New research published recently by McKinsey, a management consulting firm specializing in corporations, governments and other entities, identified three key elements necessary for rural communities to thrive: sectors or tradeable industries, workforce, and community and connectivity.

According to the paper entitled “Rural rising: Economic development strategies for America’s heartland,” says rural economic development usually ties into one of these three areas. 

“We always talk about them in balance, because any strategy that focuses too much on one and ignores the other over time, will sort of get a little bit out of balance,” said Rachel Riley, associate partner in McKinsey’s Atlanta office, in an interview with The Daily Yonder. 

The research found that Rural America is not a monolith, so economic development structures will vary based on place. However, there are some overarching themes that emerged. Among those themes are big-push investment, embracing placemaking, developing tourism infrastructure, attracting and retaining small and medium-sized businesses, attracting remote workers, and increasing access to healthcare. 

Adi Kumar, senior partner at McKinsey’s Washington D.C. office, said in an interview that flexibility in work tends to be key and the focus for many employees right now. 

“I think that this in particular will have a large effect on, or could have a large effect, rather, on the nature of what it means to be able to live in rural America, while seeking employment opportunities that aren’t always in rural America and in those communities,” Kumar added. 

Already, many rural communities have offered incentive packages for remote workers. 

The paper noted that in the Shoals region of rural Northwest Alabama a program called Remote Shoals was launched in 2019 between the Shoals Chamber of Commerce and the Shoals Economic Development Authority. 

The program offers participants a stipend of up to $10,000 to move to the region and work remotely for at least 12 months. It received more than 200 applications from 33 states in 2019 and 500 applications in 2020. By March 2021, the total payroll of those in the program was $1.8 million.

A key to such work is reliable Broadband Internet access, Kumar said, something that is a focal point of the Biden Administration. 

“In order to successfully work remotely, you need to be able to have your work enabled remotely,” Kumar said. “And internet connectivity, obviously, is becoming a more and more important thing today. As you already know, we are seeing historic levels of funding and Broadband, which will have a real huge impact on rural America if done right.”

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