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Are we a Zoom town? Not yet

Today we introduce a new phrase to your vocabulary: Zoom town.

From the beginning of the internet, rural communities were tantalized by its prospects. Some predicted “the death of distance” – that it no longer mattered where people were as long as they could connect via technology.

Socially, that’s certainly been the case: We can now share cat pictures – or argue politics – with people anywhere there’s a wifi connection. Economically, though, the internet hasn’t lived up to its promises. Instead of prompting a rural renaissance, technology has only accelerated what economists call “the great divergence” between urban and rural areas. It turns out that tech companies don’t like distance, after all, they prefer density – to produce lots of off-line collaboration between people from different fields. In 2019, the Valleys Innovation Council – a tech-focused business group that covers the Roanoke and New River valleys – hosted a guest speaker who advised on how this region could create that kind of density. Short version: An “innovation district” that connects downtown Roanoke with the Virginia Tech Carilion Academic Health Center, aka, the medical school and research institute. Only by jamming a lot of creative, highly-skilled people into a small space can you get what that speaker – Baltimore-based consultant Thomas Osha — called the “creative collisions” that send the “innovation economy” into overdrive. “That’s why innovation districts have become a global phenomenon,” Osha said. “Density is destiny.”

When the pandemic hit in March, some wondered whether the virus could change the economic calculus. “The thrill of city living is gone,” headlined The Boston Globe. Of course, what the Globe predicted wasn’t a rural renaissance but a newfound interested interest in the suburbs. That’s nice, but not particularly what we’re interested in. Economically and demographically speaking, what we wonder is whether the virus will cause people to abandon Northern Virginia and move to Southwest and Southside Virginia instead. Unfortunately, our own virus rates aren’t helping that relocation argument. For a long time, rural Virginia stood out for its unusually low infection rates. Now, alas, rural Virginia has some of highest infection rates not just in the state, but in the world. The rate in Galax is three times higher than that in Fairfax County — 14,712 hospitalizations per 100,000 versus the Fairfax rate of 4,831. In Roanoke, it’s 6,208. We’re not helping our own cause here, people. For comparison purposes, the rate in Canada is just 1,907.

Meanwhile, enough time has passed that we can get some early read on whether the virus will reshape the nation’s residential preferences. There do appear to be some “Zoom towns” as they’re being called — smaller communities that are booming are a result of people working remotely via the Zoom video-conferencing platform (or any kind of remote working). But they’re not here. They tend to be places that already had reputation as vacation communities.

To learn more, check out the whole article below.