Thursday, December 29, 2011

Making Rural Matter

By Shanna Ratner, Principal, Yellow Wood Associates

When I started Yellow Wood Associates in 1985, it was with the idea of that the world would be a better place if rural people were able to act as effective stewards of the natural resources that surround them and be rewarded for it.  That led us to specialize in natural resource-based community economic development.

Over 26 years, we've discovered lots of barriers to effective local stewardship, especially for poor rural communities. Resources are often owned and controlled by external forces. Local people lack information about the quantity, quality and potential of the resources surrounding them. Policies and regulations don't support local engagement. Training in stewardship approaches is not readily available. Management expertise is lacking. Market forces encourage exploitation of people and resources.

Today, as we struggle to cope with climate change, population growth, increased effective global demand for goods and services, and instability caused by over reliance on fossil fuels, the need for new approaches to stewardship of natural resources has become even more evident. CarbonNYC
Increasingly, here in the United States, we are beginning to imagine regional solutions; however "regional” is too often taken to mean “metro and adjacent counties” when really it should mean metro, suburban and rural areas. Why? Because cities depend (and could increasingly depend) for clean air, clean water, food, fiber, recreation, labor, renewable energy, and markets for urban goods and services on rural areas. New York City understood this when it chose to invest in improved resource stewardship in the (rural) Catskills, its source of clean water, rather than in a water filtration plant within the city limits. New York City recognized that it is much less costly to protect water quality at the source, by investing in the infrastructure, training, public education, and innovation required to support rural people in changing their behaviors to benefit an entire region, than it is to restore water quality once it has degraded. New York City's investment in the Catskills isn't charity; it's an investment made with the clear expectation of a tangible return in the form of clean water.

We now know that the process of industrialization has resulted in significant exploitation and degradation of the natural (and human) resource base. Bringing these resources (soil, water, air, wetlands, croplands, forestlands, lakes, streams, pollinators, etc.) back to a productive state in which they can help meet the needs of entire regions, will require intentional investment in rural areas that increases the capacity of rural people to restore, manage, and sustain these resources for the benefit of entire regions. We also need to invest in new resource management approaches to available renewable resources.  Ultimately, rural resources cannot be “protected” for the benefit of metro and suburban areas without engaging rural people in their protection and development in ways that are mutually beneficial. If we continue to separate rural development from regional development, we are likely to continue unsustainable patterns of rural resource exploitation.

How can we join hands with consumers and decision-makers in urban and suburban areas to identify new opportunities to funnel investment that sticks in rural areas for the benefit of entire regions? If we can answer this question, we can begin to overcome the rural/urban divide and create allies among our urban friends. As they recognize the value to their own communities of investing in the productive and innovative capacity of rural places, together we can speak truth to power with a force beyond what rural America can hope to achieve by organizing within its own ranks.

Shanna Ratner is the Principal of Yellow Wood Associates, which is the managing grantee for the Wealth Creation in Rural Communities initiative of the Ford Foundation. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Senior Housing Policy: "Tomorrow Is Another Day"

By Sandra Rosenblith, Director, Stand Up for Rural America

Do you follow media coverage of national officials and policy makers dealing with an issue you know? Lots of folks in Washington, DC get paid to do this. Way too often we wind up wondering: "What are these people thinking? Don't they know ....?"

I'm an Inside the Beltway veteran. I’ve got decades of experience helping local nonprofits across the country mount comprehensive efforts to create healthy, prosperous, equitable communities that stand the test of time. They have developed tens of thousands of affordable homes and apartments. In recent years, most of my work has taken me to rural America.

Along with my smart, engaged 90 year old mother, I’m increasingly distressed by the country’s failure to confront reality when it comes to adequate affordable housing for our aging population, many of whom do and will need it. Like it or not, 76 million Baby Boomers are coming! Every day this year and for the next 19 years, 10,000 Americans will turn 65. By 2020, there will be 10.2 million new households headed by individuals aged 55 to 74. By 2030, one in five Americans will be 65 or older. By 2050, nearly five percent of us will be 90 or older.

A tenant tends her plot at Desert Gardens, the first affordable apartments ever built for retired farmworkers, developed by the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition in Indio, CA.

Seniors aren't all rich or even financially comfortable. An Urban Institute study shows that in 2009, 34 percent, or one in three seniors, were poor or near poor. That's more than 13 million seniors. According to federal standards, housing is affordable when it costs 30 percent or less of income. Using this standard and the 2011 poverty line, a single poor senior should pay $361 or less per month. Are there many ‘decent homes in a suitable environment’ at this price where you live?

The Great Recession took and continues to take a heavy toll on older Americans. Retirement accounts have recovered some, but these shrank by 20 to 30 percent. Seventy percent of seniors own their own homes; about one in five owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. It's no accident that Florida and Nevada, retirement meccas, are ground zero for foreclosures.

