[imgcontainer left] [img:Sheila-with-banjo.jpeg] Sheila Simon is the Lt. Governor of Illinois. She recently finished a two-year effort to write a new rural development policy for the state. And she plays banjo in the band Loose Gravel. [/imgcontainer]

Illinois Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, whose responsibilities include working with residents of rural Illinois, recently completed a two-year process of learning about issues and opportunities in the state. 

In the coming months, her office will work with the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council (GRAC), which she s chairs, to implement the findings, according to the most recent GRAC report, Building the Foundation for a Robust Rural Development Policy

According to the lieutenant governor’s office, this is the most comprehensive analysis of rural issues since the state created the GRAC in 1989. The first phase of the process included a statewide poll of rural residents in 2010 and a series of six listening posts held across the state in 2012.

In 2010, the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at Western Illinois University conducted its Rural Life Poll, which surveyed the state’s residents in metro and nonmetro counties about their attitudes toward quality of life and economic issues and local and state government services. To complete the process, the GRAC, aided by IIRA staff, conducted the listening posts, during which Simon, members of her rural affairs staff, and GRAC members heard firsthand from rural leaders and citizens.

According to the  report, several themes emerged from both the survey and listening posts:

• Rural residents can find it difficult to understand and navigate state and federal government bureaucracies. In addition, they are often unaware of programs in place to address issues of concern.

• Rural areas need to work together to maintain their prosperity and quality of life. Regional collaboration offers ways to create cost effective and efficient solutions.

• Rural residents see the value of working together with existing services and programs in exploiting local assets.

• Rural residents recognize that rural places can be attractive for various reasons and see a need to market rural areas as good places to live, work, and do business.

• Rural residents believe access to affordable high-speed internet plays a key role in the future of health care, education, entrepreneurship, workforce development, access to entertainment, and in connecting rural areas to the global marketplace.

According to the report, the GRAC plans to form a work group to use the information already gathered to identify strategic priorities. Next, the work group will propose a Vision for Rural Illinois – a strategic vision, a set of goals, and an action plan for GRAC and its member agencies to consider and adopt. The action plan will include:

• A plan for expanding awareness of and access to state programs that serve rural areas;

• A report that identifies gaps between existing programs and services and the needs expressed at the rural listening posts;

• Recommendations to address the identified gaps; and

• A legislative agenda focused on rural needs, and a plan for implementing such an agenda.

The 25-member GRAC is made up of state agencies and organizations interested in rural Illinois. Its major tasks are to improve delivery of state services to rural Illinois and expand opportunities for rural residents to enhance their quality of life. 

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

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