Rural leadership institute aims to build local capacity
Virginia Rural Center Executive Director Kristie Proctor has long heard that the state’s rural areas were losing population and having difficulty cultivating local community leaders.
To address the gap in local leadership, VRC, a Richmond-based nonprofit focused on fostering economic growth in rural areas, last year launched the Virginia Rural Leadership Institute (VRLI), an annual leadership and economic development training program for up to 30 leaders each year.
“The overarching goal,” says Chandler Vaughan, VRLI’s policy and leadership adviser, “is to build capacity locally and retain local leaders who want to take the next step in their career but also stay local.”
This year’s program will kick off May 18-19 in Danville. The 2023 cohort’s program includes touring Danville’s River District to learn about its redevelopment and resurgence firsthand, as well as hearing about the nearby Southern Virginia Megasite at Berry Hill industrial park.
“Danville was selected because it truly is a comeback city,” Proctor says. “We knew Danville has a great story to tell, and that’s part of what the Virginia Rural Leadership Institute is about.”
Part of that comeback is the $600 million Caesars Virginia resort casino under construction in Danville. A temporary casino is expected to open this summer.
The 2023 VRLI cohort will also attend training sessions in Tappahannock, St. Paul and Staunton.
VRLI’s advisory committee selects participants based on applications and interviews. Participants pay $3,500 to attend and must design and complete a community impact project for their localities in the year after graduation.
“We want to make sure these folks are making an impact in rural communities and our investment in them through the leadership institute is going to be reinvested in the rural communities they serve,” says Vaughan.
Last year’s cohort included economic development and tourism directors, an agricultural cooperative business analyst and leaders in banking, health care and higher education. Among them was John Matthews, deputy director of Wythe County’s Joint Industrial Development Authority. His project was organizing his region’s first housing summit. He networked with cohort members, who told him about an upcoming Danville housing summit and connected him with resources.
“The ongoing benefit [from VRLI] is having those partners to be able to reach out to,” says Matthews. “They’re facing similar challenges to what we do down here in Southwest Virginia.”