A Sense of Community

Smyth County, Virginia
Written by Jessica Ferlaino

Located in the heart of the mountains of Southwest Virginia, Smyth County has a rich history, a prosperous and growing economy and an unmatched quality of life. Though it has a population of only 33,000, this predominantly rural county has a lot to offer and has shown resilience, creating a local economy that can overcome the volatility of the always changing global market.
“We’ve really turned into a place to grow and thrive,” said Lori Hester, director of community and economic development with Smyth County. “Whether it’s business and industry, tourism, or just a place to retire, there is something here for everyone! It’s the best of both worlds. Your work life and your quality of life at home with family; we really do have it all to offer.”

Smyth County, formed in 1832, really does have something for everyone, from those who wish to find relaxation and solitude in the mountains or by the lakeside, to those who seek adventures and thrills. Its exceptional food and drink options showcase its strong agricultural roots. The county boasts a variety of accommodations for visitors to the area and a number of entertainment options on any given night.

Smyth County is part of the Crooked Road – Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail. It is also home to Song of the Mountains – a nationally syndicated monthly PBS series that takes place at the historic Lincoln Theater in Marion and pays homage to the history of bluegrass music in the area. The theatre was built in 1929 and is one of only three existing Art Deco era Mayan Revival style theaters left in the United States.

The region is a place where woolly mammoths once roamed, and the civil war was fought. Smyth County is also where Mountain Dew originated before PepsiCo acquired it; the name is an apt tribute to the beautiful mountainsides that surround the area.

With four distinct and beautiful seasons to enjoy and access to national protected areas like Mount Rogers (the area’s highest peak), the Jefferson National Forest, the Hungry Mother State Park or the Appalachian Trail, Smyth County is renowned for its fly fishing, biking, hiking, boating, camping, hunting and scenic mountain roads for motorcyclists and car enthusiasts alike.

Not only does its central location along the US east coast offer boundless leisure and recreation opportunities, Smyth County also has a large regional labor pool. Direct rail and interstate accessibility, proximity to airports, major markets and ports give it access to major markets and ports. It is also only a day’s truck drive from two-thirds of the American population.

The economic development authority recently completed work on a seventy-acre site in the county that has Norfolk Southern rail access, with a 2,500’ rail spur, and 2,000’ interstate visibility along I-81. The Port of Virginia is also accessible via I-81 and I-64. Currently, it is the only east coast port in the US with congressional authorization for fifty-five-foot deep channels, making it the deepest port on the east coast, and it is only 2.5 hours from open sea!

Smyth County is only a short distance from Washington, DC, which facilitates contact with policy makers and legislators in the federal government. The state of Virginia is known for its business-friendly environment, competitive business costs and available incentives, making Smyth County a great place to live and to invest.

The county has a strong manufacturing base that has remained resilient over the years and can recover from market challenges that arise. Though production has shifted from predominately textiles, apparel and furniture to a more diverse industrial composition, the county still relies heavily on agriculture, as half of its land is dedicated to agricultural endeavors.

As many of its residents grew up living or working on a farm and learning first-hand what it means to put in a hard day’s work, the workforce in Smyth County is not only hardworking, but skilled and experienced. Significant efforts have been taken to ensure the diverse local industries are supported through workforce development initiatives.

Transportation equipment (the county’s largest employer is Utility Trailer Manufacturing, Inc. with upwards of 1200 employees), machinery components and building products are all manufactured here. The area is ideal for industries such as plastics, logistics, warehousing and distribution, advanced manufacturing, aerospace and defense, automotive, metals and even aquaculture.

“We are committed to development and finding what exactly is a good fit for our area,” Hester says of the efforts of the Department of Community and Economic Development. There are many local and regional initiatives that have been undertaken to ensure the economic growth and success of Smyth County and its communities.

Regionally, southwest Virginia has come together and collaborated on the Blueprint for Attracting and Sustaining Advanced Manufacturing in Southwest Virginia. The purpose of the blueprint is to find ways to cooperate as a region to support existing businesses and industry as well as those planning to relocate and ensure that resources – such as the regional workforce pipeline – are maximized.

The Southwest Virginia Center of Excellence is an initiative that will provide workforce training and development in three key areas: welding, industrial maintenance and machining. The training is designed to support and attract advanced manufacturing. The main office will be located in the neighboring county with several satellite offices throughout the region.

“Whether it be land needs, to expand their company or workforce needs – whatever it is, we make sure that we keep our finger on the pulse of what’s going on with our existing companies so we can support them as they move forward,” said Hester of the commitment to foster economic success. “We certainly believe in strong relationships, and when you have strong relationships, you have a strong community.”

Smyth County is committed to forming partnerships in the interest of community advancement and has had much success collaborating with both local governments and the state. In 2012, Smyth County lost 253 jobs with the closure of the local Merillat cabinetmaking operations that was housed in two separate facilities. Working with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, it has now welcomed two new companies into both facilities. Mayville Engineering Company will be creating 160 jobs, and New Ridge, LLC. will be creating 125 jobs. Although the county lost those jobs initially, they came back strong and now have more jobs than what was lost.

Other growth is happening in the region. In 2012, a new and upgraded hospital was built in Smyth County. Emory and Henry College has recently purchased the old hospital building and is renovating it to serve as its new School of Health Sciences. The welcome addition to Smyth County will begin with a physical therapy department and expand to include occupational therapy and a physician’s assistant program in the following years.

This initiative will both support the growing healthcare sector of the economy and give back to the community. Students who attend the School of Health Sciences will not only learn in the new facility but will gain hands-on experience working at the Mel Leaman Free Clinic of Smyth County.

Hester describes a sense of community that runs deep in Smyth County as it continues to attract and retain business while identifying areas of growth. “It goes back to that tight-knit community that I was talking about. That goes for our community and our businesses here. It’s like a family. We’re always trying to do what is best and support where we can,” she explained.

Local initiatives, such as Pop-up Marion, a small business boot camp designed to help new entrepreneurs, are helping Smyth County gain national recognition with its approach to development. At the beginning of the recession, Marion’s downtown vacancy rate was twenty percent. Reaching out and fostering the development of local entrepreneurship through education, support and guidance, has led to vacancy rate that is now only five percent.

Education is also crucial in Smyth County – from primary to post-secondary. Residents have access to community colleges and prestigious four-year universities. Efforts are being made to bring a new educational facility to the town of Marion that will offer general studies programs for students interested in an associate degree from the community college level.

The community recently repurposed an old school house from 1908 to be the new Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts. The school will offer lessons in music, arts and culture, including a canning class for adults and children to learn the craft of food preservation, in keeping with the area’s strong agricultural base.

With a farmers’ market in Marion, Chilhowie and the community of Sugar Grove, there is no shortage of fresh fruit, vegetables, meats and artisan-crafted products. The government has ensured that this access to healthy, locally-produced food is extended to each member of the community, regardless of socioeconomic standing, as the farmers’ markets now proudly accept Electronic Benefit Transfer cards.

Smyth County enjoys an exceptional quality of life that has developed out of its rich heritage and natural assets. Leadership at all levels has found new and exciting ways to enhance these assets for the betterment of the economy and the community. All of which has made Smyth County a well-rounded place to live, an attractive place to invest and an exciting and vibrant place to visit.

With lots to do and see, there is no shortage of reasons to visit Smyth County. Come for the outdoor recreation or the history. Or come for one of the many celebrations such as the Hungry Mother Arts and Crafts Festival, Marion’s chili cook-off, car show and street party, the Rich Valley Fair and Horseshow or Saltville’s annual Labor Day Festival. Smyth County is certainly the place where opportunity awaits.



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