Across the board, 2020 has been challenging. Between the health and economic challenges placed on communities around the world by COVID-19, it can sometimes be hard to find a silver lining.
But every time we face a challenge there’s usually an opportunity buried within it — it’s just our job to reframe the situation and figure out how we can use the challenge to benefit our customers and communities.
That’s why we reached out to some of our favorite rural ecosystem builders and get their take on what’s going on across rural areas in the United States. Today’s wisdom comes to us from our friends at Communities Unlimited.
We asked two questions:
- What is the biggest opportunity or challenge your organization sees, in this particular moment in time?
- What advice would you give to our communities to help them either take advantage of this opportunity or thrive despite the challenge?
So without further ado, take it away Ines!
Ines Polonius, CEO at Communities Unlimited
Social distancing is Rural America’s competitive advantage. Urban areas make up only 3% of the U.S. land area but are home to more than 80% of the population.
Young people, now more than ever, want to come back home to rural places. Intentional entrepreneurial ecosystems will help.
On July 5, 2020, The Hill concluded that a combination of the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty, and social unrest is prompting waves of Americans from large cities to permanently relocate to more sparsely populated areas.
Coming Home to Rural
While a town deep in the Mississippi Delta may not see an influx of New York City executives any time soon, it may well welcome home young people who grew up there.
COVID has demonstrated that many jobs are mobile. Economic insecurity has people looking for more affordable housing. In 2016, the median monthly housing cost in rural areas was $1,271 lower than in urban areas. This gap has only widened over the past four years.
Social distancing is much easier when your closest neighbors might be cows.
So how do we in rural communities capitalize on our competitive advantage? Quality of life.
The Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), a partnership of six organizations including Communities Unlimited, provides technical assistance and training to rural communities across the U.S.
RCAP’s Rural Homecoming Toolkit provides strategies for attracting those with roots in a community back home.
For decades rural leaders have been focusing on attracting corporations, not people. To attract people, rural places require vibrant local economies built on local entrepreneurs, who are often forgotten by state economic development policy.
Corporations vs Entrepreneurial Ecosystems
Through intermediaries like Communities Unlimited (CU), some rural communities are creating vibrant rural entrepreneurial ecosystems that support the growth of existing local businesses as well as budding entrepreneurs.
In Dermott, Arkansas, a predominantly Black rural community in the heart of the Arkansas Delta, a community leadership team has been working on just this. In this community of 2500, almost 36% of the residents live in poverty and have for more than 30 years.
Leaders know how to navigate hurdles with creativity, but no one was quite prepared for the devastating challenges of COVID19.
Beginning on March 23, 2020, the leadership team gathered virtually via ZOOM with CU’s community facilitator to continue planning its Entrepreneurship Extravaganza.
This call to action inspired the grand opening of three new businesses: a barbershop, a boutique, and a shaved ice stand. All three launched in June by community residents while they and the rest of the country were in the throes of COVID.
On the other side of town, leadership team member, Debra Williams purchased eight vacant buildings to revitalize the downtown and create an entrepreneurship hub.
Through the partnership between Dermott’s leadership team and CU, the ecosystem has access to start-up capital in the form of microloans and intensive technical assistance.
By creating an intentionally inviting and supportive environment for entrepreneurs through quality-of-life businesses, access to capital, an entrepreneurship hub, and technical assistance, Dermott and other rural places can welcome home those with roots there who want to start a business, bring their existing business, or telecommute.
Challenge or Opportunity — It’s Up to Us
During times of chaos, we all have a choice: stick our heads in the sand and hope things go back to “normal” soon… or pivot and do something different. Something better. Something to uplift and benefit the communities where we live.
We may not know what our new normal will be yet, but together we can start to chart a new path forward.
This is the second in a series of interviews — stay tuned for the next installment! You can also read the first set of interviews here.
About Communities Unlimited: As a Rural Development Hub and Community Development Financial Institution, Communities Unlimited takes a holistic approach to ensuring healthy communities, healthy businesses, and healthy families in rural places and underserved neighborhoods in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. www.CommunitiesU.org