It’s an intriguing question that runs counter to the narrative that 20- and 30-somethings are increasingly attracted to life in metropolises such as Washington, San Francisco, Seattle or Boston: Are millennials the future of the revival of small-town America? In a stop last month in Pulaski in Southwest Virginia, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine raised that very question and provided some unique perspective on the topic.
According to the U.S. Census, about one in six Americans, or about 60 million people, live in rural America. Digging deeper into the 2017 extrapolations from the 2010 Census, an estimated 12 percent of the population lives in either a small city or small town or other unincorporated area of a county. A “small city” — a micropolitan area — is defined as having an urban core with of at least 10,000 up to 50,000 people. A “small town” would have fewer than 10,000 residents.
Kaine’s staff had told the senator about a group of young entrepreneurs in Pulaski who had eschewed the high-energy hustle and bustle of urban America to settle in the town where they could have an immediate impact on the community. They’ve created MOVA Technologies, which develops high-tech filtering equipment, and begun projects such as a New Orleans-style cafe, a tap house and a virtual reality studio.
“I’ve seen a lot of projects like this in small towns in Virginia ... . But I’ve not seen a project driven by a sort of intentional group of young people who are saying, ‘Let’s make a mark on our community in a good way,’” Kaine said.
A 2018 Gallup survey provides insights that back up Kaine’s belief that many young people, given a choice, would prefer life in a small town or rural community to the big city. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed said they’d prefer to live in such a locale. The data also suggests that, while 80 percent of Americans live in large urban areas, it’s not by choice, at least for a sizable portion. Gallup’s Frank Newport put it this way: “If Americans did sort themselves according to their desires, there would be an exodus from the big cities and, to a lesser degree, from small cities and towns, accompanying a movement to rural areas [of America].”
Which brings us to Danville and this city’s ongoing rebirth.
The final collapse of the textile industry, coupled with the overnight transformation of the tobacco/warehouse sector, dealt a body blow to Southside in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The city’s physical and emotional rejuvenation has been in fits and starts, but the comeback is building steam. The revitalization of Craghead Street with an influx of new, small businesses and residential lofts; breweries, tap rooms and music venues are opening; new industries locating to area to take advantage of the skilled workforce: Those are the foundations upon which a new Danville is rising. In addition, the Historic North Theatre is the keystone of the area’s nascent but vibrant and growing performing arts scene, something study after study has shown is vital to enticing millennial-aged newcomers to a city.
We need to build on these strengths now. We need community investments in our physical infrastructure, our digital infrastructure (broadband) and intellectual infrastructure (public schools) to lure these would-be “pioneers” to Danville and Southside. When they come — and they already are — the community we all will create together will be something to behold. Just you see.