Thriving rural communities do development differently

Published 5:38 am Tuesday, November 26, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

To hear many people tell it, rural America is on the decline. Our towns and counties are shrinking as younger generations migrate en masse to urban areas. Big cities are where the future will happen.

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That’s the story we’ve been telling ourselves. But it’s not true.

In fact, rural America is, on average, growing. The country’s rural population has been steady or showing moderate growth for years. Yes, there are regions where the population is shrinking. But there are also regions where the rural lifestyle is thriving.

A new report on “rural development hubs” from The Aspen Institute’s Community Strategies Group attempts to pinpoint what makes some of these thriving rural communities so successful and why. The report is full of valuable lessons for every rural community in America.

The report’s authors interviewed leaders in 43 communities they identified as rural development hubs. Hubs are finding success by breaking away from normal economic development models.

“Rural development hubs are full of the creative adaptation and ingenuity critical to doing the hard work of rebuilding economies and communities for the 21st century. Rural hubs are also full of ideas about how to do more and beter for rural America,” according to the report.

Hubs are universally moving away from “traditional” economic development methods, such as attracting new businesses to locate in a community or building economies around natural resources through drilling or mining.

“Over the last century or so, economic development efforts have been dominated by one primary focus: attracting businesses to locate —or relocate — and then grow in a place. Though people in the development profession do many things in their jobs, business attraction’s prevalence, promises and ribbon-cutting visuals have mistakenly shaped the popular image of what ‘economic development’ means,” the report argues. “This, in turn, has induced multi-state competitions with business-attraction packages that nationally total $80 billion a year — incentives whose zero-sum net effect is to starve many communities of the resources they need to finance essential services for their people and places.”

What do hubs do differently? They focus on keeping wealth (of all types, not just money) within a community, using that wealth to reinvest in their future and improve the quality of life for everyone, specifically including lower income residents.

“Investments in local people, local institutions, local resources, local partnerships and local systems are considered as essential and foundational in this development toolbox as are investments in infrastructure and firms,” according to the report.

Hubs also ignore the boundaries that have defined economic development in the past, and approach things from a regional perspective, because they understand they cannot succeed on their own and the entire region must do well in order for local municipalities to also succeed.

“This emphasis on local people and institutions and regional systems flows from the understanding that people are at the heart of a community and its future,” the report states. “It is local people and institutions that must produce strategic and viable decisions, actions and investments to improve outcomes.”

Another trait of successful hubs identified by the report: “Hubs think long-term, with an unwavering commitment to their communities. Achieving lasting outcomes through community and economic development work requires a multi-decade arc. This underscores the often uncomfortable — yet essential — hub role of assembling and investing resources for a long-term payoff in places where residents have many immediate needs.”

Hubs also ignore “silos” and bring different groups of people together to solve problems; “take and tolerate risk;” and hold themselves accountable to the whole community, the report states.

The report brings up many good questions for Danville and Boyle County. How are we doing on being a rural development hub? Are we setting our community up to succeed long-term in a world where everyone thinks rural communities are dying? How are we doing on improving quality of life, particularly for our most vulnerable populations? Are we resisting changes that could have huge impacts because we are risk-averse? Are we putting too much emphasis on old economic development methods and measuring sticks? How well are we working regionally?

There are certainly areas where we are succeeding, and others where we could improve. But these are questions we cannot answer. We bring them up so the larger community can ask them. We hope the answers can help us ensure our continued success as a rural community for decades to come.


You can read the full report on rural development hubs by visiting