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Lt. Gov. at Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity: “You Are Not Forgotten by This Administration"

Blackstone, VA – When rural Virginia thrives, everyone in the Commonwealth prospers.

That was among one of the key takeaways from the 2023 Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity, hosted by the Virginia Rural Center and held Oct. 10-11, 2023, at Fort Barfoot in Blackstone, Virginia.

Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears delivered the keynote address at the event that brings together state, business and civic leaders to explore the future of rural Virginia and the innovative initiatives in their respective communities.

“Rural Virginia holds a very special place in our hearts, and I’m honored for the work the Center for Rural Virginia does,” said Lt. Gov. Earle-Sears. “We will continue to make sure that you in the rural parts know that we care. We see you. We are here to listen. We want to hear from you. You’re an important part of our economy. You are not forgotten by this Administration.”

Lt. Gov. Earle-Sears called for increased broadband expansion to continue to attract businesses to rural Virginia. The infrastructure, she said, is also important for companies with remote employees.

Energy is also an important priority, she said, given Virginia’s 28 military installations along with data centers that continue to flock to the Commonwealth, the top data center in the world.

Lt. Gov. Earle-Sears also touted a new dashboard for businesses that facilitates the permitting process and noted that parents have been provided complete reports of their student’s testing histories this year and each coming year - both distinguishing accomplishments for the Commonwealth.

The event commenced with opening remarks from Virginia Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs Craig Crenshaw, followed by the opening of the Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research & Extension Center expo and a panel discussion on how localities can unlock innovation in rural Virginia.

Special guest Ward Burton, winner of the 2002 Daytona 500, spoke on the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation that partners with local, state and federal organizations to advocate for conservation and land management best practices. A key element of that is protecting the military mission from encroachment, what he calls military readiness via conservation. “We can put the military mission first while still practicing conservation,” he said.

Matthew Lohr, Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, spoke on the importance of small businesses in farming localities as more than 80% of farmers rely on some form of off-farm income. Attendees also heard from Travis Voyles, Virginia’s Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources, who commented on increasing transparency, accountability and paving the way for more efficient economic development.

Closing out the first day of the summit, Dr. Quentin Johnson, President of Southside Virginia Community College, said that “88% of community college graduates stay and work right here in Virginia.”

“The opportunity for innovation is ripe, and this is the place to do it,” Johnson said, adding that programs in artificial intelligence must be part of future conversations.

Summit attendees experienced Fort Barfoot, downtown Blackstone and demonstrations at the Southside Virginia Community College Occupational Technical Center before an evening reception at the Inn at Blackstone.

Following Lt. Gov. Earle-Sears’ remarks on the summit’s second day, a rural workforce panel convened, stressing the need for students to graduate with industry-ready skills and the growing gap in health and wellness and affordable housing that affects many in the rural part of the state.

New Ferrum College President Mirta Martin urged higher education to recognize the importance of apprenticeships in preparing students to be career-ready.

Sentara also offered tours of its Mobile Care bus that delivers healthcare directly to communities with the greatest needs in the state, including those on Medicaid and the uninsured.

Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Caren Merrick and Virginia Economic Development Partnership CEO and President Jason El Koubi closed the summit.

“My job is to make Virginia the best place to start, grow or relocate a business,” Sec. Merrick said.

El Koubi targeted five focus areas to driving regional growth in target industries: capacity building, workforce, site development, infrastructure and strengthening incentives that lower the cost of doing business. “When we first started in 2017, out of the 18 economic development regions in Virginia, only four were projected to grow,” he said. “Today 16 are projected to grow.”

Drawing hundreds of attendees from around the Commonwealth, the summit was one of the largest multi-day events of its kind ever hosted in Blackstone.

“The town of Blackstone was incredibly excited to host this year’s Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity,” said L. Benjamin Green, Town Mayor. “While the economic impact for our local businesses, restaurants and lodging establishments was important, what we’re really proud of is the world-class experience that our Southside Virginia community successfully created and the terrific feedback we received from event attendees.”

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