Between Memphis and Nashville along the “Music Highway” (Interstate 40) rests the historic city of Jackson, Tenn. Like many larger towns between two major cities, Jackson serves as a regional hub for many of the smaller surrounding communities. The city is also the headquarters of the Southwest Tennessee Development District (SWTDD). Joe Barker is the director of the SWTDD and has been working on the issues facing rural areas throughout his career as a community and economic developer.
Rural America is facing many challenges in the changing economy, and many of those challenges are present in West Tennessee. Creating regional collaboration to work on issues such as population declines, low educational attainment and the shrinking of manufacturing jobs is no easy task. Barker has played various roles throughout his career as a community and economic developer—mayor of a small town, county mayor, state-level community and economic developer, and regional economic developer. Each role has its own challenges and opportunities, but each has also given Barker a unique perspective. I sat down with him to discuss how he views his role in economic development.
As mayor of the small community of Savannah, Tenn., Barker confesses that while elected officials may have a lot of enthusiasm for their communities, this passion isn’t always enough when trying to increase an area’s economic opportunities. Not every person or potential company shares that same passion. Infrastructure needs, proximity to other markets, available workforce and cost of property are just some of the factors a prospective company may be focused on. Elected officials must work beyond their sense of community pride.
Barker believes that educating mayors in many aspects of economic development is critical, but the mayor should not be the sole leader in this area. Resources in small towns may be limited, but it is important to have a professional economic developer who is focused on the long-term impact of community and economic development. Mayors are an essential part of the team, but as elected officials they work in four-year cycles. Barker says that programs such as the University of Tennessee’s County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) and Municipal Technical Assistance Service (MTAS), along with the state’s economic development basic course (through the International Economic Development Council) were very helpful in increasing his and other mayors’ knowledge of economic development.
Another issue that Barker said took a bit of time to realize is how to really identify and focus on a community’s assets. This helped him to shift some of the economic development focus from manufacturing recruitment in Savannah and Hardin County to a plan that was a better fit with their local assets (e.g., tourism). According to Barker, local elected officials often do not fully realize their community’s assets and opportunities because many communities also overlook them.
In the report, “Small Towns, Big Ideas,” the University of North Carolina found that “small towns with the most dramatic outcomes tend to be proactive and future-oriented; they embrace change and assume risk.” Barker agrees with this statement because he believes it is imperative that small towns think about creative economic development opportunities that may be different than past strategies, which may require some degree of risk. Once Barker fully realized how big of an asset tourism was to Savannah’s economy, he did something different than many people would do. He took a risk and called the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) to pitch bringing their championship football game to the city.
Savannah was successful in hosting the NAIA football championship for 12 years, and the city was mentioned on the front cover of Sports Illustrated. Hosting this game not only had an immediate impact on Savannah, but it was also a perfect fit with the small town’s other tourism assets, including the Tennessee River, Lake Pickwick and the nearby historic battlefield of Shiloh. Barker says, “It’s much more than a football game and national TV exposure. It’s about economic-development tourism and the experiences players and others have at the game. Outsiders who have a positive experience in Savannah may one day be in a position to bring jobs to the city or the surrounding region. Their positive experiences may lead to future economic opportunities.” Elected officials can be helpful when they are integrated appropriately into the economic development process and work with professionals to help develop the community’s assets.
Economic development challenges at the regional level may often be different than those in individual communities, such as getting local and elected officials from various communities to cooperate. Each community has its own characteristics and local pride that may create a difficult climate for regional collaboration. Barker says regional economic development can be very challenging, but collaboration is especially critical in rural communities because they are stronger working together as a whole. In most cases, more economic opportunities for rural areas exist at a regional level than at the local level.
The SWTDD works on regional collaboration by promoting education and workforce development, technology and online jobs that fit into rural areas, capacity building to build leadership throughout the region and working to promote entrepreneurship. Barker says that regional development works best when each community is willing to invest financially in the collaborative effort. There are a lot of entities recruiting manufacturing in West Tennessee, so Barker and the SWTDD have developed other types of economic development programs, such as digital factories that prepare workers for online jobs, college career coaches for high school students and entrepreneurship programs. They are currently working to create a business incubator.
Barker acknowledged that there is no template for rural and regional economic development because every area is different. But there are good examples of economic opportunities created in rural America (e.g., North Carolina and other areas focused on by the Appalachian Regional Commission). Barker believes there are three advantages that rural communities share. They have: 1) a sense of place, 2) people with a strong work ethic, and 3) strong social ties that could help to create more jobs in the future. To create more opportunities, Barker believes that rural communities need to better understand their assets and liabilities, direct resources to these strengths, and take advantage of regional economic development opportunities.
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