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The rural American economy: A time for hope?

The rural American economy: A time for hope?

For more than two decades now we have read and heard countless articles, books, podcasts and more heralding the death of America’s rural communities. All of this media coverage left little room for hope, and yet our communities have stubbornly refused to give up. Many began to help themselves and each other when funders shut them out and counted them a bad investment. There are hopeful signs that this persistence and tenacity may set these communities up well for a future that is looking increasingly optimistic.

Trends that were already emerging or evident have been greatly accelerated by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Einstein said that “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity,” and so it is for rural areas at the present time. Here are some examples of existing trends that have been accelerated:

  • Remote work has increased, and according to the Harvard Business School, at least 16% of COVID-induced remote work will become permanent. As of now, 14% of office space is vacant, and vacancy rates are expected to reach 17% or higher by 2022.
  • In 2018, a Gallup survey showed that if jobs were readily available in rural areas, 27% of people would prefer to live there, and an additional 12% would choose a town. The pandemic has no doubt increased that sentiment. Indeed, Google searches for rural and small town housing are up 115% since March 2020.
  • Ben Winchester of the University of Minnesota has been studying rural population for several years, and has coined the term “brain gain” to counter the more traditional brain drain narrative so often associated with rural areas. His extensive research shows that across the country, rural areas are actually seeing an increase in populations aged 30-49, and these newcomers typically bring significant education, skills, connections and spending power. He has found that people migrate to rural areas for the primary reasons of 1) a simpler way of life, 2) increased safety and security, 3) affordable housing, 4) outdoor recreation opportunities, and 5) quality schools.
  • Local foods were already enjoying a huge increase in popularity, and the pandemic has certainly highlighted the need for increased food security locally. This bodes well for rural America where the vast majority of food is produced. Farmers’ markets and other strategies have helped revitalize many small communities already, and we believe this trend will only continue to grow.
  • Rural tourism was on the rise prior to the pandemic as people sought authentic experiences and outdoor recreation. COVID has created a significant increase in outdoor recreation and nature-based activities that help relieve stress. According to the Civic Science Consumer Survey, 37.7% of Americans say that COVID will change their outdoor recreational activities for the continued future. All of this creates great opportunities for rural areas.

These trends are quite encouraging, but communities cannot expect that opportunity will knock unless they do the work and create the conditions where those opportunities can flourish. Based on our experience and that of communities that have seen success, there are several things that community leaders can do to begin to create those conditions.

Obviously, some aspects of revitalization require significant investment, and many communities assume that this alone defeats them before they even start. However, it’s important to remember to simply start wherever you are, and that there are many ways to start small and do what can be done with minimal funds. It is often surprising to community leaders how much this helps residents get excited about being part of the change they are seeing, and how it begins to build momentum that results in bigger changes. In addition, communities that are proactive enough to take initiative themselves are more attractive to potential funders, who can see that their investment will make a difference. Below are some examples of ways to get started that don’t require any significant investment.

  • Create a positive narrative about your community, and make sure that community leaders repeat that narrative at every opportunity—formal and informal.
  • Engage residents (and not just the “usual group”) and listen to them about what they want to see in the community so you can begin to craft a vision for your future.
  • Analyze your assets to see where opportunities may have been overlooked. Remember that assets come in many forms. A good description of ways to look at and map community assets can be found by searching "eight capitals" at wealthworks.org (or scan QR links to articles in graphic above).
  • Start with small projects that can collectively have a big impact. This publication has some great ideas for small projects easily done by community volunteers (search "101 small ways" at archive.curbed.com for ideas).


There are a number of factors that we believe are critical to the success of a community’s development endeavors based on observing many thriving small communities. These are some of the common denominators of success:

  1. A collaborative attitude among all sectors of the community – it is amazing how powerful it can be to simply have all sectors (local government, business community, schools, nonprofits) working together to accomplish a goal.
  2. Leadership that is proactive and focused on the future, with a willingness to take some amount of calculated risk – no more doing things “the way we’ve always done them.”
  3. Having a guiding vision and plan.
  4. Putting a focus on developing an exceptional quality of life.
  5. Supporting your local businesses in creative ways and recognizing that entrepreneurs are at the heart of every development strategy that works well for small communities.
  6. Cultivating leadership and an entrepreneurial mindset in the community’s youth, while ensuring they have opportunities to be heard and to connect and contribute.

Communities that do these things will not only create a community that people are proud to call home, but will position themselves well to take advantage of coming opportunities. Contact Deb Martin at RCAP (dcmartin@glcap.org) for more information.

 

Article originally appeared in the RCAP Connection Spring 2021 newsletter. Written by Deb Martin.

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