Small towns should help create those cool places that make a place special, like Ophelia's Cup in Olney, Illinois.

[imgcontainer] [img:Ophelia.jpg] [source]Mike_el Madrileño[/source] Small towns should help create those cool places that make a place special, like Ophelia’s Cup in Olney, Illinois. [/imgcontainer]

As we move beyond the winter of ’09 – a hard winter naturally and financially – what can we learn about discontent and hope in a rapidly changing economy?The realities of the current economic downturn are only beginning to settle in. The news has been bad, but then perhaps many rural communities are up for the struggle to survive in our turbulent times, which some, according to the Washington Post, are calling “deglobalization.”

Deglobalization is a misnomer. In reality, we going through a process of reglobalization — a rearrangement of economic, political, geographic, and ecological relationships that offers rural people thhe opportunity to find a new place in what surely will be a changed world.

This seems a far-fetched statement, but it is one of my take-homes from the twentieth annual Rural Community and Economic Development Conference organized by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. Conference attendees were deeply concerned about our current predicament. They were seeing the negative impacts in their communities.

Yet, the buzz was incredible and came from people across party lines and different professional and personal perspectives.President Obama’s stimulus package was on all of our minds. We were all trying to digest what’s in it, but local officials reported that parts of the stimulus were moving forward quickly, especially in the area of infrastructure construction.

Many people seemed concerned about the pace of the rollout, worried that their communities might not be ready to take advantage of the funds available right now. Yet, they do recognize that the timetable will offer future opportunities. The clear lesson here is that rural government officials who engaged in planning and maintained close relationships with state and federal legislators had a head start in the race for the dollars.

Rural communities have had more than a generation to adapt to hard times, offering credence to the conference theme, “Promoting a Rural Renaissance.” Communities have developed many tools to overcome the not-so-benign neglect of the old global economy. They are conditioned to fighting for their survival. They are building for the future. And they are willing to share their ideas with other communities.

Some of the tools useful to rural places mentioned at the conference include:

Community foundations that capture wealth to be used to fund current and future initiatives.

Rural broadband that helps support communities’ information and business needs.

Entrepreneurship programs that develop community support for starting and retaining businesses that can fill both the town’s needs and bring in dollars from elsewhere.

Having a vision for a town and region.

Including young people in community decisions and projects. 

Thinking creatively to find the money for projects considered too expensive for many small places;

Downtown redevelopment that uses a community’s architectural assets to build a social and entertainment center for local residents and tourists.

Developing business succession plans to help small firm owners pass their operations on to the next generation.

Realizing that  health care facilities are a community amenity as well as a seedbed for entrepreneurs.

Reglobalization appears to be more than a passing phase, although the outcomes are incredibly uncertain. People have good reason to be fearful.

But there is hope. At the moment, hope seems to be presiding over discontent. Many rural towns are already working hard to make themselves “world class,” even if they are not at the center of the global economy. 

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

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