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 the remaking of Lynchburg and the town of Amherst.
First, Lynchburg. Take a look at downtown today and think back 15 or 20 years. There has been a rejuvenation the likes of which only a few visionaries foresaw. The Academy of Music theater and the Academy Center of the Arts are booming, after not even a year since opening. The City Auditorium, in a couple of years, will be another major music venue downtown. The Craddock Terry and Virginian hotels are packed to overflowing. Eateries featuring cuisine from all four corners of the globe abound. And people are actually living downtown once again.
Just up U.S. 29 in Amherst, there’s a similar revitalization taking place centering on Second Stage, the arts and community center that found a home in the old Amherst Baptist Church on Second Street. Musical performances, farmers markets, a coffee-and-book shop, local craft vendors. Last month’s inaugural Celebrate Old Town Amherst festival drew folks from near and far to the county seat for a fun day filled with a variety of events. Sweet Briar College, too, is a cultural and educational asset of inestimable value.
We need to continue building on these and other strengths now. We need community investments in our physical infrastructure, our digital infrastructure (broadband) and intellectual infrastructure (public schools) to keep luring these pioneering millennials to Central Virginia.