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Students walk across the street in rural America
Photo by Craig Chandler, Director of Photography, Office of University Communication at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln

After generations of disinvestment, rural America might be the most innovative place in the U.S.

Rural leaders, governments, and philanthropic funders who aren’t afraid to break with long-standing assumptions about the inevitability of rural decline can leverage the potential, talent, and innovative spirit of rural America to build the new Heartland.

Uncommon
Voices

Stop trying to save Rural America.

Efforts to write it off as “disappearing” are complicated by the 60 million Americans who call a rural community home.

We must recognize that innovation, diversity of ideas and people, and new concepts don’t need to be imported to rural communities – they’re already there. Rural entrepreneurs and community leaders have always, by necessity, been innovative.

Rural communities have faced some harsh realities in the last generation: they’ve seen manufacturing move overseas, farming monopolized by big outfits with only 5% of rural residents working in agriculture, generational migration to bigger cities, school consolidation, and the absence of basic community resources such as health care and broadband, and, more recently, threats to the lifeline that is the U.S. Postal Service. This, and the pandemic.

COVID-19 has not just exposed the challenges faced in rural America; it has made plain that there is no longer comfort in believing there is time to find eventual solutions. Rural leaders, entrepreneurs, and communities must now move with urgency to implement the solutions they have long understood to be necessary: Rebuild critical systems pushed to their limits through years of under-investment.

Innovation, diversity of ideas and people, and new concepts don’t need to be imported to rural communities – they’re already there. Rural entrepreneurs and community leaders have always, by necessity, been innovative.

This is an opportunity for rural leaders, governments, and philanthropic funders who aren’t afraid to break with long-standing assumptions about the inevitability of rural decline. The challenges that existed before COVID-19 are highly visible in times of emergency. They will continue after the pandemic, but for how long is contingent on the response to this demonstration of the cost of broken systems and inequitable practices.

The things we always said we should do someday – rural broadband, healthcare, and entrepreneurship support, addressing food and news deserts, providing childcare, and developing capital alternatives to banks – have quickly become the things we should have done yesterday.

Rather than defining rural communities by the progress that is believed to have stopped, we can instead choose to define them by the progress they’ve made despite massive disinvestment and, perhaps, by the progress they could make if they had the support.

Trust the new narrative

For anybody seeking to support rural America, and potentially diminish the civic and economic divide, offer trust in the capacity of rural people and listen to new narratives.

Commentary on rural communities has long reinforced perspectives, sometimes explicitly and at times implicitly, that rural decline is inevitable. The popular understanding of this decline follows a familiar script: previous generations age and die off, new generations move to tech-hub cities across the country, and the declining monochromatic economies and demographics left in their wake provide little motivation for residents to move back or new ones to consider their future there.

Rather than defining rural communities by the progress that is believed to have stopped, we can instead choose to define them by the progress they’ve made despite massive disinvestment and, perhaps, by the progress they could make if they had the support.

Ideas and commentary about rural communities are shaped by the problems such places pose; portrayed as an inefficient drag on resources and national priorities. A 2018 New York Times opinion piece epitomized this when they asked “What if nothing really works?” Recognizing that applying the usual, unimaginative economic remedies to rural people hasn’t worked and isn’t likely to do so in the future, they suggest to reform housing policies in New York and San Francisco in order to accept fleeing rural residents. Escape is the solution that economists offer when they throw up their hands, and is perpetuated by popular stories such as Hillbilly Elegy. All of it missing the critical political, demographic, and economic nuances that reveal a more complicated story – as well as the compelling pull of rural spaces in a post-pandemic America. In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that more urban (30%) and suburban (35%) residents are interested in moving to a rural community than rural residents (20%) are interested in moving to an urban community, an increasingly possible trend in light of this year.

Viewing rural spaces as an American relic of a disappearing world ignores the innovative spirit that made these diverse communities vibrant in the first place. That innovation and diversity remains key to the future of rural communities.

It is time for policy makers and well-intentioned funders alike to consider that the usual series of rural-revitalization efforts miss the mark because it centers on what others can bring to the table as the key to rural America’s future rather than the capabilities of the innovators and leaders already working hard in rural communities across the country. What they can provide are resources that enable the innovators already there to make progress on work they already know needs to be done.

What’s left?

It’s not surprising that with a dismissive narrative and a steady multi-decade increase in rural zip codes deemed economically “distressed” that some leaders eventually start to ask, “what’s left?”

Larger businesses eliminate just as many jobs as they create. Nowhere is this cycle more familiar than in rural communities where the departure of a large employer is often interpreted as a commentary on the viability of the entire town.

Fortunately, what’s left is a creative and innovative population of rural entrepreneurs, but it’s important to critically analyze how these rural entrepreneurs and communities have been supported – or harmed – by past decisions and how we can do better as we move forward from the pandemic.

The common “solutions” that consistently fail do so because, at best, they fail to build anything of value in the community and, at worst, they dismiss the value already inherent in the community. They include business recruitment predicated on incentives that chip away at the tax base and limit a rural community’s ability to make long-term civic and infrastructure investments. And, far too often, rural communities pair the perennial claim of a cheaper cost of living with tax incentives that cost the community more than the recruited company thinks their worth.

Research indicates that nearly all net new job creation comes from new and young firms. Larger businesses eliminate just as many jobs as they create. Nowhere is this cycle more familiar than in rural communities where the departure of a large employer is often interpreted as a commentary on the viability of the entire town. Coffeyville, Kansas, experienced the full brunt of this cycle as it invested valuable resources during two decades in attracting an Amazon distribution center and then invested even more in desperately trying to keep it there.

