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Fresh from the annual Rural LISC Seminar last month in Washington, D.C., it’s clear to me that good things are happening in rural America. The theme that arose again and again throughout the week, in dozens of panels, talks and conversations, may seem like a moot point, but it continues to resonate and bears repeating: Connections are vital to rural community development.
Whether it’s building a relationship with a local banker or networking with housing practitioners in another county, personal and professional links may be the single most important element for rural community-based organizations working to change results in small towns. These relationships help rural community developers overcome obstacles—like distance, limited funding opportunities, and fewer technology and communications tools—that are not as pronounced for their urban colleagues.
That was the consensus of 250 of the country’s most innovative and passionate rural housing and community developers who attended the seminar. More than a third were first-time attendees, and many are new to the community development field: a sign of the growing concern around—and optimistic, new energy directed toward—rural poverty. Conversation shifted away from what’s going wrong in rural America to what’s being done right. Stakeholders focused on how to capitalize on their community’s assets as a way to unlock innovation, tackle challenges and restore stability.
Enormous resources are needed to heal rural communities, notably in the realm of affordable housing. The expiration of Rental Assistance in the Section 515 Rural Rental Housing Program was a primary topic, and participants began discussing a strategy for the preservation of that housing stock. Similarly, groups were able to share how best to improve the stock provided by manufactured housing.
We know well that where people live has a profound impact on their health and wellbeing. One panelist, a physician, sent that point home when she described housing as a vaccine against poor health and chronic diseases.
The topic of economic development was front and center, too, and panelists discussed examples of entrepreneurial and small business innovations from Louisiana, Arkansas, Michigan, Kentucky and South Dakota. Creative lending programs, using data to articulate challenges and define strategies, small business planning, counseling and training, and even using local partnerships with anchor institutions were offered up as ways to create jobs and growth.
Partnerships that bring rural assets to urban and suburban communities are a win for everyone. One industry that has been particularly successful for rural economic development, as well as for health outcomes, is the food business. Regional food systems, farm-to-market produce and even mobile businesses such as food pantries provide jobs, reduce food deserts and offer attractive options for small business development.
Equally exciting were stories of how creative placemaking is helping transform small towns. We heard from Tucker County, West Virginia, for example, where tourism-related businesses and festivals, quality schools that attract families, and the strong sense of community are bolstering the local economy.
Of course, what works in one community may not work for another. The challenge, participants agreed, is discerning how to share replicable aspects of a community’s success, while tailoring strategies to individual places elsewhere in the country.
The connections and relationships developed at the Rural LISC seminar inspire, strengthen and sustain us. Through networking, rural practitioners acquire new ideas, learn about resources and creative strategies they can use in their towns and receive help to overcome tough challenges.
As the conventional wisdom goes, we are all only six degrees of separation apart—regardless of geography. It all comes down to community: how neighbors help each other, how we invest in small towns and how we build upon relationships to help make rural America a better place for everyone.
Suzanne Anarde is Program Vice President of Rural LISC, the rural component of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).