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State of the South 2014: Danville, VA

State of the South 2014: Danville, VA

In the age of startups, business incubators, and Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship conjures images of computer scientists, high-tech companies, and sleek offices in big cities. But in Danville, Va., entrepreneurship is being promoted as a strategy for building a vital, diversified economy—and attracting young people to the rural region on the border of North Carolina and Virginia.

Like many other cities across the Sunbelt, Danville flourished as a milltown for much of the twentieth century, producing the famous brightleaf tobacco and textiles. Though employment in the manufacturing sector was at its peak in the early 1970s, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that Danville was hit with rapid job loss and factory closures. By 2004, the crisis was full-blown. Dan River Mills, the largest employer in Danville and once the largest textile firm in the world, filed for bankruptcy and in 2006, shut its doors completely.

Today, if you ask Laurie Moran, the president of the Danville-Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce, what kind of economy she and other leaders in the area are trying to build in the wake of such loss, she quickly replies with a few descriptive words: diverse, with living-wage work, and with enough opportunities to keep her children in the area.

(Small start-up businesses have opened on the historic Main Street in Danville’s downtown district.)

While part of the city’s economic development strategy relies on attracting large companies to the area, Danville and the surrounding counties have taken an innovative approach to rebuilding their economy. To ensure that they no longer rely on just one or two primary industries, the region is developing intentional strategies to promote entrepreneurship among its youth and to attract entrepreneurs to establish their businesses in their region. “Right now, we are trying to create a new economy and a new culture for an old milltown at the same time,” says Karl Stauber, president of the Danville Regional Foundation (DRF). “Developing an entrepreneurship ecosystem is essential to that. This has the potential not only to attract and generate businesses but also to change the conversation here. One of the issues we have in Danville is an attitude that we don’t deserve excellence. Mediocre is okay in education and economic development. We’re spending a lot of time helping people see what is excellent in our work to promote entrepreneurship.”

The Foundation has been at the center of this effort. Nearly a decade ago, it made a $10 million investment in The Launch Place, which offers business consulting, seed funding, office space, residential subsidies, and other services to entrepreneurs interested in locating in the Southern Virginia region. Last winter, the Launch Place partnered with several members of the Middle Border Forward initiative (a DRF project managed by MDC) to develop Danville’s next generation of leaders, to host a business pitch competition. IdeaFest attracted over 60 participants, including individuals from other entrepreneurship hubs like the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina as well as residents of Danville.

(As part of revitalization efforts in Danville, public, private, and philanthropic leaders have put significant investment into infrastructure like this walking bridge to encourage activity in the downtown River District.)

But Stauber and other leaders are not only interested in attracting newcomers. They are also investing in the kids born and raised in the region. Recently, DRF and the Chamber of Commerce have teamed up to launch a young entrepreneurs' academy, an after-school program for middle- and high-school students. Over the course of 30 weeks, students learn what it takes to turn an idea into a business. “They develop business plans, complete market assessments, and ultimately, share their ideas in front of an investor panel,” says Moran. “This is really about helping young people see that opportunities are everywhere if you’re an entrepreneur.”  

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