Yet, just as a large employer leaving a town can be a frightening prospect, so too can the employer that stays. Dollar General and similar stores have proliferated across rural America. Nearly all of them brought to town by the lack of similar services and usually facilitated by some mix of tax and utility incentives offered by the local government.

They’re the local manifestation of the trends started by Walmart, refined by Amazon, and now perfected; local competitors pushed out of the market, often with local government support, and a poor imitation left in their place.

It’s not that locally owned grocers and retailers aren’t viable in rural communities, it’s just that they don’t face a level playing field.Those valuable and hard-earned community resources that could be used in support of local entrepreneurs are instead being co-opted by companies like Dollar General.

Every brightly lit corporate store on the edge of town is a monument to a system that does not build community or advance a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Every local financial incentive offered to a corporate store represents a choice – to undervalue the potential of the entrepreneurs in a community and overestimate what the recruited company will bring.The years spent chasing big business can never be recovered by the community; they’ll always feel the cost of what they didn’t do while they spent millions of tax dollars pursuing “their Amazon.” And while the cost may be measured in the tax dollars spent and lost, it should also be measured in the number of potential entrepreneurs that could have benefitted from a similar investment from their local leaders.

Every brightly lit corporate store on the edge of town is a monument to a system that does not build community or advance a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem. How many ideas were left unpursued when a loan guarantee from the county could have made the difference, an empty building could have been subsidized for their use, flexible capital options could have been developed, or a local mentoring program could have helped them consider the viability of their entrepreneurial goals?

What’s left is every dark, abandoned building downtown – and what it could still be.

Build, don’t buy

Travel any rural region in this country and you will find communities that have opted for a different approach. In communities like Ord, Nebraska, and the small, rural town of Emporia, Kansas, innovative rural leaders hint at a simpler answer to the common question of how to save rural America.

Their examples tell us to build, don’t buy. Build your people and your entrepreneurs. Embrace your artists and build up your capacity for leadership.

In Emporia, they invested in their local entrepreneurs and infrastructure during the course of nearly 30 years. They have leveraged an active Main Street America program to develop capital options customized for entrepreneurs as well as technical support for prospective entrepreneurs. This approach, paired with support for the arts and collaboration with statewide and regional entrepreneurship support organizations, has equipped Emporia to weather the loss of major employers and grow its economic base.

How to save rural America… Build, don’t buy. Build your people and your entrepreneurs. Embrace your artists and build up your capacity for leadership.

Ord invested the last two decades in building an entrepreneurial ecosystem that matches appropriate capital options to the entrepreneurs that need it and provides leadership classes and mentoring across the community. The case study that outlines Ord’s efforts shows that the county Ord resides in, Valley County, went from losing 27% of its population in the 1970-80s to approximately 10% in the early 2000s, to about 1% in the last 10 years. That is an outstanding improvement that sets them apart in the region.

Traveling to Ord, you’ll still find the ubiquitous Dollar General and the Casey’s but because of their long-term investments, you’ll also find a thriving entrepreneurial community where an empty building isn’t a marker of loss – all conversation, instead, turns to what kind of entrepreneur will reinvent the space.

Ord and Emporia don’t tell us these solutions are easy, in fact they’ll tell you how hard it is to stay the course. The biggest “disinvestment” made in rural is that of time – short-term solutions at the expense of tackling the big problems. Systemic challenges rarely change because the conversations required are often politically uncomfortable; lasting change takes too long and too much money to solve.

Share the risk to build the new Heartland

Cultivated by entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking, those who call the critical spaces outside of the country’s metropolitan cities home are creating prosperous, inclusive communities – and with investment, they’ll get there faster. The way forward must focus on urgently investing in the critical elements of the new rural economy starting with broadband, entrepreneurship, and empowering local leaders with the tools they need to realize critical systems change.

Visit any rural town in the Heartland and you will find a leader that is trying to accomplish everything from writing grants to upgrade an old CT scanner at their critical access hospital to fundraising for the community library to managing a local maker-space and trying to help entrepreneurs. Local leaders’ work is difficult and necessary. The voices calling for “business as usual” are loud. Yet, they are reinventing overlooked county seats and counter-acting prosaic perceptions of small-town life into the new Heartland.

It’s never been more evident than during this pandemic as local leaders and entrepreneurs have stepped up while traditional power brokers have failed to address urgent needs. Like the small town minister who started a simple Facebook group hoping to connect a few farmers with a few people trying to buy food safely in a pandemic. A few months later, nearly 150K people have joined the group and agricultural producers are experiencing spikes in sales. In rural communities across the Heartland, entrepreneurs and leaders with similarly powerful concepts are capable of building the future of their communities.

Rural entrepreneurs need the support of well-connected funders and national resources, and would benefit from the capacity that only philanthropy and state funders can provide, including grant-writing support, professional development, and funding.

Let’s not let them do that work alone.

They need the support of well-connected funders and national resources, and would benefit from the capacity that only philanthropic and state funders can provide, including grant-writing support, professional development, and funding. Those looking to provide support can connect them with like-minded leaders in other rural communities, create opportunity to collaborate with outside voices and experts, and facilitate conversation through trusted partners.

Let’s help carry the risk.

The Kauffman Foundation’s approach to supporting rural communities in the Heartland is based on the principles of supporting local leaders that are pursuing an entrepreneurship led economic model, listening to the input of all who currently or will call rural home, connecting local leaders with their peers across the region for greater collaboration, and leveraging our funding to accelerate the efforts of others.

We’re pushing back against tired narratives about a rural America that needs saving. We’ll continue to amplify diverse voices and catalyze the efforts of local leaders ready to build the new Heartland.

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