Fresh Perspectives in Community Development: Growing a Radiant and Vibrant Community in Rural America

Natriez Peterson

According to The World Bank, the rural population of the United States in 2012 was 17.38 percent of the country's total population. Most rural communities are faced with decline in growth, resources and opportunities. So, how do community leaders, organizations, bankers and government officials grow a radiant and vibrant rural community? This is a question that many may ponder, envisioning a rural community that is thriving on all cylinders. At some point during this visionary stage, we begin to compare the advantages and disadvantages in rural areas, including three components necessary for building a radiant and vibrant community: citizen awareness, opportunities and innovation.

Citizen Awareness

Citizen awareness is a crucial concept for the advancement of rural American communities. In a nutshell, awareness provides the opportunity to examine and understand the priorities, outcomes and strategies needed for growth. It essentially builds relationships within the community through effective engagement and dialogue. It can also be used as a teaching tool for small communities to recognize their position in the economy.

To understand a small community economy, it's important to understand how a dollar circulates through it. Most would agree that a rural community benefits the most when its residents are involved and helping local businesses thrive. Once people are involved, they tend to take ownership of their community and begin to understand the significance of reinvesting and preserving existing assets. Data can be used as a tool to perform gap analysis, asset mapping and assessments within rural communities. The results help community leaders to analyze current conditions, resources, local spending habits and areas of improvement in the region. Gaining a broader understanding of how current dollars are circulating helps create citizen awareness and growth.

Opportunities

What are the economic engines that drive local communities and create opportunities? In most but not all rural communities, these are the main industries that bring in the majority of money, including manufacturing, technology and agriculture. The economic engine is mainly current resources, industries or businesses that generate new opportunities or expand on current opportunities. When the economic engine is present and running efficiently, communities in rural America can expect a better school system, access to quality health care and more jobs.

These opportunities will increase the retention of young people in the region, while at the same time capitalizing on and building a stronger economy. Economic development is a sustainable process responsible for bringing and keeping wealth within the community. What is the likelihood of college graduates finding opportunities in the rural community where they grew up? Rarely likely; in fact, many have to relocate to find career opportunities. Economic opportunities driven by incentives can help by reinvesting young professionals within the community. For example, Kansas has established the Rural Opportunity Zone as an incentive for retaining young graduates. The goal of the Zone is to expand the population and create a stronger workforce through a student loan repayment program. Similar incentives and workforce development programs help attract more businesses and workers to rural areas.

Innovation

Emphasizing the importance of innovation in the community and economic development field is imperative. As we advance further into a digital age, it is important that rural communities desiring to be radiant and vibrant tap into innovation. We have seen a tremendous growth in the American economy due to innovation. Governance of innovation in a rural area requires local, state and federal partnership formation, creating a local environment that connects people to technology. A digitally connected community can create additional avenues for local businesses and entrepreneurs. Many studies, articles and publications have cited entrepreneurship as a strategy to solve many rural economic challenges. Implementation of research-based and educational programs that focus on entrepreneurship can spur new ideas, businesses and projects. Innovation has also shaped the rural health care system. As health problems continue to rise in small areas, providing telehealth and telemedicine technology can give rural patients better access to health care. It has been proven that innovation, technology and entrepreneurship within a rural community can spark the interest of outside investments.

Soliciting and retaining young professionals, creating a diverse environment and increasing workforce development are ways to keep wealth within the community. In rural communities where perceptions are replaced with actions, people begin to adopt an optimistic outlook. In the future, strengthening economic engines such as manufacturing, agriculture and technology will improve the overall process and development for rural communities. Citizen awareness, opportunities and innovation are vital components to growing more radiant and vibrant rural communities in America.

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