Even when foreclosure isn't the issue, many seniors are trapped in homes they can't afford. They can't refinance or renovate because they can’t get loans. They can’t sell because buyers can't meet newly stringent credit criteria and appraisal standards. The rental market has tightened and rents are rising. Unemployment for workers 55 and more is usually lower than the rates for the rest of the workforce. While this is still true, rates for this group have doubled and it takes over 55s more time to find new jobs than other workers. Also, pension benefits are declining or disappearing.

Yet senior housing barely gets a mention, much less serious consideration, in high level discussions about the deficit. It's all about cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Where are seniors supposed to live? What is it going to cost? Who is going to make it happen? You can bet your bottom dollar that the for-profit private sector isn't going to meet the housing needs of poor and near poor seniors absent significant public incentives and subsidies.

This oncoming train wreck will damage rural people and places most. The proportion of seniors in the population is higher in rural than urban areas. It is growing due to an influx of retirees, many of whom are seeking lower cost living. Incomes are low and so are wages. More rural than urban seniors depend on Social Security and food stamps for their livelihoods. The supply of appropriate affordable housing falls far short. Rural seniors have a hard time ‘aging in place’, meaning ‘staying’ in their homes. More of their homes are isolated. Public transportation is sketchy or nonexistent. So service delivery is a bigger problem, everything from medical care to meals on wheels. Younger family members are often away in cities seeking better opportunities.

Do you ever wonder why people in Washington go around in circles? One big reason? They don't ask the rest of America for advice on their communities’ priority needs and how these can best be met. They don’t invest in the people’s ideas. There are literally thousands of nonprofit community developers and service providers ready, willing and able to tackle senior housing issues. Many have already proven what works in their communities. They pursue innovative solutions. But no-one calls, writes or sends money. Do you think we can do anything about this situation? After all, sooner or later, we hope that we all need senior housing.

Sandra (Sandy) Rosenblith, a lawyer, has worked for and with community-based developers across this country, delivering information, training, technical assistance and advocacy support and providing and monitoring grants, low cost loans and access to equity capital. She has also worked for every level of government as well as major foundations, including a federal stint helping draft the original Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) regulations. Of special note, she founded and managed the national Rural and Mid-South Delta programs for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). Currently, she directs Stand Up for Rural America, an advocacy initiative designed to help rural community developers gain the attention, resources and policy support their work deserves.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Future of Regional Food Systems in Rural America

By Rich Pirog, Senior Associate Director, C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University

The local food movement has grown rapidly in the United States over the past two decades, championed by farmers, chefs, non-profits, authors, and the White House.  Direct-market sales continue rising; with more than 7,100 farmers market nationwide today compared to less than 350 in 1970.  High school, college, and corporate cafeterias all now feature local or state-grown fare, and numerous regional and national food retailers and food service distributors have developed partnerships with local farmers.

Photo: sbctb/

As Marketing and Food Systems Program Leader and Associate Director at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa, I saw the movement over time grow more focused in its goals and more sophisticated in its approach.  In the early 1990s, success was pulling together a local food meal at a conference.  All of us involved in this work,however, knew in our hearts and minds that all-Iowa meals were just a baby step forward. 

At the Leopold Center, our role evolved as the movement evolved; from primarily a grant maker to include roles of convener and catalyst, providing servant leadership to build the capacity and collaboration across numerous organizations needed to keep the local food movement growing and maturing. 

By March 2011, we had developed 16 collaborating food networks covering more than 80 of Iowa’s 99 counties in our Regional Food Systems Working Group, with more than 30 organizations participating. 

 The Leopold Center had produced a Local Food and Farm Plan mandated by the state legislature, with funding and policy recommendations to help build the local food economy. Counties stepped to the plate and contributed funds to build local food commerce, leadership coalesced to create a statewide non-profit food systems council, and in July 2011 the state appropriated funds to support recommendations found in the Iowa Food and Farm Plan.

Across the United States, the local food revolution has joined forces with the movements to end childhood and adult obesity, eliminate poverty, increase food security, and increase the resilience of urban and rural communities.  The stakes have never been higher, as evidenced by the Occupy Wall Street movement, where more Americans feel disenfranchised from their corporations and government leaders.  
Where to next? 

We must make a clear and convincing case about the economic, social, and environmental benefits of local food.  We also must do a better job, particularly in rural America, of explaining how local food systems are nested within regional, national, and global systems and sourcing schemes.

In the future, I see regional food systems offering increasing opportunities in strengthening rural economies. What do we mean by regional food systems? In their 2010 article in CHOICES magazine, colleagues Kate Clancy and Kathy Ruhf contend that market territories, landscapes, and ecosystems all have meaning at the regional level,and that multiple local food systems can be nested within a regional framework.

Clancy and Ruhf describe an ideal regional food system as a system in which as much food as possible to meet the population’s food needs is produced, processed, distributed, and purchased at multiple levels and scales within the region, resulting in maximum resilience, minimum importation, and significant economic and social return to all stakeholders in the region.

 In rural America, local food systems supported through farmers markets, roadside stands, and institutional and retail sales will continue to have some impact on local economies and increase food security in the region.  Without a regional framework that includes interdependence with nearby micro or metropolitan areas, however, these local efforts may not have enough of an impact on the jobs, entrepreneurship, and innovation that rural America needs and that strategic investments will require.  

