Charlottesville’s new economic development plan to focus on inclusivity, workforce development

Charlottesville is in the midst of writing up a document intended to guide how economic development should be conducted by the local government. Resonance Consulting of New York City was awarded the contract to create a strategic plan for the topic.

“First and foremost, Charlottesville is a diverse and young community with an authentic small-town charm,” said Resonance Vice President Steven Pedigo at the May 15 meeting of Charlottesville City Council. “Charlottesville is home to a highly skilled work force, a variety of industries, and a really strong healthy economy.” (view the presentation)

Pedigo said 72 percent of residents have at least a bachelor’s degree. Unemployment is low and there are several industries including defense, business services, life sciences, and tourism. 

“Charlottesville’s got the opportunity to really lead on life sciences and clean technology,” Pedigo said. “Obviously these are two sectors that are growing quite fast for the country but in addition to that there are really strong assets and associations in Charlottesville to support the growth of these sectors.” 

A table listings strengths and weaknesses of the various industry clusters (Credit: Resonance Consulting)

However, Pedigo said Charlottesville should do more to make sure its economic development strategy leads to more inclusivity. 

“There’s a lot of opportunity in terms of the knowledge-based sector,” Pedigo said. “It’s a highly skilled population. There are are gaps when it relates to earnings, poverty, and educational levels between white and Black populations so you’ll see that we’ve put up a considerable effort and thought into how we can approach those challenges in our economic development strategy.”

The plan will recommend steps to strengthen the workforce development ecosystem to help address gaps. Otherwise he said there’s no real reason to have a strategic plan.

“When we think about economic development today, it can’t just be about business attraction or even just business expansion,” Pedigo said. “There has to be a workforce development piece.”

Pedigo said the city needs to do more to tell the story of economic development and wealth creation in the city.  The plan itself will have a very clear vision statement.

“A cultural and creative capital of Virginia, Charlottesville treasures its people and diversity – a leader in innovation and sustainability.” 

“So a nice strong vision statement to guide our economic development work to be kind of the future vision that we hope to achieve out of our economic development strategy,” Pedigo said. 

Strategic plans are about goals and strategies and here are some examples. 

Goal 1 is Equitable Entrepreneurship. Strategies include establishing a one-stop source to help people from diverse backgrounds navigate various city processes. Another is to establish a subsidized commercial space on or near the Downtown Mall.

Goal 3 is “Pathways for Opportunity” which relates to creating workforce development pipelines and there are eight strategies. 

“One is just continuing to educate private sector leaders on the importance of workforce development and why they should be thinking about this in partnership with the city and [Albemarle County and its partners,” Pedigo said. 

(image) Some of the strategies for Goal 3 – Pathways for Opportunity 

Pedigo said Resonance will develop an implementation plan that will be up to city staff to follow. 

Charlottesville Economic Development Director Chris Engel said that the various strategies will each come with ways to measure if outcomes are being met. 

“One of the challenges we presented to the consultants is to present us with data metrics that  are attainable and don’t cost us an arm and a leg so to speak,” Engel said. “Freely available data that is readily available annually so we can use that as a starting point for measuring progress on each of these. That will be easier on some of these than others so we’ll have to  kind of dive in and create a path for each of the big buckets, each of the five major goals, to have accountability on each of those with some metrics under each of them.”

Engel said some of the strategies will be led by partnership organizations and there are five people in his office to work on others. 

Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade noted that Resonance had also worked to develop an economic development strategy for Greenville, South Carolina. 

“Greenville is rocking with what they’re doing down there and I think if we could get some insights on some of the things that they’re doing down there here I think it would be really good,” Wade said. 

Councilor Leah Puryear said she was glad to see metrics for the first goal but she had question about sustainability.

“My concern is having small businesses and having diversity but making sure that not only are they visible but that they are sustainable,” Puryear said. “It’s one thing for me to open up a business today but we all know it’s a two to three year timeframe before businesses are going to net a profit.” 

Puryear wants to make sure that businesses generated through this process can be nurtured through both funding and support mechanisms. 

“And at what point do you have serious conversations with businesses about their viability before they launch?” Puryear said. “Or mid-stream if the viability changes. What are we doing to help them make the necessary shifts?” 

Engel said the United Way’s Envision grant program is an example of the type of support that does exist and is targeted for businesses at a critical point in their life cycle. 

Councilor Michael Payne said he would like the city to be more explicit in its desire to help households build wealth.

“Richmond has created an Office of Community Wealth Building, Burlington and Portland have made significant progress here, and in thinking about  how that connects to some of the things you’ve mentioned like workforce development, GO programs, but how could that connect as part of an even bigger picture strategy around community development corporations, community development financial institutions that are opening up wealth building to everyone in the community,” Payne said. 

Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook asked if economic development ever heard from anyone with concerns about not being able to expand within the city limits. Engel said the topic comes up a lot.

“Space is one of the key questions we get from new and growing companies here,” Engel said. “Ten square miles is not much and 70 percent of it is in residential and that’s unlikely going to change. We’re very limited which is why we participate regional and a company that lands in Louisa or Greene or Albemarle County can provide and does provide jobs for us.”

The plan is expected to be completed this summer.

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the May 23, 2023 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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