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OPINION: The new approach to rural development

Economic development this century is different from the approach taken by most communities in the second half of the previous century. For the economic developers of the 20th century, growth was everything. In the South, the goal was to head north and land manufacturing plants. The key to economic development was to find that next big manufacturer for your community.

Economist Andrew Isserman, however, lists four measures of prosperity — good housing, jobs, low poverty and education. And these factors don’t always correlate directly to population growth.

A recent article by Bill Bishop titled “Finding Rural America’s Prosperous Communities” shed light on this subject. Bishop wrote, “When most of us discuss successful rural communities, we talk about growth — more people, more houses, higher incomes. More bodies and more stuff. Growth equals success in this equation, and the rural counties that we all try to emulate have booming populations and lots of housing starts. Rural communities that aren’t growing are, by this definition, failures.With this perspective, failure stretches across much of the rural United States. Andrew Isserman decided to use another measure for rural success. Instead of growth, Isserman, an economist at the University of Illinois, looked for which rural counties were prosperous. And by studying prosperity instead, he and research colleagues Edward Feser and Drake Warren found that the prosperous places in rural America weren’t the kinds of communities usually thought of as successful.”

In other words, they weren’t necessarily the fastest growing areas. Instead, the most prosperous counties tend to be those that:

• Graduate children from high school.
• Maintain low unemployment rates.
• Have housing stocks that are affordable and in good repair.

The most prosperous rural counties don’t always have interstate highways or other four-lane arteries running through them. They aren’t always tourist or retirement areas. Isserman is quick to assert that geography is not destiny.

According to Bishop, “Jobs make a difference. The prosperous counties have a more vigorous private sector with more jobs per capita and fewer transfer payments. … Prosperous rural communities have private-sector jobs, not government jobs. … Mostly prosperous rural counties keep their kids in school, Isserman wrote.

“Prosperous rural places have more places for people to meet (restaurants, bowling lanes, country clubs), and more people attend churches that are engaged in their communities. Prosperous rural places aren’t fast growing. As a matter of fact, they grow more slowly than do communities on average.”

As you can see, bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes better is better — a better system of public education, better jobs, better housing stocks. Though Indiana isn’t a part of the Delta Regional Authority, a framework for rural development that was designed by the Indiana lieutenant governor’s office and the Purdue Center for Regional Development offers lessons for the 240 counties and parishes we serve in Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. The report lists what are referred to as the “seven pillars” of rural economic development in the new century. These are:

1. Nurturing regional frameworks that include public, private, non-profit and academic sectors. Competition is no longer between one county and its adjoining counties. Regionalism is a necessary part of modern economic development.

2. Advancing civic leadership and engagement through leadership development programs and similar efforts.

3. Investing in community assets related to natural resources, history, the arts and cultural activities.

4. Promoting rural innovation.

5. Fostering youth engagement so they can help build rural areas in which they will wish to raise their families as adults.

6. Increasing wealth creation and retention by capturing emerging economic opportunities for rural areas.

7. Ensuring diversity, inclusiveness and access to basic human and social services.

We’re finalizing a strategic plan for our 240 counties and parishes. It incorporates many of these strategies. In the new world of economic development, it’s no longer about attracting that big industrial plant from the North. We must instead attract and retain entrepreneurial talent, attract and expand philanthropic capital, train our workforce in creative ways and deploy broadband to rural areas. It’s not just about growth. In this century, it’s all about quality of place.

Clarksdale’s Pete Johnson is the federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority. He was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001.

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