June 25, 2018

Rural Communities Rally across Southwest Virginia

By Andrew Barnes

As a part of an ongoing effort to diversify and invigorate the economy of Southwest Virginia, an organization devoted to community and small business development has focused successfully in recent years on a program designed to encourage investment in and promotion of the unique cultural and outdoor treasures found in communities throughout the 19-county region.

A signature program of Opportunity Southwest Virginia, called Rally, now helps even the smallest communities begin this process.

“We undertook the Rally SWVA mini-grant program as a pilot, and the communities really responded,” said Shannon Blevins, associate vice chancellor for economic development and engagement at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. “We provide a structure, but they have to rise to the challenge.” Since 2012, Blevins has provided coordinating leadership for Opportunity SWVA, a collaborative roundtable of small business support and community development organizations.

Rally SWVA (Real Action Leadership Learning) is an action learning mini-grant program that not only offers funding for a visible project, but encourages local leaders to work together toward a common goal of improving their community. The $3,000 mini-grant program enables communities to work together on selecting a project that advances the community vision and creates a better environment for entrepreneurs. Since the summer of 2015, the program has completed four phases in 14 increasingly vibrant SWVA communities.

Communities are chosen for participation by a cross-agency team of economic and community development professionals, who make executive decisions based on communities’ strategic opportunities and readiness. Active funders of the collaborative partnership include Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTC), Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and UVa-Wise.

Community teams comprised of town officials, students and young people, business owners and entrepreneurs complete a Rally project over a six-month period, but the impact of assembling the group extends beyond a single project. Through the Rally process, these groups are given special trainings and community engagement activities that empower them to continue the locality’s ongoing revitalization efforts well after project completion.

Once a community is chosen as a Rally location, a meeting is scheduled to inform the community about the impending grant program, including established project criteria and leadership capacity training opportunities in which they will participate in the coming months. For instance, a Rally project has to improve the local climate for business, and each community undertakes a conversation of how they can better support local businesses. All meetings are open to the public and encourage full community participation.

Since November of 2017, a small staff of “community builders” working with UVa-Wise and Opportunity SWVA, has taken charge of this phase of the process. These grant funded positions are another way that the region is developing new leaders. Through the guidance of UVa-Wise, community builders facilitate the Rally process, becoming part of the communities in which the programs are implemented. They work alongside residents, local officials and business owners, bridging gaps to empower communities by connecting them to a regional network of leaders.

Once the community has been informed about the Rally process, they are ready to schedule regular meetings. Initial Rally meetings take place every two weeks and begin with activities that gather excitement about the given locality. Community members are encouraged to begin talking about the things they love about their community, listing its attributes and assets. It may seem like a simple step, but this activity creates a sense of unity and anticipation for the upcoming project and the ways that it can enhance the community’s existing assets.

Facilitated discussions then help the community group establish a criteria list that adds to the built-in Rally project criteria. This Rally criteria stipulates that the project to be chosen must be tied to the community vision or master plan, be attainable in the short-term Rally timeframe and support local entrepreneurs, enhancing the community as a place for growing business. Each community team then begins the process of discussing a list of criteria of their own to be used in conjunction with the existing Rally criteria. Once the full list is established, it can be revisited as a standard for the next phase of Rally; listing project ideas.

Three-thousand dollars may seem like modest funding in light of the need in many SWVA communities, but the project’s value far exceeds the dollar amount. As project brainstorming begins, teams develop best practices and a shared language which can be used to tackle future projects. There may be many viable project ideas to be considered, but typically only one can be chosen. Remaining project ideas are another benefit of the process and provide a list of future opportunities established through collaboration and teamwork. Rally projects have been completed in 14 communities: Chilhowie, Cleveland, Coeburn, Damascus, Dungannon, Haysi, Honaker, Lebanon, Narrows, Pocahontas, St. Paul, Tazewell, Dante and Gate City.

