PULASKI COUNTY, Va.
On a windy hilltop, midway between the twisting waters of the New River and the folds of Draper Mountain, Lee Spiegel works alone. Her uniform is utilitarian: jeans and a black fleece jacket for warmth, Crocs to battle the mud, and white wraparound sunglasses to shield her eyes from the winter sun.
For months, Spiegel has come to a vacant cottage in the mountains of southwest Virginia. It has little power and no water. Until December, it had no heat. So with a portable toilet out back and her beagle mix, Hopscotch, for company, Spiegel resurrects the old building. Haul out trash. Rip up moldy carpet. Sand down the decaying floor, plaster the ceiling, paint the wainscoting a cheerful periwinkle blue
A generation ago, this red-brick house on the outskirts of Draper, population 320, served as a home economics classroom. But for years, it has sat empty. A small sign affixed to the entrance proclaims its new mission: “Produce with a purpose.”
Spiegel grew up an hour northeast, in Salem. After marrying at 23, she was gone for decades, living in western North Carolina and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Now she is back in the New River Valley to build a business. Pulaski Grow, as she calls it, will draw upon the region’s long agricultural history and confront one of its most pressing needs. Through an aquaponics operation — growing vegetables with water fertilized by fish — and a community cannery, Spiegel aims to teach teenagers the leadership, management and customer-service skills area employers say they need.
It’s an ambitious plan, not least because the ebullient Spiegel, 53 , is a one-woman show. She lives off her savings, takes no salary and is pouring more than $15,000 of her own money into the venture. The technical side is formidable: She’ll need vertical grow towers, fish tanks to hold a few hundred tilapia, pipes to carry water from the tanks to a yet-to-be-built greenhouse, and, eventually, an overhaul of the dilapidated cannery out back.
The county government is behind her. It collects only a dollar a year in rent and provides her with plumbing and ventilation, a dumpster, the porta-potty and plenty of moral support. Officials want Spiegel to succeed because her mission is tied to theirs: Pulaski is chasing its own dream of a new beginning. After a decades-long economic slide, the county has added nearly a thousand jobs in 18 months. New industries are showing interest. And just down the street is a thriving cluster of businesses anchored in an old mercantile building.
Spiegel belongs to a sprinkling of people going home to southwest Virginia to revive ailing towns and find a way forward for rural America. Nationally and globally, cities dominate. Four out of five Americans inhabit urban areas on a fraction of this country’s land, while rural residents continue to decline as a percentage of the population. As one America shrinks, the other overflows; both are searching for solutions.
A new partnership between Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and the American Farm Bureau Federation aims to harness the creativity of small-business owners to build stronger rural communities. Their Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge , billed as the first national competition of its kind, received more than 200 applications last summer from 36 states. If you seed small businesses attuned to local needs, the project’s leaders believe, rural economies will bounce back.
Here in Pulaski County, there are more questions than answers. How to chart a course for a viable future? Create amenities — and opportunities — like those found in cities, which keep young people and attract newcomers? Stay true to its agricultural and manufacturing roots while courting new industries that can build a tax base and produce jobs? Train workers to fill those jobs?
Spiegel has her eye on that final piece. In November, she was selected as a finalist in the Georgetown-Farm Bureau competition, winning $15,000. In just a few days, she’ll stand before judges in San Diego and deliver a final pitch for $15,000 more.
The story of how Spiegel landed on this hilltop begins nearly 30 years ago. Pregnant with her first child, she dreamed she was teaching young people while running a business. In the years that followed, that vision resurfaced time and again as Spiegel built a career in youth development.
“Every place I went, I put it forward as something I wanted to do, and I kept getting reasons why it wouldn’t work,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘Well, I’m not in the right place.’ ”
The years passed. Her sons grew; her marriage dissolved. In 2008, Spiegel came back to her home state. She began a job managing grants for the Pulaski Community Partners Coalition and before long bought a small house on a steep street in Pulaski. Six years later, the funding for her position ran out. She saw two options: “Find another job, or start my dream.”
