Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Economic Development Studio @ Virginia Tech: A Student Experience

Ms. Jones and Dr. John Provo, Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development Associate Director, will lead a FREE webinar on sustainable development, presenting their work commissioned by SustainFloyd as a case study on Friday, March 25th. You can register for the webinar online here.

Top right: In a meeting room at the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development, the Economic Development Studio @ VT meets weekly to work on their project. From left of table; Thomas Moore, Sherman Taylor, Daniel Ling, Courtney Kimmel, Brian McElraft, Ashley DeBiase, Will Drake and Mel Jones work on client presentation.

Top left: Dr. John Provo, instructor of the Economic Development Studio @ VT, and Thomas Moore, Urban Affairs and Planning Student, at presentation to client, SustainFloyd, at the Country Store in Floyd, VA.

Bottom left: Jack Wall, SustainFloyd board member and client contact for the Economic Development Studio @ VT.

Bottom right: Ashley DeBiase presents the opportunity for a micro dairy in Floyd County, VA to SustainFloyd at the Country Store in Floyd, VA.

The Economic Development Studio @ Virginia Tech is an opportunity for students to experience a development project from its commission to completion. The studio experience is complicated and no doubt different for every student involved, depending on his or her role, ambitions, and background. Despite the variety of experiences to be had, I expect that exercise in applying economic development theory, project planning and implementation, group dynamics, consensus building, and time management were felt in everyone’s intellectual muscles.

This year’s project was commissioned by SustainFloyd, a local non-profit devoted to sustainable development in Floyd County, Virginia. SustainFloyd connected with the studio’s instructor, Dr. John Provo, and requested that the class identify sustainable business opportunities in Floyd County. Accepting the request, Dr. Provo assigned the studio project as a preliminary feasibility study to identify a number of sustainable business opportunities. He introduced readings to direct the class to applicable theories and set out deadlines for the project’s progression.

From the beginning, the class unanimously chose to apply the concept of community economic development, likely due to our exposure to academic trends in economic development and our generation’s affinity for community engagement. Adding “asset-based” to community economic development was almost accidental (it seemed to me; perhaps Dr. Provo had it up his sleeve the whole time). Obviously, we had to know what is in Floyd to work with, so we began interviewing members of the community who were already involved in sustainable businesses or already promoting sustainable practices and made a plan to collect data on Floyd’s labor, natural, and infrastructure resource availability. The interviews quickly revealed that Floyd had a wealth of intangible assets rooted in the cultural and social dynamics of the county. Through data collection and analysis we identified Floyd’s general labor advantages and a number of important infrastructure and resource constraints.

Our evaluation of Floyd’s advantages and constraints along with our interpretation SustainFloyd’s sustainability mission led us to sectors in which Floyd County could most effectively contribute to sustainable development. In those sectors (training and education, biomass energy, interior furnishings and food processing) we detected sustainable business opportunities which would both use and bolster Floyd’s assets while contributing to the overall sustainable development of Floyd County. Without ever specifically intending, we were applying concepts of asset based development. Our enterprise recommendations are therefore product of asset-based, sustainable, community economic development ideas. A taste of our results is below, but check out the whole report at on the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development Website!

Climate change and alternative energy is one of SustainFloyd’s top priorities, so wood pellet production is a particularly relevant sustainable business opportunity. Wood pellets can be produced and consumed on a local level, aligning with SustainFloyd’s desire to localize the area’s economy. A micro dairy would allow the county’s existing agricultural and dairy base to enter a thriving, value-added niche market. Manufacturing flooring and countertop materials would leverage the county’s existing manufacturing skill base, creating opportunities for the area’s artisans and craftsmen, while expanding sustainable living options for consumers. A “sustainable living” training and education center could retrain displaced manufacturing workers, empower prospective farmers to enter the agriculture business, and provide additional income streams for professionals in the area.

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