Project ideas vary but are only limited by the project and community group criteria list set in place in the early meetings. Often, wayfinding and signage is a desirable outcome for SWVA communities looking to draw tourism to downtown locations. This element plays well with the concept of connecting Rally projects to the community vision or master plan as more tourists and downtown traffic inevitably benefit business.

In August, 2016, the town of Tazewell installed 21 wayfinding signs to direct visitors from the highway to downtown Tazewell and the other nearby attractions. Their community group, Tazewell Today, succeeded in obtaining an additional sum from both the town and county governments to implement the project. There are many other project types involving the arts, attracting citizens and visitors to the downtown and involving residents with community improvements and the community’s vision of the future.

The City of Norton’s Rally project is currently underway, as is the town of Dungannon’s. Both locations have chosen an outdoor stage in order to engage the community and visitors at future events. Norton’s project will involve a portable stage for concerts and will be used for downtown events. Dungannon’s permanent stage sits next to the town’s historic depot building and will host many future events, including legendary bluegrass band Blue Highway. The project will enable the town to host events that will draw tourists and generate excitement. Community work days are currently underway as the town prepares for the annual Fourth of July celebration. This year’s event marks the town’s 100th anniversary, and the festivities are expected to attract large numbers.

Gate City’s Rally project will also serve as a way to promote the arts. The town’s ongoing theatre revitalization project could potentially take years and require large amounts of funding, but the Rally project is turning the shell of the theatre’s structure into a usable space to promote this larger revitalization plan. Currently, the historic theatre building has three walls and no roof. Rally funds enabled the town’s community group (also a 501C3) to prepare the theatre for events and movie nights. Their first event will be on June 16, and will include live music, food trucks and a movie showing in the new outdoor theatre space.

The unincorporated community of Dante (pronounced Daint) completed their Rally project in late April. It features a welcome sign to the community, as well as four entrance signs at what are affectionately called Dante’s “exits”. The community is proud of its coalmining heritage. “The impact of Rally is far greater than the signs you see in the community of Dante or the projects in other communities,” said Carla Glass, chair of Dante Community Association, “Momentum is important in communities and the tangible results of Rally are ideal for keeping the momentum going. In Dante we refer to that momentum as hope.” At the height of the mining industry’s success, Dante boasted a population of 7,000.

A small but informative museum contains, among other things, books and photographs of the rich history, an impressive small-scale model of the town and a collection of fine sculptures made of railroad steel. The largest of these stands at the museum’s entrance and read’s “Dante Lives On.” Their Rally project and others like it, moves the idea of place-making forward, and serves as a visual representation of the region’s renewed vitality, hope for the future and sense of place.

Once a project is chosen, meetings move from bi-weekly to monthly. It’s at this point that much of the facilitation responsibilities become shared, allowing for leaders within the group to begin showing their abilities. Each chosen project is assigned a leader from within the group. This is typically someone other than the mayor or existing community group chairman. The new project leader serves as a point of contact for other members of the group and gives a project update report on any new developments at each meeting. It’s another way that leaders are cultivated, encouraging them to come to the forefront to practice and develop their leadership skills.

Facilitated trainings are a key component to the Rally toolkit, and a list of Leadership Capacity Programs are given to Rally communities. Members vote on the trainings in which they would like to participate the most, and the top three to five are chosen. Of a long list, popular choices include: Building Entrepreneurial Communities, Community Engagement and Moving from Talk to Action. As the project nears completion, the communities are taken on a Rally Tour. These trips were suggested by the communities themselves, and are designed to share successes and methods and establish regional partnerships.

Finally, the Y in Rally stands for YAY. It represents the sense of excitement gained as a community realizes their personal growth, teamwork and an enhanced community vision. Venders and food trucks, musicians and community cleanup days are all a part of a Rally community’s final event. The program concludes with a project reveal and a celebration that brings the community together to take notice of the good work, and to share in telling the success story to the broader region; not as observers, but as participants, casting friends and neighbors in a story still being written.

About the author. Andrew Barnes is the community engagement coordinator at UVa Wise and Opportunity SWVA. Find out more about Opportunity SWVA and the Rally SWVA process at and at