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Class of 2015 Valley Session

The Lead Virginia Class of 2015 was hosted by community leaders in the Valley region in June, a visit that showcased highlights of the mid-Valley region from Staunton to Harrisonburg and the beautiful surrounding farmland, and I left the weekend with a much greater appreciation of the economic vibrancy of the Valley region. I have always loved the beautiful Valley and enjoyed brief visits for business or leisure, but I came away from the Lead weekend with a much better understanding of the economic diversity reflected in the region, as well as current exciting developments.

The class kicked off its visit with dinner at the historic Stonewall Jackson hotel, where we were introduced to the region by Staunton Assistant City Manager, Steve Rosenburg, '06 and Shenandoah Valley Partnership CEO, Carrie Chenery, each of whom spoke of the latest developments in the region's economy, recent efforts to protect historic structures and recent initiatives to attract business to the region.  Chenery, a Valley native, discussed the historic agricultural culture in the Valley and the way in which that colored the lifestyle and values of Valley inhabitants.  For the first time, I made the connection between the agricultural roots of the Valley, the way in which that shapes its people and thus the workforce.  Industries that choose to locate in the Valley indeed are fortunate to have a workforce raised on the hard work ethic of farm life.  I had never previously really grasped the interaction between the history of a people and their relationship with the current economy. 

Friday morning, the Class of 2015 toured the new Shamrock Foods extended-shelf-life dairy production plant in Verona, a state-of-the-art processing facility that is anticipated to bring ultimately 200 jobs to the region when the plan reaches its full production capacity.  The Class then heard from local economic development leaders Brian Shull of Harrisonburg and George Anas of Rockingham County who shared that the city and region are the fastest growing in Virginia outside of the northern Virginia region.  We learned that Rockingham is one of the top agricultural producers in the state followed by Augusta County, and that Harrisonburg is economically flourishing.  Fueling that growth in part is James Madison University's development projects throughout the city, including the restored and repurposed Icehouse where the session was held.


Housing extensive JMU office space, as well as a craft brewery, restaurant, retail space and apartments, the Icehouse is among the first JMU forays into the City of Harrisonburg outside of its main campus and has aided revitalization of part of the City. I personally had no idea that Harrisonburg was such a fast-growing part of the Commonwealth. Throughout the visit, I was greatly impressed by the quality of design and restoration employed in revitalization projects throughout the city.

That afternoon, a panel of executives with three local non-profit continuing retirement care communities discussed the way in which the influx of baby boomers into retirement is changing face of retirement life and the assisted living industry. Representatives of Sunnyside Communities, Bridgewater Retirement Community and Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community discussed their efforts to meet the needs of those aging in the Valley.


In what was definitely for me the most memorable aspect of the weekend, we partook of a bountiful home-cooked dinner at the beautiful log cabin of Mrs. Shank, who serves her masterful approach to traditional Mennonite fare with visitors from throughout the state.  The beauty and serenity of Mrs. Shank's home and the delicious fare (as well as the sight of a local Mennonite horse and buggy passing by the home) made Friday night an evening I will never forget.  It is difficult to truly grasp the diversity of lifestyles that exist within the Commonwealth, but the June session truly brought me closer to such an understanding.

The Valley visit closed with a Saturday morning session on local agriculture, a visit to the nearby Harrisonburg Farmer's Market, and a final session on the status of education in the Valley.  Some class members returned to the market for lunch, others (including me) enjoyed the local retail scene, but all members of the class no doubt left Harrisonburg with a far greater appreciation of traditional culture and current trends in the Valley.


My perception of the Valley is permanently changed from before the session.  Previously I thought of the region as a vast expanse of bucolic farmland where time had stopped. I now understand that the Valley is one of the Commonwealth's most dynamic regions with a rich past that is the fertile grounds for today's economic vitality.  I found myself hoping that the Valley manages to prosper and grow without losing its special beauty and character.


 Respectively submitted by 

Joan McKenna,'15


LeClair Ryan, Richmond



We greatly appreciate the efforts of Dr. John Downey, '06 President, Blue Ridge Community College; Dr. Karen Wigginton, '12 Vice President - Corporate Marketing & Communications Sunnyside Communities; and Ms. Kelly Jones, Executive Assistant to the President, Blue Ridge Community College for an inspiring session.  We also wish to thank our generous sponsors and in-kind contributors of this session: Columbia Gas of Virginia, City of Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, Brothers Craft Brewing, JMU's Ice House, Shamrock Farms and Mrs. Janet Shank.