Like Spiegel, John White left only to return.
He was 16 when he walked into Coleman Furniture and asked for work. This was 1963, and Pulaski’s furniture industry was in full swing: Pulaski Furniture’s hulking pastel headquarters, Big Blue, loomed over a constellation of factories and warehouses.
Hoping for a plum position, White was crestfallen when the boss instead pointed to a broom in the corner. Underwhelmed, White soon decamped for nearby Emory and Henry College, then to Duke for a master’s degree in divinity and a doctorate in Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern languages. He eventually became a college president. In 2002, he came back to care for aging relatives. Now 67 , he is the economic development director for the town of 8,900.
Pulaski City, as it was known in its early years, began as a railroad town and grew into a furniture and textile center. The opening of Interstate 81 in the 1960s was a harbinger of a deep transformation as traffic and people shifted from downtown toward the new highway a few miles away. In the 1990s, furniture and textile companies closed or left. Virginia Church Furniture, which had built pews for decades, was the last to shut its doors in early 2014 .
But Big Blue is still here, an aging behemoth that presides over a muted cityscape of industrial buildings in varying states of decay. Most commercial activity has migrated to the strip malls and fast-food joints along Route 99. And while the glowing clock tower of a 19th-century courthouse still commands West Main Street, with the exception of the colorful Pulaski Theatre, the surrounding businesses are hardly a vibrant mix: a pawn shop, antiques stores, consignment shops.
Local officials don’t gloss over the town’s struggles. But they counter that Pulaski offers the blueprint of the traditional downtown cherished by the new urbanism movement: a walkable mix of residential and commercial space. It also features a creek bordered by 19th-century walls built by Italian stonemasons and a quaint depot, now housing a popular bicycle shop. In every direction rise the ancient swells of the Blue Ridge.
But trying to breathe new life into a rural town comes with no fixed order of operations. You push all the buttons at once, officials say, and brace for endless decisions along the way. Should we build a presence along the interstate to generate more revenue? Or focus instead on the historic downtown core?
These struggles would be familiar to any rural town. For that reason, White thinks Pulaski’s experience can be instructive. “If you can figure out the transition we’re going through — what is its cause and what are its solutions — it might be exportable,” White says.
Appalachia’s economy, like Pulaski’s, has been shaped by the boom and bust of mining, logging, agriculture and heavy industry. Once viewed as the very definition of rural hardship, the region’s poverty rate — a sobering 31 percent in 1960 — has fallen by nearly half, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.
The town’s median household income is $33,568, on par with its regional peers. Countywide, unemployment is just below the national rate of 5.5 percent. But in other metrics, Pulaski lags the rest of the county, not to mention the state: A quarter of residents do not have a high school diploma, and only 13 percent hold a bachelor’s degree. More than one in five residents lives below the poverty line.
Outside help is scant. Situated beyond the footprint of the Virginia Tobacco Commission, Pulaski County missed out on a share of the $1 billion in subsidies from the national tobacco settlement meant to spur economic development. And as big foundations focus on cities, only a paltry share of philanthropic dollars is earmarked for rural areas — as low as 1 percent, says Charles W. Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Iowa. But most damaging of all, Fluharty says, is a persistent narrative that urban and rural communities are vastly different worlds with no shared priorities.
In the face of these obstacles, small towns on the upswing often have a cast of characters who spot potential where others see nothing, says John A. Provo, director of Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development. Their actions have a tremendous ripple effect. The risks of a few, he says, lay the foundation for a resurgence.
Take a closer look at the people behind the many efforts to capitalize on music, food, culture and natural resources in central Appalachia, Provo says. One thing becomes clear: “There’s a diaspora of southwest Virginians looking for a reason to come back.”
