major data trends rural communities across the Commonwealth are

facing along with giving his expert opinion on how to address these issues. This in-depth

discussion truly opened the eyes of VRLI Cohort members on how they can use information such as

Census data to better impact their communities.

The last presentation of the day was on a topic that many rural communities are actively working to

address and one that the Commonwealth has invested heavily in- “Rural Broadband”. Evan Feinman,

Director of Broadband Equity, Access, & Deployment at the National Telecommunications and

Information Administration is a Virginia native and has worked extensively on broadband issues over

the course of the last eight years in Virginia. With his knowledge and experience, VRLI Cohort

members discussed their local broadband efforts while also gaining an understanding of the regional

and state efforts occurring across Virginia to help get the Commonwealth to be the first large

state for universal broadband.

VRLI Cohort explored more of the Shenandoah Valley by traveling north on Interstate 81 to Broadway,

VA. There are many exciting experiences that have occurred over the course of VRLI but being hosted

by a sitting Virginia Cabinet Member on their farm was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Secretary

of Agriculture & Forestry, Matthew Lohr, sat down with us to discuss the important role agriculture

plays for so many rural communities. This experience of having the ability to have these

conversations with Secretary Lohr, in his own living room at Valley Pike Farm demonstrated his

commitment to growing and supporting rural Virginia!

The evening ended with a dinner at Valley Pike Farm Market, which is a century-old barn that was

deconstructed piece by piece, relocated, and re-assembled ten miles south of where it originally

stood. This unique venue served as a great reminder of what many of our rural leaders want to build

in their communities. Valley Pike Farm Market has given the community a place to meet, build

fellowship, and support small businesses within the constantly shifting agriculture industry.

Day 3 – Graduation

After spending the last seven months together as the Inaugural Cohort of VRLI, the time had come

from graduation. In addition to recognizing the VRLI Cohort, the graduation ceremony brought

together many of the VRLI visionaries, creators, and supporters to be recognized.

Secretary Matt Lohr, Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry and Virginia Rural Center Board

member provided keynote remarks encouraging VRLI Cohort members to look for ways

to keep growing as a leader and that little actions can often make the biggest differences. The

graduation ceremony also featured remarks from Chair and founding member of the Center for Rural

Virginia, Senator Frank Ruff; Chair of the Council for Rural Virginia, Bryan David and VRLI

Advisory Committee Chair, Jay Poole. Also, distinguished guests recognized at graduation included

former Secretary of Agriculture & Forestry, Bettina Ring; former Delegate and Founding Member of

the Virginia Rural Center Steve Landes who currently serves as Clerk of Circuit Court for Augusta

County; former chair of the Center for Rural Virginia, Senator Emmett Hanger; and former Delegate

Richard “Dickie” Bell.

A highlight of graduation was when VRLI Cohort members shared their Community Impact Projects with

all the stakeholders, board members, elected officials, VRLI mentors, and families. Countless hours

have been put into creating and developing these projects and the Virginia Rural Center is excited

to continue supporting the efforts of the Cohort as these projects move forward.

It was now time for everyone to receive their certificates and officially be the first graduates of

the Virginia Rural Leadership Institute. This moment brought so much joy to the Virginia Rural

Center staff and board after years of fundraising, planning, and executing the Commonwealth’s

first-ever statewide leadership program focused entirely on rural.

Congratulations to the Graduates of the Virginia Rural Leadership Institute, Class of 2022!

This year would not have been possible without our partners who have worked tirelessly with the

Center to bring together the best and brightest for the VRLI Curriculum, supporting and providing

funding for the program, and recruiting rural leaders in every region of Virginia, and playing a

pivotal role in the curriculum of VRLI.

The Virginia Rural Center would like to thank the VRLI sponsors: Appalachian Power Foundation,

Appalachian Regional Commission, Danville Community College Foundation, Dominion Energy Foundation,

Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, Liz Povar of RiverLink Group, Microsoft, Mid Atlantic

Broadband Corporation, Virginia Community Capital, Virginia Tobacco Revitalization Commission, and

Virginia Housing.

