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Economic development panel encourages collaboration to improve town

PanelBy CALVIN PYNN

calvin@www.southwesttimes.com

 

“Driving in downtown Pulaski these days, you can see change is in the air.”

Eric Bucey’s words opened Wednesday’s economic development forum, titled “Downtown Pulaski Needs Us,” as community leaders and business owners gathered at the town’s historic train depot to discuss ways to improve Pulaski. Bucey, who works with Beans and Rice, Inc., crafted the event after a two-part blog series he wrote discussing development approaches to take to Pulaski’s downtown.

The forum came from a recent study called “Small Town, Big Ideas,” from which he wanted to share the lessons learned from the study.

“Things are connected, nothing is isolated,” Bucey told the attendees, adding that whatever affects the town, affects the county overall.

The focus of the forum was to generate strategies to get Pulaski to a point of success, strengthening and expanding businesses and supporting development of new businesses.

He cited Etowah, Tenn., another town that turned itself around economically, as an example of what Pulaski can do. The main point he reinforced was that community development and economic development are one in the same, therefore reflecting the approach that should be taken to revitalize the downtown area.

A panel of experts shared their thoughts and answered questions from Pulaski leaders and business owners regarding what needs to be done. The panel included Jessica Wirgau from The Community Foundation of the New River Valley, Conaway Haskins from the Virginia Community Economic Network, Shaun Rai from Virginia Community Capital, Joy Rumley from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, and Anthony Byrd from the Virginia Small Business Development Center at Radford University.

Overall, their comments reflected that collaboration between organizations is the key to success in bringing Pulaski back after years of economic downturn.

“In small towns like Pulaski, we’re limited in human and financial resources,” Wirgau said. “We need to figure out what the community should do and how they should do it together.”

Other recommendations included creating long-term plans, breaking out of comfort zones and encouraging the community to embrace individual leadership roles.

“If you don’t love yourself first, it’s hard to get people from the outside to love you,” Haskins said metaphorically.

While they pointed out that it’s easy for those in the non-profit sector to take on multiple tasks at once, the group encouraged the representatives of those organizations to figure out their best roles in the recovery process and come together. Providing access to infrastructure was another point they reinforced.

“While it is nice to have bigger companies in the area, it’s better to allow folks to create their own opportunities,” Rai said. “When you’re thinking about entrepreneurship, you have to think about the entire sphere.”

They also encouraged educating the area’s youth about pursuing their own business opportunities, which, as the panel learned, is already in place with the Pulaski Chamber of Commerce’s Young Entrepreneur’s Academy.

While some of the bigger question concerned how to tap into the funding it takes to stimulate the town’s economy again, the panel suggested that those resources don’t necessarily have to come from out of town.

“We don’t have to look for external money – we can use what we have right here,” Haskins said.

That would mean looking within the town to tangible resources such as vacant spaces in locations such as churches, to the times where the town is most populated, to playing on the culture that already exists within Pulaski. Some of their suggestions included looking at opening restaurants to which after-church crowds would go, or creating a sports bar dedicated to Pulaski baseball and Calfee Park.

They also recommended looking at ways volunteer opportunities can be utilized within the town.

While the meeting was organized to bounce around ideas and conceive strategies, the business owners and community leaders left the meeting with new ideas to tackle the town’s revitalization effort.

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