A regional food systems framework that transcends political boundaries is becoming more common in food systems research, outreach, and advocacy.  USDA and public and private foundations are now encouraging more multi-state and/or regional collaborations. Community, state, and national leaders are realizing the value that regional food systems play in preserving a region’s cultural, historical, and ecological identity. In the past two years, the USDA, the National Good Food Network, and other organizations have led research and outreach to better characterize and understand “regional food hubs,” where producers and processors work cooperatively to guarantee quantity and quality to larger volume buyers without losing their product’s brand identity and imbedded values.

 In late May I moved to Lansing, Michigan, to become associate director at what will soon become the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University.  Our mission is to engage the people of Michigan, the United States, and the world in applied research, education, and outreach to develop regionally integrated, sustainable food systems.   Look for the Center for Regional Food Systems to play a critical role leading the discussion about the challenges and benefits to developing these systems.   We’ll conduct research, develop new outreach mechanisms, and build new and catalyze existing networks.  Here are just a few questions that we hope to research and discuss:

·    What are the best local, state and federal policies to rebuild regional food infrastructure?

·   Our ideal regional food system is one where food is healthy, green, fair, and affordable for all.  What are the most reliable indicators we can use to determine we’re making progress toward that ideal?

·   Where are there synergies between rural and urban agriculture?  How do we take advantage of interdependence of the two to benefit regional economies?

Rich Pirog's research and collaborations on local and place-based foods, food networks and communities of practice, food value chains, and ecolabels has been publicized in magazines and media outlets across the globe, used by local food practitioners, and are often cited in books and college courses.  In 2003, he received the Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award from Practical Farmers of Iowa, and in 2004, he received the Iowa State University College of Agriculture Award for Outstanding Achievement and Service.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Counties Take Action on Big Challenges

By Erik Johnston, Associate Legislative Director, National Association of Counties

Growing up in southwest Virginia I was oblivious to the investments made by my state, federal and local government that made life better for my family and community.  That all changed in high school, when my government teacher ran and won a seat as a supervisor representing the mostly rural and suburban western portion of Roanoke County.  I shadowed him and got a sense for the important role that local governments play in creating a quality of place through investments in education, infrastructure, job training, justice, public safety, health, social services, homeland security, environment, land use, community and economic development and numerous other roles.

Now I serve as the National Association of Counties’ (NACo) Associate Legislative Director for Agriculture and Rural Affairs issues and work as staff liaison to NACo’s Rural Action Caucus. NACo’s bipartisan Rural Action Caucus serves as the voice of America’s rural counties before Congress and the Administration.  In my role, I’ve worked with county elected officials and staff from across the country who inspire me by their dedication to improving opportunity and quality of life in rural America. 

However, it is clear that these public servants and the rural counties they serve are facing challenges that have not been seen in a generation.  NACo’s Deputy Executive Director, Ed Ferguson recently wrote a commentary regarding the difficult landscape facing county governments in NACo’s County News Publication. 

In the commentary, Ferguson sums up the situation facing counties, “The continuing effects of the most severe and extensive downturn in the U.S. economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and increasingly negative public attitudes toward government and government employees have made the job of governing and managing counties difficult. At the same time, these pressures have presented county officials with opportunities — opportunities for improved service-delivery models, opportunities for partnering and consolidating, and opportunities for new approaches toward revenue generation and spending.”  A recent NACo survey reinforces the current challenges and opportunities enumerated above. 

For many rural counties these challenges are not new, but have existed for decades.  ERS’s recently released poverty geography demonstrates the longstanding challenges facing many portions of rural America, including the 340 persistent poverty rural counties.  

So what can be done in the face of such a difficult landscape?

There are 3,068 counties and they all are seeking to meet these challenges in unique ways.  Many are implementing improved service-delivery models, partnering and consolidating, and finding opportunities for new approaches toward revenue generation and spending.

As a representative for rural counties in Washington, DC my members are asking me to focus on three main items at the federal policy level.  First, we are educating members of Congress and the Administration about the key federal investments and commitments that are critical to serving rural America and investing in its potential.  This includes maintaining funding for transportation and aviation infrastructure, rural development programs, rural health funding including Medicaid and historic federal commitments to counties with public lands through Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools. See link to NACo’s Rural Action Caucus Priorities.

Right now the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is making decisions that will impact rural counties for decades to come.  NACo is advocating for a balanced approach.  All expenditures should be considered, including defense, foreign aid and federal entitlement reform, along with other domestic spending. Additionally, revenue enhancements should not be left "off the table".  Although reducing discretionary domestic spending is part of the answer, it cannot -- and should not -- be the only sector that is considered.  See NACo’s recommendations to the committee.

Second, NACo’s rural members are advocating for increased flexibility to collaborate within their region to deliver services and promote economic development.  A major weakness of many federal rural economic development programs is that they are not structured to serve rural regions.  The NACo led Campaign for a Renewed Rural Development is working to reorient and improve USDA Rural Development programs through the Farm Bill process so that the agency has greater flexibility to encourage the local and regional partnerships that are currently encouraging innovation in rural regions across the country.  The Campaign’s Farm Bill principles were released in September.