On June 10, 1973, the Southwest Times published a prediction from a farmer named Gilmer G. Gannaway. Gannaway owned the Draper Mercantile, a 19th-century store just down the hill from the cottage Lee Spiegel is renovating. A century ago, the Mercantile’s potbellied stove had lured residents to stop in, catch up on gossip and buy anything from coveralls to coffins. But by Gannaway’s time, the Merc was fading.
“The village of Draper has been dead for 25 years,” Gannaway said. “Something may happen in the next 20.”
It took a little longer than Gannaway predicted, but four decades later, something is indeed happening, thanks to Debbie and Bill Gardner. Debbie grew up in West Virginia and moved to Charlotte in her 20s. But she missed the river and woods of her youth. She traced a halfway point on the map between her home town and Charlotte, searching for a vacation-home spot. She landed on Draper. In 2008, the Gardners bought the 9,700-square-foot Mercantile building for $70,000.
Seven years later, the sprawling Merc, as it is known, is once again at the center. The potbellied stove is back, but the operation is anything but old-fashioned. Servers, bakers and bartenders are young. Books on canning and composting are for sale, along with beers from breweries in Roanoke and Salem. Nor has Gannaway been forgotten: Gardner named a sandwich for him — Black Forest ham, gruyere, scallions, arugula and hot brown-sugar mustard on sourdough — on a menu where nearly everything is locally sourced.
The Merc — along with a flower shop, bike shop and restaurant — employs more than 50 people. In summer, tourists and cyclists pop in after checking out the nearby New River Trail. The 54-year-old Debbie Gardner, meanwhile, has become a quiet force in advancing the county’s entrepreneurial spirit. She and Spiegel are close comrades. “What she’s doing will go on our tables,” Gardner says.
Just a few hours before her departure for San Diego, Spiegel sits down at the Merc’s Blue Door Café and orders a BLT. Four silver-haired women play bridge in front of the corner stage where a father-son duo provide music. Gardner never lets Spiegel pay and today sends her off with a good-luck wish and some advice: Hold on to your vision, she says. There’s a bigger task at hand.
Spiegel drives to the home of her younger sister, Phyllis, 48, an Episcopal priest in nearby Christiansburg. Along the way, she rehearses her pitch to Hopscotch. Phyllis greets her with a small bag. “That’s your care package,” she says. Snacks, three kinds of anti-frizz hair products, antibacterial wipes and breath mints. “So you don’t offend the person next to you,” she explains.
“I can do that without these,” comes the dry reply.
The sisters climb into a red Toyota Prius and speed toward the Roanoke airport. There they meet Daniel Wilson, the county’s planning administrator and director of Virginia’s First Regional Industrial Facility Authority. He is joining Spiegel to help answer the judges’ questions. Ever since he arrived in Pulaski County nearly two years ago, Wilson, 32, has been focused on attracting new companies. He’s thrilled about the new jobs but mindful of a recent report that warned of a skills gap.
At the security gate, Lee is chatty and nervous. “Danny’s looking at his watch,” Phyllis warns. As the two travelers walk to the line, Lee looks back over her shoulder. “I love you,” she mouths to her sister. With a wave, she disappears into the crowd.
Pulaski has reason to be excited. An Ohio stamping and welding company has set up in a former textile operation. A small farmers market, begun in 2013, has tripled its vendors. And last fall, a regional investor bought the town’s 1935 minor-league ballpark, promising nearly $4 million in improvements in time for the New York Yankees’ Appalachian League affiliate to take the field in June.
But Mayor Jeff Worrell is aware of the needs. Nothing is more embarrassing for a mayor courting new industries than sending visitors several miles up the road so they can stay in a proper hotel. Everywhere he goes, he gets an earful: Pulaski needs more restaurants. Pulaski needs more stores. “My answer is always the same,” he says. “We need people.”
Cathy Stripling is one of the people. She grew up in nearby Blacksburg, and after graduating from Virginia Tech lived in New York City and Arlington, selling office furniture. In 2012, feeling the pull of the mountains, she sold her house and found an apartment in Blacksburg. She reconnected with an old friend of her father’s, Steve Critchfield, a businessman who had begun buying old buildings in Pulaski to modernize them into residential and commercial properties.
