Small towns, big potential: What can we do?

Alex White Portrait

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: The following column was submitted prior to the recent COVID-19 outbreak.

By Alex White

To the average observer, it appears that the United States economy is doing a great job of providing for everyone. After all, stocks, spending, and consumer confidence are all rising. For the time being, stagnation itself appears to be a thing of the past. It would be fantastic if that were the whole story. Unfortunately, there is much more than meets the eye.

In fact, even as the United States continues one of its longest periods of economic expansion, 60 million rural Americans are still living as if the Great Recession had never abated.

Small towns everywhere from Appalachia to the Midwest are experiencing shortages of good healthcare, teachers, government revenue, affordable housing, high-speed internet, good-paying jobs, and so many other things that places like Page County sorely need.

Nowadays, our first response tends to be looking outward to see how the state and federal government can  “save us.” This column will propose that we can do so much more with our OWN resources to create change in our “backyard.” There are so many possibilities, and all that they require is creativity, gumption and a willingness to use our unique resources. 

And no, that doesn’t just mean money; it means leveraging the space, relationships and institutions that can only be found in our small towns. This is NOT a new idea. You wouldn’t know it, but Page County used to be the site of a four-year college (Von Bora), home of a U.S. congressman (Rep. William A. Harris Sr.), and a hub of world-class industry.

It’s time to reclaim that status; this column is my humble contribution to the cause. Every month, I will discuss what WE can do to address the most pressing issues facing our county. I will analyze everything from poverty to homelessness, and my methods will emphasize those things that we can do without “breaking the bank” (and WITH our special potential as a small town). We have so many resources and a heritage of hard work at our disposal.

We’re so used to thinking about how the rest of the world can save us, that we forget the power that we have to SHAPE our world. To expand on the motto of a 19th-century Page County newspaper: “Do not despise small beginnings… rejoice to see the work begin…”

Jack “Alex” White is a first-year student at Harvard, where he is studying Government. While there, he has become the Policy Director for Harvard Undergraduates for Bipartisan Solutions (HUBS) and Senior Content Editor for the Harvard Economics Review. Alex is a lifelong native of Page County and graduate of Luray High School.

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  1. As a long time land planner, and after 26 years living in Page County I am convinced that the economic future rests in tourism. Farming is pushed in the Comprehensive Plan but the profit margins are extremely thin to non-existent. Land Use tax forgiveness and other subsidies are holding things together. The preservation of farmland is critical in preserving the unique character of Page County.
    Metro Washington people are flocking to the county to get some respite from the chaos of urban living. Shenandoah Park visitors are refreshed as they gaze down from the many overlooks. The history of the valley has much to offer, the Shenandoah River is a great float river.
    There are few places left in the US with the tourism potential that Page County has.

  2. Mr. White is correct to point out that even in times of economic expansion – (which in the US has been roughly a 70 year expansion…think post WW2) – rural communities have mostly been excluded, & continue to be excluded from this expansion, correct…and the “great leveler” has been redistribution policies of federal, and state governments…the modern origins of these policies have its roots in FDR’s “New Deal” and so forth, and still thrive a nutshell in VA, places like Fairfax, Arlington, et al send tax dollars to other less prosperous parts of the state, and in return significantly benefits these “less prosperous” communities in a myriad of ways…in good ways..this can also be applied to a national scope too…Massachusetts (where Mr. White lives now) exports more federal tax dollars than it receives back…and for the most part, these policies continue today with moderate level of success (think HUB zones for example)…however, simply stating rural communities can do more with their “own” resources sounds wonderful & has some merit, but in reality (to me) it’s a fairly simplistic point and discounts the benefits that redistribution policies have (and continue to have) on rural and “left behind” communities…the future of rural areas will continue to see declines, Page County will likely languish, but not see full scale decline like other rural parts of the state (think Wise, Lee Counties)…Page is simply geographically positioned in a better area (near growth hubs of Hburg, NOVA, Winchester..)…regardless, Mr. White brings up some very good and thoughtful ideas in this column, & I look forward to reading more of his thoughts in the future…

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