Lastly, NACo’s Rural Action Caucus is strengthening its focus on advocating for relief from unfunded federal mandates.  Unfunded federal mandates burden rural taxpayers and counties with significant costs.  These mandates are especially burdensome in the current economic climate and can range from overly burdensome financial reporting requirements for small rural grants to proposed environmental regulations that threaten to force counties to obtain permits to clean county owned ditches.

Local government is often the forgotten form of government.  Like me, before my introduction to the world of counties, most rural citizens do not think about the critical role that their rural public servants play in creating a thriving place.  The current challenges facing rural local governments require more rural people to look under the hood and be part of the solution to the challenges facing their community.  As a rural advocate, I ask you to also communicate to your state and federal legislators the critical need for the federal government and states to maintain a strong partnership with rural counties, cities and towns.  Passing all problems down to the local level is not a solution for America, rural or urban.

Monday, October 31, 2011

How are Rural and Urban Linked?

By Brian Dabson, Director, Rural Futures Lab

Much of what passes for policy discussion around place-based strategies tends to emphasize the differences between urban and rural, often to the detriment of rural people and places.  To a great extent this is the result of the unsatisfactory way urban and rural places are defined, as described in Kathy Miller’s blog, The Quandary of Defining Rural (September 12, 2011).  It is also an outcome of a general lack of awareness of the contribution that rural America makes to the overall prosperity and well-being of the nation as a whole. 

A potentially fruitful way of reframing the discussion is to focus on the linkages between urban and rural people and places to better understand the nature and strength of their interdependence.  This was one of the important topics for discussion at the recent Rural Wealth Creation and Livelihoods conference in Washington DC sponsored by the Economic Research Service and the Ford Foundation.  The particular mechanisms favored by Ford for exploring these linkages are value chains. These, as defined by USAID, refer to the full range of activities and services that are required to bring a product or service from its inception to sale in its final markets, whether local, national or global.  They include input suppliers, producers, processors and buyers and are supported by a range of technical, business and financial providers. 

US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack
at the Rural Wealth Creation and Livelihoods Conference

Analyzing value chains helps to focus on the linkages and relationships among firms, on where power is exercised, and on where different links are located – urban, rural, or suburban.  When at the depth of the Great Recession the auto industry began to retrench, the impacts were not just felt in the Detroit region but also along complex chains of suppliers and retailers that extended into small towns across the rural Midwest and beyond.  There, small manufacturers and service operations experienced first-hand the strength of urban-rural linkages and who controlled the value chain. 

There is much scholarly work underway across the world dedicated to better understanding rural-urban linkages, particularly in the context of rapid urbanization.  In the US the focus has been on industrial and employment clusters and on the economic benefits of agglomeration in growing city regions. 

The Rural Futures Lab is currently working with the Ford Foundation-supported Wealth Creation in Rural Communities initiative on a series of case studies of rural-urban linkages and their impact on rural wealth creation.  We are studying linkages in wind energy in Texas, food systems on the Gulf Coast, bio-manufacturing in Nebraska, and forestry and forest products in Oregon, to better understand the spatial dimensions of linkages within these value chains.  Of particular interest to the initiative will be the extent to which it is possible to measure the impacts of these value chains on the accumulation or depletion of capital – whether individual, social, intellectual, natural, built, political or financial – in rural regions and communities.

If you have insights, studies, and initiatives that you think would enrich our study, please share them with us.  We would very much like to hear from you.

To visit Rural Futures, Lab click here

Monday, October 17, 2011

Are Rural Communities Ready for Energy Transitions?

By David Kay, Senior Extension Associate, Community & Regional Development Institute (CaRDI) in the Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University

I have become increasingly concerned about the changes facing rural communities as our country comes to terms with its dependence on cheap oil. My experiences in community and land use planning in my hometown and my research/extension roles at Cornell University have combined to focus my attention on how a volatile energy economy is likely to magnify instability, for both better and worse, in rural places.

Allow me to develop an imperfect but personally significant metaphor. For me this detour is most relevant because it underscores the roles of information and knowledge, collective planning, and action.

When I was a teenager I had the good fortune to spend two years at a splendidly isolated rural high school near a village in Wales called Llantwit Major. This part of Wales abuts the Bristol Channel, which can experience a thirty foot vertical difference between high and low water – the second largest change of tide in the world. Within a matter of hours, vast expanses of beach can be deeply submerged under fast moving currents.

Bristol Channel

Of course, most adults understand the tides and have learned how to work with them. Ships often harness the current to their advantage. Nevertheless, extraordinary factors ranging from storm surges to unusual tidal confluences and tsunamis can doom the unlucky. In 1607, thousands of unfortunates drowned in a singular tidal flood: villages vanished, farmland was engulfed, and livestock devastated.

