On the westernmost tip of Virginia, sharing borders with Kentucky and Tennessee, is Lee County. An Appalachian community of just over 24,000 residents, Lee County is home to the DeBusk Veterinary Teaching Center (DVTC), an academic unit of Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) that sits just across the state border in Tennessee. Through DVTC, LMU provides students around the country with the opportunity to practice veterinary medicine on cows, horses, and small animals. A Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development project explored how the veterinary school could function as an anchor institution for Lee County.
Anchor institutions are universities, colleges, hospitals, and other entities with a long-term presence that contribute significantly to their communities and economies. Because hundreds of students study at the veterinary school daily, DVTC is a strong asset for Lee County with the potential to draw more people to the area.
Although it is the westernmost county in Virginia, closer to eight other state capitols than to Richmond, Lee County is not geographically isolated. It has access to a number of cultural and economic resources in both Tennessee and Kentucky, including restaurants and entertainment venues. The Cumberland Gap National Historic Park is also located in Lee, Claiborne, and Bell Counties, drawing over 700,000 tourists to the area annually. “We looked at how you could connect a place like Lee to the communities surrounding it irrespective of state borders,” Conaway Haskins, Extension Specialist for OED, said.
OED surveyed DVTC students and faculty and received 259 responses, totaling over 50 percent of faculty, staff, and students. While a handful of students lived in Lee County, many lived in Tennessee, near Lincoln Memorial University’s main campus. Students who didn’t live in Lee County said this was due to a lack of grocery stores and restaurants; poor cellular service; a lack of broadband access; and a shortage of quality housing.
Individuals surveyed expressed interest in a village hub close to the DVTC campus – a mix of housing and amenities that appeals to everyone in the region.
Scott Tate, associate director of OED, said that constructing a brewery, café, farmer’s market, outdoor outfitters, or event space in Lee County could encourage people, particularly younger individuals, to visit the region.
“The DVTC students, faculty, and staff didn’t want just any development there; they weren’t as interested in fast food or chain restaurants. They were interested in small businesses that fit in the region, wouldn’t take away from Lee County’s rural nature, and were locally owned,” said Tate.
Recommendations to Lee County officials included continuing to look at sewer infrastructure development, feasibility of a dental school or other facilities, housing opportunities, and expanded cellular phone service. OED also recommended Lee County take the lead on establishing an ongoing work-group to help explore and pursue development opportunities in western Lee County.
They also suggested working on an entrepreneurial development strategy for western Lee County, which could include events, networking opportunities, a start-up and small business competition for western Lee County, and physical spaces for entrepreneurs at or near the DVTC campus. Events and opportunities such as these could draw people from across the Tennessee and Kentucky borders.
Since the writing of the report, Lee County has started a housing study to look more closely at the housing issue. DVTC has also announced an expansion to the vet school, which will mean more students will be in the area. “With the expansion plan, I think that the idea of a mini college town or village hub becomes more viable,” said Tate.
Haskins said, “In order to have these kinds of opportunities, you have to be open to new things and be open to innovative, creative things. It is also important to be welcoming to people who are different from you because those are the people that will essentially be investing in your community.”