Stripling soon began managing the project as a consultant for West Main Development, as Critchfield called his new company. Last year, she bought a renovated house in Pulaski with a view of the clock tower. In August, she opened 132 Guest House — “Better than a four-star hotel!” says one entry in the guest book — offering four bedrooms ranging from $45 to $70 a night. She books reservations through the Web site Airbnb and lives in the converted attic.
From a desk in a sunny corner of the dining room, Stripling guides West Main Development toward its goal of providing one- and two-bedroom apartments with high-speed Internet and rent starting at $650 a month. The company so far has bought four properties from $18,500 to $60,000 each.
Walking around town in tall boots and sunglasses on a chilly afternoon, Stripling, 40, acknowledges that hers is slow, uncertain work. Enthusiasm for beautiful old architecture doesn’t guarantee its survival. She stops at a building adjacent to the train tracks. Red brick and sturdy, with large, wooden doors, it used to house Appalachian Power .
“There’s a pizza place in Brooklyn that looks just like that,” Stripling says. A perfect location for a brewery, she thinks.
Turning toward the depot, she imagines how the town might one day appear to visitors: After cycling along the New River Trail, they stop in for a beer and sit in this very spot, watch a train chug past and admire the pretty town, locked in a mountain’s embrace.
Dressed in a sparkly navy-blue shirt and black pants, Spiegel strides onto the stage. Speaking clearly, she breezes through her pitch. “This is no longer one person’s dream,” she tells the four judges. “It’s a shared community vision.”
Then come the questions: What is her business plan? How will she expand the program beyond Pulaski County? Who are the potential investors?
Her composure falters. She rushes through her replies and veers away from some questions. Afterward, Spiegel is optimistic but acknowledges missteps. Of the four finalists, she points out, Pulaski Grow is the only venture that is a work in progress. She doesn’t have all the answers yet.
The next day, word comes: ScoutPro , an Iowa company that uses software to help farmers with crop maintenance, takes the grand prize. A $10,000 people’s choice award, decided by online voting, goes to Pasturebird, a California company that produces large-scale free-range poultry.
Spiegel plays down her disappointment. “How could I be bummed? I got $15,000,” she says. “Money can’t replace the support you have in your community.”
A few days later, she is back at work. There’s a greenhouse to build, and volunteers have signed up to help. Every month Spiegel hosts a work day at the cottage. Each time, at least one new face appears.
Today, it’s Marie Reid, a print-production manager, musician and mother of three. She grew up at the far end of the county, in Snowville. After graduating from high school 35 years ago, she left, and now lives in Mooresville, N.C., more than a hundred miles away.
An old friend had shared an article on Facebook about Spiegel’s venture. Reid, 53, remembered the little cottage and couldn’t believe it. She has since kept tabs on the county’s comeback. She misses the river more each year, and the grit and honesty of the people. “When the geography requires more of you, you have to rely on your community more,” she says. “And when you get away from that, you really miss it.”
And so Reid drove two hours north this morning to join the group now standing around a large patch of mud. Spiegel is debating how to anchor the arches to pipes she has secured to the ground with concrete. Each arch has been constructed of repurposed bleachers harvested from county gyms. Hardened circles still dot the planks. “My donated chewing-gum lumber,” Spiegel says with affection.
The first arch goes up, fitting just as Spiegel had measured it, from pipe to pipe. “This is so exciting! I can’t believe it!” she yells, rushing off to retrieve her camera. It’s a welcome moment of accomplishment: With San Diego behind her, all week she’s been thinking about new ways to secure financial support.
Reid stays to help Spiegel install two more arches. By afternoon, the skeleton of a greenhouse appears. But before leaving Pulaski County, Reid has one more stop to make. She plans to head down the road to look at a parcel for sale, not far from the river, on the other side of the hill.
Libby Sander is a writer in the District. To comment on this story, e-mail email@example.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.