So what’s the intended metaphor? I want to draw attention to the pace and scale of rural change in relation to coming energy transitions. Some of this change will be regular (even if large), like the daily tides. However, from the perspective of individual communities especially, some changes will involve extraordinary surges and retreats, like the floods. Communities that are paying attention and can come together to plan ahead will be able to better adapt to an amplified pace and scale of change. Unprepared communities will be at the mercy of the economic tides.

A paper we wrote recently for the RUPRI Rural Futures Lab explores the likely implications for rural America of a transition away from cheap oil. We suggest that rural places will experience unique pressures because:

·         Wind, biomass, most solar & other renewable resources are especially abundant in rural places.
·         Different kinds of energy resources (renewable and fossil fuels) are distributed widely but unevenly across the rural countryside.           
·         Renewable energy tends to require a great deal of land per unit of energy produced, and several sources require a good deal of water, too.
·         To reach urban markets, massive new infrastructure projects will likely cut through rural corridors to connect urban populations with the energy sourced in rural places.
·         The well-being of rural places depends greatly on the cost of moving goods, services, and people around.

In that paper, we argue that the pace and scale of the shift to a new energy economy will be of critical importance. Many factors constrain rapid change. These include political will, consumer habits, and the complex nature of energy and climate systems themselves. Yet rural residents who have seen factories and mines close, farms consolidate, or oil and gas fields expand know that technology, trade agreements, market forces, environmental concerns, and more can trigger rapid and large scale community change.

Figure 1: Historical changes in fuel dominance

Recent work evaluating the impact of drilling for natural gas in vast shale reservoirs calls attention to the ways pace and scale matter at the community level. Will the impacts of 400 wells projected for eventual development in a single county be the same if they happen over 10, 25, or 50 years? What if it is actually 4,000 wells rather than 400? What about a similar calculus for wind turbines: 140 in five years? 500 in 10?

We already know from history that pace and scale make a difference. Natural resource driven boom and bust economies have left a deep imprint on much of rural America. On the boom side, demand for labor and housing can rise quickly. Rents and wages can skyrocket. Jobs are created, some well paid. Farmers and other landowners can earn large rents. Fortunes are made. Given time, markets adjust, governments adjust, and residents have a reasonable chance of adjusting constructively to new conditions. A certain kind of American dream can be realized.

But there are also downsides to the boom. When changes are too fast and too large, systems break down.  Local workforces may be inadequate to meet demand. Newcomers can outnumber longtime residents, and local people and businesses can be displaced or gentrified. Schools may be overwhelmed, and crime and congestion can increase. Government can’t keep up with permit and inspection requirements, and the environment is often scarred.  Later, overbuilt communities grasp for resources as jobs disappear, buildings stand empty, the community is hollowed out, and the remaining citizens pay more for less. There are few winners in this phase.

We know a lot about the pros and cons of boom and bust in rural economies. But we still lack a practical, policy relevant understanding of the rates and types of change that can be integrated well by existing communities, and when enough becomes too much.

Like many educational institutions in rural areas, my school in Wales provided services to the surrounding community, including emergency rescue services for 20 miles of coastline. We trained diligently, working with surrounding communities to integrate the information and collective planning we would need to take effective action. When the claxon sounded, we were on call to save the lives of the ill informed, the inattentive, and the poorly prepared.

The emergency rescue team

Communities facing rapid change will have no rescue services waiting for the siren’s wail when the waters of energy driven change rise and fall. Ideally, they will figure out how to move out of the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) tidal surge zones and flood plains ahead of time. To do so, they will have to look ahead and try to understand their roles in a higher cost energy economy. Those who do best will adopt appropriate land use, housing, planning, schooling, regulatory, and capital management strategies that anticipate and can adapt to change.

The magnitude of the challenge is large, and capacity to anticipate and respond is increasingly limited. Institutions and government at all levels, not least land grant universities like my own, must help “lift all boats” by working with communities to develop the information, expertise, and community capacity building that provide the foundation for effective action.

What are the likely opportunities and concerns a changing energy landscape might bring to your community? Have community leaders planned for or even thought about this issue at all? What pace and scale of change would be manageable? What might overwhelm and transform your community altogether?

David Kay, a Senior Extension Associate with Community & Regional Development Institute (CaRDI), was trained as an economist, works in the Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University, and focuses on land use planning and community/economic development issues.  He grew up in California’s burgeoning Silicon Valley  but settled in Ithaca, New York, after graduate school, not least because of his growing  appreciation of  the small city’s uniquely combined scale of community and pace of life.

Visit the RUPRI Rural Futures Lab here.

Images provided by the author.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Making Connections for Effective Rural Philanthropy

By Racheal Stuart, Senior Program Director, Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation

When I’m trying to figure out a particularly sticky community issue in my work on behalf of the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund, I stop by Paul Grenier’s garage on the East Side of Berlin, New Hampshire. Paul can be found there on most Sundays, rebuilding vintage Harley Davidsons. He is the Mayor of Berlin, a city of about 10,000 people in Coös County. He is also a Coös County Commissioner—all this while he holds down a full-time job at an automobile dealership.

