Small Towns, Rural Economies & Economic Development: Do They Go Together?

RICHARD PROFFER

JACKSON, MO.
   A question facing many rural towns today is how can they survive? They are losing population, youth and jobs. How can it be turned around? A turn around in small towns can happen if the community is willing to commit to its future and make the necessary changes. Not as easy as it sounds but it can be done. 
   The first change a rural community needs to realize is their economy is no longer tied just to the town but to the region it is in. If the residents and leaders of a local town refuse to see its current situation as it is, then the blinders of yesterday stay on and keep the towns from seeing what could be. 
   The question becomes how can the town take off the blinders and see the potential? They need to have community conversations held in a safe space (meaning ability to speak freely without criticism), listen to each other’s points and then act on the identified opportunities and threats by planning how to change. It is often best to have a neutral party lead these discussions like your local community economic development (CED) extension specialist. Their non-local presence lends a presence of neutrality and openness since they role in these conversations is to encourage open conversations. 
   During these conversations, the meeting attendees need to look at the cause of the declining economy for the town or region. The biggest is the change in how agriculture now operates compared to when the town was formed. As ag production became more efficient, there was less need for farm workers and technology become more prevalent. 
   Also, rural economies tend to depend on industry sectors like manufacturing and natural based products. Local farm operations tended to be big a reason why rural communities were created so a market was created for the local operations and thereby created a need for retail trade and a healthy retail environment brought money which created the manufacturing opportunities.  It was and still is, in many cases, all tied together. This connection to agriculture is not sustainable in some communities and they need to plan on how to move beyond local farm operations as their base of revenue.  
   Another factor affecting the rural economy is the brain drain of youth going to college and not returning. This happens when the youth want the lights of the big city but a more root cause is, they feel they have nothing for them back home. In a project I worked on in Ripley County, MO, we listened to youths that told us they came back home after college because they felt they had been involved in the community in high school. Their opinions were sought out and considered. So a way to help reserve the drain is to involve the community’s youth in opportunities like youth representative on city or regional committees, be appointed to city councils or provide shadow opportunities for them to learn how government works or shadow in the workplace so they can learn jobs and graduate with an opportunity to stay there in the community. 
   Another change is some rural towns are experiencing a brain gain where early to mid-career professionals are returning to their home towns because they want to be closer to family or want to start a family and need the “village” to help them overtime. These people bring new dollars to the community and a desire to be active and often start small businesses.
   So how can a town turn their economy around? Like already stated, it begins with a community willing to accept change and create a new conversation about the town or region. This means they realize their town is now tied to something larger like a regional economy and the need to be an active player in that economy by being represented at the planning opportunities. 
   During these conversations, the participants need to take inventory of issues facing the region and how it affects the town and its economy. A spirit of cooperation in the region will help an economy grow faster than a spirit of “us versus them.”  In today’s age, regionalism is a way towards growth for rural America.  The sharing of resources in a region creates a more competitive economy and one that can attract jobs, businesses, and obviously improve the economy for all. 
   Another solution is to create public-private partnerships that can provide funding for opportunities or that can take advantage of state offered incentives where appropriate. Research shows (reported by Steven Koven & Thomas Lyons in their book Economic Development), “Public programs that help private entrepreneurs survive and flourish promote a broader participation in the economy and a wider economic base.” 
   By creating these opportunities, small businesses can take root in these communities and be a part of the new conversation. Small businesses are the growth engine of America and have been for several years. Large manufacturers have basically remained flat in employment while small businesses grow every year in employment as a category. It goes without saying, that the community needs to be ready for small business in areas like broadband, support to shop local, create a vibe around the community so tourism can happen. There are many strategies a small town can employ. 
   Some people may say how can changing the conversation bring change to the community? A community that Richard Proffer has been working with for just over a year has seen change happen all because they came together and started planning. The City of Caruthersville was struggling to create economic change in their community. They reached out to Richard Proffer at a meeting and started talking. He spoke at their local economic development action team meeting on how MU Extension had a program that might benefit them if they were willing to commit to change. They accepted the challenge and aver three monthly meetings, they had a plan to follow, four committees organized around the opportunities and challenges they identified and now have been reaping the rewards. They have been awarded grants, got a new big box retail store, new businesses have started, and what used to be challenges are met with the attitude it can be dealt with. All of this is new to the city and an excitement level is there that was not there. A buzz has been created and the conversation changed. 
   If your small town would like to have a conversation change happen, feel free to contact me at profferrd@missouri.edu or call me at 573-243-3581.  University of Missouri Extension CED is here to help Missouri communities grow and be sustainable but it begins with the first steps. ∆
   RICHARD PROFFER: Community Economic Development Field Specialist, University of Missouri

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