WOODSTOCK — Business leaders, elected officials and town representatives gathered around tables on Thursday afternoon to kick off putting a new strategic plan for Shenandoah County in place.
Thursday’s meeting was the first time for working group members and representatives from RKG Associates Inc., an economic planning and real estate consulting firm, to sit down and talk through how everyone wants to proceed. Kyle Talente, vice president and principal of RKG Associates, asked every member of the group to be frank with any and all concerns they had — assuring everyone there was going to be give and take from everyone involved.
The last strategic plan the county enacted was in 2013. Despite actionable goals and a vision for the future, Kim Woodwell, Shenandoah coordinator of the Alliance for Shenandoah Valley, said little has been done to help towns work together and meet benchmarks.
“I’m looking, I’m researching,” Woodwell said, holding up the county’s last effort. “There is no strategic plan. That’s ideas.”
Talente assured group members he was planning on assessing the previous plan and making sure the new plan lays out a clear path for success.
“Generally, we get to a more granular level in terms of those ideas,” he said, “which makes it easier to hold someone accountable.”
Blake Phillips, a member of the Industrial Development Authority and the committee that selected RKG, said RKG was chosen because of its commitment to creating a clear plan that provided accountability, as well as a willingness to confront differences between individuals and towns.
Keeping everyone accountable is a problem, Talente said, he will help address later. The first order of business was to get everyone thinking about what economic development is.
“This is an engaged process,” Talente said, “and at the end of the day, this is going to be a plan that is presented to the community from the working group with my assistance.”
Ideas about what economic development is and what is best for the county varied between working group members and their backgrounds. Key ideas such as tax diversification, bringing money into the community and creating an environment geared around attracting business were common themes.
Talente asked members to be honest about concerns they had for the group moving forward. Dennis Dysart, president of the Shenandoah County Chamber of Commerce, said resistance to a shift away from agriculture as a central feature of the county has been one of the issues that have held up groups in the past.
“I think we talk about our lifestyle here in Shenandoah County as being one of agriculture,” Dysart said. “I would differentiate and say its a rural-based lifestyle.”
Dysart said the amenities residents enjoy and often think of as “agriculture” are, in fact, the open space and a different way of living. “Preserving” agriculture as a way of life should not be a goal of the strategic plan, he said.
One meeting helped bring concerns like Dysart’s up and offered Talente a jumping off point to assess possible stumbling blocks moving forward.
Michelle Bixler, economic development director for the town of Strasburg, said she felt the initial meeting was productive and hashing out differences was going to be important if the plan is going to succeed.
“It’s just going to take conversations,” Bixler said. “We bring it out in the meetings. We have conversations about our shared, mutual goals — of which there are many — and we build off of that.”
Jenna French, director of economic development and tourism, said she was happy with the willingness of members to speak their mind.
“There are a lot of different viewpoints around the table but that’s what we wanted,” she said. “If we only have one segment of the population here, we’re not going to come out with a plan that’s going to accurately represent what we need.”
Despite clear lines of contention, and old grievances between towns, French said she was glad those issues were discussed in a respectful way that focused on working together to move past differences.
Talente promised the working group there was going to be compromise from everyone, and no one was going to get what he or she wanted 100 percent. The goal, he said, was to get everyone to a place of understanding what the plan is and to convey that understanding to the community.
French echoed Talente’s thoughts, saying compromise and dealmaking are important for education.
“I don’t think any one of us is going to walk away from this with 100 percent of what our desires are, fulfilled,” French said. “But hopefully...we walk away from this all being really satisfied...and maybe the things we don’t love about the plan we’ve been educated and we understand why that may be the best thing for the community moving forward.”