Paul is a dedicated and persuasive leader in a region that is going through intense community and economic transformation. I count on him for the “unvarnished truth”—not that I always agree with him, but I know I’ll hear an important perspective as well as a get a good hearing of my own. The last time I stopped by Paul Grenier’s garage we discussed the tension between addressing urgent, critical needs and investments that will not pay off for years, maybe even generations. Paul remarked, “If the region takes another body blow, we might not have a future worth investing in.”

Paul recognizes the challenges of his home place. Coös County is physically isolated from the rest of New Hampshire by the Northern Presidential range of the White Mountains. The region has a multi-generational history of large paper mills as the principle employer and a legacy of civic leadership characterized by benevolence, strong local ties and community loyalty. According to research by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, Coös is undergoing a major transformation from a resource-dependent manufacturing economy to a future that is still being defined.

Photo: Coös County in late fall.

Building Social Capital and Leadership

My connection with Paul reflects the philosophy and approach of the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the NH Charitable Foundation, a provider of philanthropic capital in the region. We believe in order to be successful our work must be jointly owned and led by people on the ground, and that we are at our most effective when we are in true partnerships with community leaders.

There is an ongoing need for more bridging between communities and sectors, and between long-time community leaders and economic development professionals in the nonprofit sector. To address this need, the Tillotson Fund uses multiple methods to strengthen and expand social capital – feelings of trust and reciprocity – across the region:

  • We insist on local staff with real ties to the community, reflecting the philosophy of Neil Tillotson, whose generosity created the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund. Mr. Tillotson believed we should personally know the people who are affected by our decisions.
  • We engage existing and emerging leaders in the region in all levels of governance and decision making to build a pipeline of leadership for the Fund itself.
  • We operate as a social capital broker, using several programs to strengthen “bridging social capital” across communities and sectors, and among those inside and outside of the region.

Photo: Coös Symposium participants, a group of leaders from around the region.

Image: A network diagram depicting the many ties among Coös Symposium participants.

Decisions being made by today’s leaders will determine if Coös County heads toward a vibrant future or persistent poverty. Yet there are promising signs that our work together is paying off.  New Carsey Institute research and our own network analysis suggest that the Tillotson Fund’s work to strengthen social capital has had a positive impact on efforts to advance regional economic initiatives. After years of tireless effort by nonprofit leaders, elected officials, and state and local agencies, Coös County is holding its own and moving forward: 

  • re-opening of a major manufacturing plant,
  • ground-breaking on a key renewable energy project, and
  • experiencing an uptick in tourism revenue for the first time in years. 

There is no doubt we have a ways to go in Coös County, but these are good signs that our leadership is up to the task! I have hope that our work together will pay off for generations to come.

What is your community’s experience with philanthropic organizations? How are you developing strong local leaders and a sense of trust in your rural region?

Racheal Stuart lives and works in the Coös County, New Hampshire. She enjoys biking and hiking in the White Mountains when she’s not building bridges of trust for her work with the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund.

Visit the Rural Futures Lab website here.

Photo and images supplied by author.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Three Stories that Changed How I Understand the Importance of Rural America

