Advancing Innovative Policy in Rural Virginia and Beyond

 

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Pictured is the town of Williamson, West Virginia which was featured in some of the team analysis for the White House RPN project.

The Batten School is making significant strides in advancing rural policy and economic development through its inaugural Tadler Fellowship in Impact Investing. This innovative program is not only supporting the White House's Rural Partner Network (RPN) Initiative that is strengthening rural economies but also working directly with communities in Southwest Virginia to develop solutions for their unique economic and social challenges. 

The Tadler Fellowship, which launched in the Fall, brought together 12 Batten graduate students who immersed themselves in examining the challenges and opportunities unique to Appalachia. The fellows have been engaged on two fronts: developing policy reports and recommendations for the RPN Initiative in West Virginia, and executing on-the-ground policy work in partnership with local government and non-profit organizations in Southwest Virginia.

As the fellows graduate from Batten’s master program in leadership and public policy this spring, they carry with them a profound experience of working with these partners in Appalachia, and also leave an impact that will hopefully soon bear fruit for positive change for communities. 

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Tadler Fellows outside of the David J. Prior Convocation Center at UVA Wise.

Supporting the White House Rural Partner Network Initiative 

By conducting detailed policy research and analysis, the Tadler Fellows have been contributing to advancing the White House RPN Initiative. Divided into teams of four students, the fellows have investigated national best practices and innovative policy strategies to address the pressing issues faced by rural communities in West Virginia, one of 11 states and territories participating in the RPN. Their comprehensive reports have provided valuable insights and recommendations that can help shape the future of the program in the state. 

The "capital paradox" team delved into the challenges faced by small and medium-sized municipalities when applying for grants. They researched how grant requirements, such as having comprehensive plans and municipal audits, often create unintentional financial barriers for these communities. To address this issue, the team proposed several innovative solutions. These include leveraging flexible planning commission structures to help municipalities develop the necessary plans and documents, expanding public-private partnerships to access additional resources and expertise, and advocating for modifications to West Virginia's state grant code to make it more accessible to smaller communities. 

Meanwhile, the rural healthcare innovation team focused on identifying best practices and inspiring examples of healthcare delivery in rural areas. They analyzed Community Health Needs Assessments to pinpoint the most pressing healthcare challenges in West Virginia's rural communities, such as access to mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and preventive care. The team then developed a series of case studies showcasing successful healthcare innovations from across the country. These included community teaching kitchens that promote healthy eating habits, telepsychiatry programs that expand access to mental health professionals in underserved areas, and community-based programs that encourage the use of public exercise facilities to improve physical fitness. By highlighting these innovative approaches, the team aims to inspire and guide innovation in rural health systems across West Virginia and other USDA partner states.  

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Tadler Fellows meeting in the Rotunda with officials overseeing the USDA Rural Development program.

Executing On-the-Ground Policy Work in Southwest Virginia 

Batten’s Tadler Fellows have also been actively engaged in a wide array of year-long applied policy projects across Southwest Virginia, collaborating with local governments, non-profit organizations, and economic development authorities to tackle the distinct challenges faced by rural communities in the region. These projects encompass various policy areas, including economic development, housing, healthcare, entrepreneurship, and clean energy. 

A common theme among the projects is the need to revitalize local economies in the wake of the coal industry's decline. Fellows worked to attract new businesses, support entrepreneurship, and explore alternative economic drivers such as tourism and clean energy. Another key focus  addressed the shortage of affordable and sustainable housing options, which is critical for supporting economic growth and attracting new residents and employees to the region. 

Several projects aimed to foster stronger partnerships between local communities and educational institutions, such as the University of Virginia's College at Wise, to leverage resources and expertise for economic and community development.  

Three notable projects showcase the breadth and depth of the Tadler Fellows' work in Southwest Virginia: 

  • Dickenson County and many other communities across Appalachia, face a critical shortage of affordable and sustainable housing options. This shortage poses a significant barrier to economic growth and community well-being, as it hinders the ability to attract and retain employees, particularly in the context of new economic development initiatives. Raegan Larussa (MPP ‘24) conducted a policy project focused on identifying innovative solutions to tackle this persistent challenge, exploring strategies such as Accessory Dwelling Unit pilot programs, Community Land Trusts, and zoning reforms to facilitate the development of more diverse and affordable housing options. 

 

  • Christian Oliver-Smith (MPP ‘24) spent the year collaborating with InvestSWVA to examine the clean energy landscape in Southwest Virginia, a region grappling with economic sustainability challenges due to its historical reliance on coal mining amidst a shifting energy paradigm. His project assesses the current state of clean energy initiatives, identifies barriers and opportunities for economic revitalization through green technologies, and advocates for strategic policy interventions to help Southwest Virginia capitalize on the potential of renewable energy sources and transform its economic future. 

 

  • Garreth Bartholomew (MPP ‘24) partnered with Invest Appalachia to address the inadequate funding and financing in Central Appalachia that hinders the growth of sustainable local businesses and jobs. This lack of access to capital is a pervasive issue in the region, stemming from a long history of underinvestment and economic distress. The chronic shortage of funding has created a self-perpetuating cycle, as the absence of investment leads to higher poverty levels and fewer sustainable, locally-rooted businesses, further diminishing the region's attractiveness to investors. By critically appraising tangible ways in which Invest Appalachia can leverage its catalytic capital pool, Bartholomew's project seeks to identify strategies for breaking this cycle and unlocking the potential for economic growth and job creation.  

The Value of Partnerships Between Policy Students and Local Leaders 

The Tadler Fellowship showcases the value of having policy students work hand-in-hand with local leaders to develop solutions for economic and social challenges in Appalachia and beyond. By combining rigorous policy analysis with on-the-ground partnerships, the fellowship is not only providing valuable experience for the students but also delivering tangible benefits for the communities they are working with. 

As Christine Mahoney, Batten professor of public policy and politics, and director of the fellowship, notes, "The Tadler Fellowship comes at a critical moment for Appalachia, which faces significant public policy challenges. The inaugural cohort of fellows have the opportunity to support transformational change for the region through their work with local government and economic leaders." 

The Tadler Fellowship is a prime example of how the Batten School partners with a range of stakeholders on many issues to drive innovation and positive change. As the program continues to grow and evolve, it has the potential to make a lasting impact on rural policy and economic development, not just in Virginia but across the country.

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Garrett Hall at Sunset

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