When Virginia Tech graduate students travel to Appomattox this semester, they will not be studying Civil War battlefields. Rather, they will be examining operations of town departments by invitation of local officials.

These unusual excursions are part of a Virginia Tech service-learning course, "Performance Measurement and Benchmarking (PMB) for Local Government," taught by Office of Economic Development faculty member Chad Miller in collaboration with the university's Center for Public Administration and Policy (CPAP).

The course emphasizes service-learning opportunities for students and expands the university's technical assistance and community development efforts, which are key components of Tech's 2001-2006 Strategic Plan.

"The effort to provide economic development assistance to Virginia communities is an important element of the university's land-grant mission," said Ted Settle, director of Tech's Office of Economic Development (OED), which is part of Outreach and International Affairs. "But clearly our students and faculty benefit as well by learning from communities about their specific needs and about the changing economic picture in the commonwealth."

Miller modeled the course upon the successful "International Market Planning Program," a course/project offered in the Pamplin College of Business. Instead of an export plan for a business, the student teams in the business course provided a thorough examination of local government. Said Miller, "this gives students an opportunity to take the advanced learning they receive in their graduate coursework and apply it in a local government and community context. In this way, both the community and students get to benefit from the interaction."

Communities pay a small fee that covers transportation, course materials for students, and other overhead expenses. In previous semesters, students worked with local governments in Smyth, Pulaski and Nelson counties.

During the spring semester of 2003, Miller and the student team worked in Nelson County and produced a 64-page report that offered analysis and benchmarking of county government operations in three departments. Nelson County officials had approached Virginia Tech in 2002 about providing assistance with planning development and improving operations. A predominately rural area centrally located between the cities of Charlottesville, Lynchburg and Staunton, Nelson County has an economy based on agriculture and natural resources, with a growing tourism industry stimulated by the successful Wintergreen Resort.

Richard Zody, a professor in Virginia Tech's department of urban affairs and planning (UAP), conducted a strategic planning session for the county's board of supervisors in 2002 that led to development of a new comprehensive plan. County officials then turned to Tech for guidance in how to most effectively implement the plan.

Once the student-led study was completed, Nelson County arranged for Miller and OED faculty member John Aughenbaugh to provide a day-long training program on the PMB for most of its local government departments. This training will enable the county government to implement the recommendations that the students made and give the departmental staff the training needed to conduct PMB programs on their own.

As the final component of Tech's outreach efforts in Nelson County, Aughenbaugh and Richard Moorefield, an economic development specialist formerly with Outreach Program Development at Tech conducted a full-day economic development planning seminar for the board members of Nelson County's Industrial Development Authority in July. The seminar emphasized the roles, responsibilities and opportunities the board has and how it may make a positive impact on the county's economic future. In August, Aughenbaugh and Moorefield also assisted the Industrial Development Authority in producing its strategic plan for the future.

The "Performance Measurement and Benchmarking for Local Government" course is part of the university's many-faceted economic development assistance efforts for businesses and communities. For more information, contact the Office of Economic Development at (540) 231-8324.