By Alan Okagaki, Senior Fellow, Rural Futures Lab

After casting about in the community development world for the last 25 years with CFED and ShoreBank Corporation and as an independent planning and evaluation consultant, I was looking for something fresh, new and promising.  Around that time, Brian Dabson recruited me to be part of the Rural Futures Lab.  As he explained his thoughts about the Lab, I found myself getting excited about this new project in a way I hadn’t in years.  In this blog, I’m going to relate three stories which suggest what I think is at stake for rural America and why the Lab is so important. 
The first story is an Associated Press article released July 28, 2011, that ran with the headline “Rural America is disappearing; population share hits low.” It reports that the share of the United States population living in rural areas had fallen from 20% in the 2000 census to only 16% in the 2010 census.  It cites demographers who predict that “by midcentury, city boundaries (will) become indistinct and rural areas grow ever less relevant. Many communities could shrink to virtual ghost towns as they shutter businesses and close down schools.”  My perception is that this negative viewpoint is becoming increasingly prevalent among policy makers and the general public – or at least those people who spend much time thinking about rural America.  Metropolitan areas are seen as the centers of economic strength, innovation, and growth; they are the future.  Rural areas are perceived, at best, as along for the ride and, at worst, as a drag on economic growth and a cost sink for social services, transfer payments, and public subsidy. 
The second story is the report entitled Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World (2008) written by the National Intelligence Council.  It highlights a set of global trends that have huge implications for rural America.  According to this report, global population will grow by 1.2 billion people by 2025, putting pressure on energy, food, and water resources.  Demand will outstrip supply.  The World Bank project that demand for food will increase by 30% by 2030, putting even more stress on land and water resources.  Climate change is accepted as a given: the pace at which it occurs and the places it affects most will define winners and losers.  The report anticipates that agricultural losses will mount.   One major question is whether an energy transition away from oil and gas will be completed by 2025.   The report believes that all current technologies are inadequate for replacing the traditional energy architecture on the scale needed.  In sum, resources will become an increasingly prominent part of the transnational agenda and will have significant security and geopolitical implications.
My take-away from the Global Trends report is that rural areas and the assets and services they provide will become more and more important in the future.  As clean water becomes scarcer, rural watersheds and groundwater will become more valuable.  As world demand for food grows, productive agricultural lands are precious.   London, New York, and Hong Kong may be the largest global financial centers, but they are not going to be centers for carbon sequestration.  And we are already seeing the contributions that rural areas are making towards renewable energy.    
My third story goes back to 1971 and to the state of Montana where I’ve lived most of the last 30 years.  The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released the North Central Power Study, which called for building 42 coal-burning power plants in the Northern Great Plains.  It portrayed eastern Montana as a “national sacrifice area” for energy production.  The plan would have devastated farming and ranching communities – massive strip mining, depletion of scarce water resources, air pollution, high power transmission lines.  Not surprisingly, the North Central Power Study helped catalyze the creation of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a state-wide coalition of ranchers, farmers and environmentalists committed to protecting water quality, family farms and ranches, and rural ways of life.  Northern Plains continues to this day, with nine local chapters each concerned with a set of local issues.  The intent of these rural advocates is not necessarily to stop resource development but to ensure that development be done responsibly and respects their communities and the land.
The first two stories suggest a paradox: rural resources and assets are becoming increasingly important at a time when rural areas are depopulating and falling off the public radar screen.  One can make a plausible argument that our long-term economic competitiveness will be contingent on protecting and making highly productive use of our rural resources which in turn will enhance our geopolitical positioning.  The third story begs a series of questions about the relationship between rural people and rural landscapes, between rural communities and major economic interests, and about the abilities of rural communities to control their destinies. 
There is no question that rural America will be subject to major changes over the next 20 or 30 years.  Articulating how these different factors can play out in the future– the economic utilization and conservation of rural resources, the relationships between urban markets and rural areas, the roles that rural communities play in shaping their economies, landscapes and lives – is the major task of the Rural Futures Lab.  This is an exciting and significant endeavor.      

What do you think are the best ways to change the negative narrative about the future of rural America? How does your rural area contribute to national prosperity? Do you feel that your community or region is in control of its destiny?

Alan Okagaki is Senior Advisor for Growth and Impact Strategies at Enterprise Cascadia (a community development financial institution serving Oregon and Washington) and Senior Fellow with the Rural Futures Lab. He recently moved to Seattle for his work with Enterprise Cascadia, but his heart remains in Montana where he lived in a rural community for 30 years.

Visit the Rural Futures Lab website here.

Photo credits: Street scene, Cornfield

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Quandary of Defining Rural

By Kathy Miller, RUPRI Program Director

What is rural? It sounds like a simple question, but ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 answers. Worse, ask 10 policymakers and you’re likely to get 20 answers. What makes this such a contentious and difficult dilemma? Largely, it falls to where the funds are – everyone wants a piece of an ever diminishing source of public funds for rural development.

Common rural definitions & their challenges

There are lots of ways that rural is defined for data-related purposes. The Census Bureau makes the official definitions of the words “urban” and “rural.” These are based on the population density of census blocks and block groups. Under these guidelines, urban areas have populations of 2,500 and higher, and anything not defined as urban is rural.

While the Census definitions are the official designations of rural and urban places, these pose significant problems for the purposes of targeting resources to rural areas. Many people argue that some “urban” places – such as small towns with as few as 2,500 people – are really more rural in character. But how do we agree on the appropriate threshold? Also, these areas are drawn for the purposes of statistical tabulations – there is no governmental jurisdiction that operates these census-defined areas. Furthermore, these are boundaries that are delineated only once per decade.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), recognizing these challenges, created the Core Based Statistical Area classification, designed to represent “functional regions” around urban areas. Counties are used as the basis of these areas. Counties are classified as:

·         Metropolitan, a county with a core urban area of population 50,000 or more plus surrounding counties linked through commuting ties;
·         Micropolitan, a county with a core urban area of population 10,000 to 49,999 plus surrounding counties linked through commuting ties; and
·         Noncore counties, the residual set of counties that don’t meet the criteria for metropolitan or micropolitan.

These OMB definitions are popular designations, and do indeed have strong merit. However, counties create a difficult geography to classify, particularly in the west where counties can be expansive. It is very difficult to classify a county as one thing – counties are not urban or rural, they are urban and rural. In fact, over half of all rural people actually reside in counties that are classified as metropolitan. And an image of the Grand Canyon, located in a metropolitan county, is often used to illustrate this challenge.

Thinking regionally

While it is absurd to call the Grand Canyon an urban area, this classification does have significant merit when considering more regional approaches to economic development. OMB does not intend for these designations to be utilized as strict delineations, but rather as functional regions. By definition, these areas contain a broad spectrum of territory, from the most urban to remote rural places.

Micropolitan areas in particular represent small cities and towns that act as important regional growth hubs for broad rural territory that surround them. We should not dismiss these designations because they are county based, but we should embrace these designations for their purpose, representing how regions interact and functions.

