Fulbright scholar Joanie Willett studies the secrets of main street success
As Joanie Willett walks along State Street in Bristol, Virginia, she sees a city that has changed a lot in just a few years.
“When I first visited five years ago, the street was lined with empty storefronts. But today, the main street is bustling with restaurants, art galleries, museums, and antique stores,” Willett said.
A senior lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter in England and co-director of the Institute of Cornish Studies, Willett recently received a Fulbright U.K. Scholar Award to conduct research on main streets with the Virginia Tech Center for Economic and Community Engagement (CECE).
“I wanted to rejuvenate rural places and connect people to opportunities they have right in their hometowns,” Willett said. “It’s not right that people feel they need to leave their hometowns in order to make something of their lives. I also believe that more attention needs to be paid to rural issues — particularly economic ones.”
CECE, part of Outreach and International Affairs, has long been involved in building vibrancy along Virginia’s main streets. In 2018, the center conducted an analysis of downtown Christiansburg and provided recommendations for revitalizing the area. This semester, the center’s economic development studio class is working with Main Street America to help localities attract more residents and remote workers.
It was that kind of work that sparked Willett to reach out to Executive Director John Provo while looking for a case study outside of her home country. Eventually, she applied for the Fulbright scholarship with plans to work at CECE.
“The center is one of the most welcoming research organizations I’ve been able to work with,” she said. “There is a very different policy landscape in the U.S. that I have needed help to understand. The faculty have been generous with their time in helping me to learn more about the political and economic environment of the region.”
Willett set her sights on Appalachia after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Flight Behavior,” a novel set in rural Tennessee that focuses on intergenerational poverty and the impact it has on people’s lives.
“I took a train trip a few months later from New York City to San Francisco. We went through West Virginia, and that was my first time seeing that kind of mountainous and forested landscape. I spoke with a schoolteacher from West Virginia on the train and I thought, ‘This place has so many stories to tell that I want to hear,’” Willett said.
Coming to work in Southwest Virginia has allowed her to see firsthand how towns such as Bristol are revitalizing their economies after the decline of the coal mining industry. She found many similarities with her own hometown of St. Austell in Cornwall, England. The town of 20,000 was historically focused on china-clay mining, until the industry collapsed in the 1990s. While mining still exists in the town, not as many people are needed to perform the work.
Bristol followed the approach of Main Street America, a program that works to revitalize historic commercial districts and centers around four transformational strategies — economic vitality, design, promotion, and organization. Willett believes she can apply that same approach to revitalize town centers in U.K. communities.
“People will come to the town center, see something they like, but then go home and buy it cheaper online,” Willett said. “Something I learned from those involved in Bristol’s main street program is shopping should be an experience, which is something I can take back home.”
Along with attending CECE’s studio class, she is working with senior economic development specialist Elli Travis to learn more about Christiansburg’s efforts to promote its downtown. Willett will also accompany other researchers to learn more about the projects taking place in Virginia communities.
“The U.S. and the U.K. can learn a lot from each other in regards to what kind of policy works for successful main street initiatives and what doesn’t,” Provo said. “Joanie is passionate about finding solutions to problems that both of our countries face, such as lack of affordable housing and the need to diversify our economies.”
After she returns home this summer, Willett will share information with the National Association of Local Councils as well as Cornwall policymakers. She is planning an event focused on town centers in the fall.
The U.S.-U.K. Fulbright Commission works to promote peace and cultural understanding through educational exchange and provides scholarships to academics and professionals to lecture or conduct research in the U.S. or U.K.
For advice and resources on the Fulbright application process, contact Virginia Tech’s Fulbright liaison, Nicole Sanderlin, director of global engagement in the College of Engineering. The Provost’s Office assists department, college, or division leadership in facilitating leave for Fulbright fellowships. The Global Education Office, part of Outreach and International Affairs, provides support and resources for incoming Fulbright scholars and the departments that host them.