By Mark Wolf
Nashville—Quickly now, name the biggest factor in boosting rural economies.
D. All of the above.
Broadband isn't the only issue facing rural America, but it casts a wide shadow (probably slow-moving because, you know, dial-up) over efforts to rejuvenate rural areas.
"If you don't have a place that has internet access fast enough to download their video games and stream, (young people) don't want to live there," said Kenneth Poole, CEO and president of Virginia's Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness, during a Legislative Summit session Thursday on rural economies. "Broadband is critical."
Nearly 40% of rural residents don't have access to broadband, compared to just 4% of urban residents.
"Infrastructure means broadband in the 21st century," he said.
Poole, who grew up on a farm in North Carolina, told the packed session: "You're not in this alone."
One in 7 people still live in rural communities but the demographics are changing dramatically because urban areas are growing out and people are leaving rural areas. Proximity has something to do with it, Poole said: "If you live in an isolated place you tend to lose people. If you are near a larger community you tend to grow."
The economic recovery in rural areas after the Great Recession has not matched that in urban areas, he said, adding that employment in urban areas has surpassed pre-Great Recession levels, but non-metro has not.
"As we think about rural places, we want to talk about resilience," he said. "We want to buffer against the tideline. The goal is not necessarily to grow, but not to decline. Resilient counties are younger proportionally."
The "brain drain" of younger people leaving rural areas for better opportunities in metro areas is a key issue for small towns, he said. "On the tail end we're seeing growth among older residents. The folks moving in are typically retirees who may need additional support," he said.
Poverty in non-metro areas has long been higher than in metro areas. It has been stable for the last few years, but Poole said there is concern it might widen: "Who's remaining when our best and brightest leave?"
No single strategy exists for rural areas that want to break the cycle, but they should not try to be generic rural communities, he said. "Don't say, 'We have a great quality of life.' What makes you different?"
Four elements on which to concentrate, he said, are:
- Create communities where people want to live.
- Leverage assets to develop a strong business climate.
- Enhance the talent pool.
- Help rural businesses succeed.
Rural communities should invest in attractive town centers and affordable housing for workers to attract migrants and leverage their assets and turn them into something that creates value, such as tourism. He cited Vermont's Stay-to-Stay Weekend, intended to help visitors relocate to Vermont, especially those who can work remotely. Rural areas often don't feel as welcoming to new people who come in, and small towns need to "engage people who are taking a big risk moving to your community."
Small towns shouldn't concentrate on landing big companies but on growing small businesses. "It's really terrific to create sets of 1's and 2's and 5's," he said. "That's what your community can handle."
Sammie Arnold, Tennessee's assistant commissioner of community and rural development, said in rural areas, economies are "part of the whole story but not the whole story" and that rural culture is crucial "to defend and support a way of life that's important to our country and our state."
Rural communities are harder to serve because of capacities of scale, he said.
"Local mayors have to wear a lot of hats," he said, recalling a meeting with a small-town mayor that had to be cut short because the mayor had to get in his truck and go move a dead horse off the road.
Rural health care is crucial, Arnold said. "Hospitals do more than treat sick people. They are economic engines that bring jobs." Tennessee has partnered with Pathway Lending to provide capital to rural businesses.
Colorado Representative Julie L. McCluskie (D), who moderated the session, represents a district comprising several small and midsize mountain communities, some with major ski areas.
"Wages haven't increased because a lot of entry-level positions in the tourism industry don't require a workforce with education," she said. The proliferation of short-term rentals has adversely affected the available housing market: "We're trying to incentivize landlords to bring them off the market for longer-term use."
Building the next generation of leaders is crucial, the panelists agreed.
"We have to make sure we're engaging the next generation of leaders, make sure we're providing them with access to the tools they need," said Poole.
Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.