Most would agree that we rarely cross an invisible line where urban territory becomes rural territory – a drive outward from a central city will present a gradual change. Thus represents the problem. Rural and urban are a continuum – not discrete concepts. We are forcing a line in the sand when we create a firm definition of rural. The truth is, there will always be some place left just beyond the arbitrary line we draw.

The answer, then? Ultimately, there isn’t one – nor will there ever be. But in an area of declining public resources and monumental challenges, we need to worry less about who is rural and who isn’t – for these places are no more isolated in reality than the definitions try to make them. Communities need to recognize, and welcome, the interrelationships with surrounding areas and learn to function as regions.

How do you define “rural”? What is your community's experience with various qualifying criteria for rural programs? How do you define the region where you live? 

Kathy Miller is the Program Director for RUPRI. When she’s not wrestling with rural data issues, she raises chickens, turkeys, and cows with the help of her two girls and husband in Blackwater, Missouri. Contact her at

Visit the Rural Futures Lab at our website.

Monday, August 29, 2011

How Does Youth Engagement Support Rural Economic Development?

By Craig Schroeder, Director of Youth Engagement, RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship

From my work with entrepreneurial rural communities across the country, I'm convinced that youth are essential to real and lasting economic revitalization. Young people add much more than just numbers to a community:
  • Many young people are entrepreneurial by nature with lots of energy. They start new businesses, and with the support of their community can transition existing businesses to the next generation. 
  • Young adults who move to your community are often well-educated, technology-oriented, and possess a variety of experiences, fresh ideas, and contacts that can be leveraged in a variety of ways to advance community and economic development.
  • Young families purchase many goods and services that benefit local businesses, and they support local schools, libraries, and health care services.
  • They build new or renovate properties to provide homes for their families, positively impacting the appearance of your community, property values and local tax revenues.

Here are just three examples of how investing in youth engagement can positively impact rural economic development:
  • Youth can be the spark of entrepreneurial energy that communities need to get on their feet and forge ahead, renewing optimism among adults as well. An example is an entrepreneurship program that encourages youth and young adults to start new businesses with the support of their community. In David City, Nebraska, an investment by the local community foundation in an entrepreneurship education curriculum several years ago resulted in a robust program for middle school to high school age students to develop their business ideas with the encouragement of the community. At the conclusion of a recent middle school entrepreneurship camp, I asked the participants how their experiences had impacted their views about staying or returning to their hometown in the future. Without hesitation, a 5th grade student responded, "You know, before this camp I didn't see many job opportunities here, but now I see a whole bunch of business opportunities!"
  • Many young people have technology savvy, which can be a tremendous resource for helping existing businesses compete more effectively in our increasing networked economy. Or, they may start new businesses that use technology as a backbone for bringing new wealth and jobs to their community.
  • For each alum a community attracts home, the actual impact on population is an increase of not one, but potentially three or more, as these young adults get married and have, on average, two children, as reflected in U.S. Census data.  I have met many young couples in my travels where one spouse was from the local rural area and married a total newcomer. They moved back to begin their family where they felt safe with good schools for their children.

Yet despite these tangible benefits, sometimes it is difficult to get decision makers to invest in youth engagement as an economic development priority. Their response is often, "We need to create jobs now!" I understand this perspective in the current economic climate, but I would argue that youth engagement is a strategy that can complement traditional economic development activities in addressing the real and systemic challenges many rural communities have faced for many years: out-migration, depopulation, and economic decline.

Youth engagement is a long-term strategy, but it can also result in short-term outcomes that build momentum in your hometown. One important tool we use to help local leaders understand the potential youth hold for their community is an assessment of youth perspectives about their hometowns, future education and career goals, and their desire to stay or return to their hometown. An outcome that often surprises adults is just how many youth would like to live in their hometown if there were good career opportunities available. Recent Center surveys including over 25,000 middle-to-high-school-age youth found that 50% are open to staying or returning home in the future.

The good news is that our research also indicates that if just 5% to 15% more young people return home on a sustained basis, they can stabilize population loss due to outmigration, and help to revitalize their hometowns with their energy and entrepreneurial drive. This is due in large part to the 3:1 exponential impact young families have on population and their contributions to economic revitalization, noted previously.

The youth survey can also help in assessing your community's youth engagement opportunities. Once you have evidence that young people are interested in staying or returning home, and what is motivating this interest, you can then work with youth to pursue strategies that will have traction and make sense for your community.

There are many ways to engage young people in your hometown. Some examples include considering their opinions and needs on local issues, investing in youth-led community projects and adding youth representation to local leadership. By partnering with local schools, communities can expand youth engagement with investment in youth entrepreneurship education and preparation for specific career and business opportunities locally.

How do you work with youth in your community? What are the challenges and opportunities that you see?  What questions do you have about this approach to rural economic development?

To learn more about how the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship can assist you in working with young people and attracting them home, please contact Craig Schroeder at

Visit the RUPRI Rural Futures Lab here.