Graduates of the 2022 VRLI Cohort

Listed in Alphabetical Order by Last Name

Richelle Alexander

Lexington, VA

Rockbridge Area Housing Corporation, Assistant Property Manager

Luke Allison

Pulaski County, VA

Aggregate Capital LLC, Project Manager

Garrett Blaize

Wise County, VA

Appalachian Community Fund, Grants Manager and Regional Organizer

Neva Bryan

St. Paul, VA

University of Virginia's College at Wise (UVA-Wise), Senior Director of Academic Enhancement &

Coordinator of National Awards and Fellowships

Rebekah Castle

Augusta County, VA

Augusta County, Director of Economic Development and Marketing

James Clements

Prince George County, VA

University of Richmond, Full-Time MBA Student

Stacey English

Hopewell, VA

Dinwiddie County, Economic Development & Marketing Manager

Jenna French

Shenandoah County, VA

Shenandoah County, Director of Tourism & Economic Development

Jessi Fritz, MBA

Abingdon, VA

Virginia Economic Development Partnership, Regional Business Manager (Talent Solutions)

Lydia Gilmer

Pulaski County, VA

Pulaski County, VA, Small Business Solutions Manager (Economic Development)

Shannon Hair, Ed.D

Danville, VA

Danville Community College, VP of Institutional Advancement & Development/Executive Director of DCC

Educational Foundation, Inc.

Debbie Irwin

Staunton, VA

Shenandoah Community Capital Fund, Executive Director

Michelle Johnson

Charles City County, VA

Charles City County, County Administrator

Lisa Jordan, Ph.D

South Hill, VA

Virginia Department of Military Affairs, Historic Preservation Specialist and Collections Manager

Zachary King

Harrisonburg, VA

Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative LLC, Sales Associate & Business Analyst

Lachanda Lee

Dinwiddie County, VA

Dinwiddie County, Director of Human Resources

Maggie Beal Longest, M.S.

Ashland, VA

Downtown Ashland Association, Executive Director

John Matthews

Wytheville, VA

Joint Industrial Development Authority of Wythe County, Deputy Director

Joseph Mengedoth, M.S.

Henrico County, VA

Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Regional Economist

Allison Moore

Pittsylvania County, VA

Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, Manager of Public Relations & Communications

Hope Mothershead

Richmond County, VA

Richmond County, VA, Director of Planning and Zoning

Julia Pilipenko

Augusta County, VA

Dominion Energy, External Affairs Representative

French Price

Woodstock, VA

Virginia Cooperative Extension, Value Chain Coordinator

Billie Roberts

Bluefield, VA

Virginia Community Capital, Community Innovation Advisor

Joy Rumley

Abingdon, VA

New River Valley Regional Commission, Senior Planner

Logan Ryan

Mechanicsville, VA

Covintus, Inc., Director of Community Engagement

Lauren Stuhldreher

North Chesterfield

VA - U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Economic Development Administration, Economic Development

Representative for Virginia

Wendy Welch. Ph.D

Wythe County, VA

Graduate Medical Education Consortium of SWVA, Executive Director

James Werth, Ph.D

Bristol, VA

Tri-Area Co

mmunity Health, CEO

About the Virginia Rural Center:

The Virginia Rural Center is a collaborative partnership of the Center for Rural Virginia and the

Council for Rural Virginia. These two organizations established a collective services agreement to

work jointly toward the mission of economic prosperity for rural communities throughout Virginia.

Together, the Center for Rural Virginia and the Council for Rural Virginia work with federal,

state, and local policymakers and regulators as well private sector stakeholders to improve

economic opportunities and preserve the quality of life throughout rural Virginia. Learn more about

the Virginia Rural Center or the Virginia Rural Leadership Institute online at or on

Facebook at @VirginiaRuralCenter, Twitter at @VARuralCenter, and

Instagram at @varuralcenter or using the hashtag #VRLI & #GrowRuralVA.


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