By: Rob Riley
Last fall, I attended a rural development conversation in Danville, Virginia. It was one of those rare opportunities where the invite-only event seemed to mirror the conversations we were having at the Center about our continued evolution and how we could be most effective serving the communities of the Northern Forest.
Organizations at this conference hailed from communities with much larger populations, significant built environments, strong organizational and public capacity, and engaged leadership. However, these places—labeled by some as “micropolitans”—are facing problems similar to the ones we face in the Northern Forest region: loss of young people, a general concern about the lack (or sustainability) of growth, and ability to equitably distribute wealth throughout a given community. Attendees were eager to discuss millennials, winning strategies and new forms of investment.
One theme that emerged quickly for me—and was striking—was how seemingly disconnected these communities were from their surrounding natural landscape. Other than citing a river that ran through the city, little was said about the natural amenities that differentiated that place from others. It became very apparent that the communities of the Northern Forest and our emerging approach to community development is quite unique. Our core emphasis is on how to capitalize on the unique natural assets and stewardship of those assets when seeking to drive population and business growth.
Many people still look at economic development through the lens of business recruitment, industrial park development and a “build it and they will come” strategy. Though this approach seemed successful in the past, it was also in many cases a zero-sum game. One community’s win was another’s loss. This was bitingly apparent when the win—the large mill (and employer) a community had landed—left town quickly only to resurface a few states away, lured by tax breaks and other incentives. In very small rural places, we know this isn’t a viable path.
Instead, we in the Northern Forest need to capitalize on our unique competitive advantages that can’t be found anywhere else—the forest, mountains, water, and sense of place—and tailor our efforts to retaining and attracting people who want the lifestyle afforded by this place.
- Demographic trends are disproportionately challenging in smaller communities;
- Collaborative, shared strategies that focus on participation and inclusion have the greatest chances for success;
- Small, tangible and sustained projects matter; they build momentum, interest and pride in a community;
- Communities need to be careful about fixating on one demographic (e.g. millennials) at the expense of others;
- Public investment is a critical tool to help unlock private capital and enterprise in rural places;
- Small communities often lament the loss of young people rather than celebrate those who stay in place;
- There is a national bias that over-generalizes rural places and people—rural America is not a monoculture.
- Entrepreneurship nationally is at an all-time low and attracting and retaining entrepreneurial people to be the spark plugs in rural places is a paramount issue and opportunity.
Like rural America and the Northern Forest region, nothing is static. As a result, the Center is evolving to meet today’s new issues with dynamic solutions such as: deploying consistent and affordable high-speed internet, developing shared entrepreneurial workspaces, creating new civic gathering places (coffee shops and brew pubs), integrating green infrastructure and access to recreation into community planning, improving the quality of aged buildings and homes, using regionally-sourced resources for heat, construction and other consumables, and fostering community activities and connectivity that is authentic and open to new people and voices.
We’re moving forward with these approaches, building on our 20 years of investment in the forest economy and regional connectivity. Tackling these rural community development issues is challenging the Center and our notions of what makes a healthy community. I’m proud that we’re responding with tangible and practical projects and I’m proud of how we’re approaching these challenges as a creative, agile, and talented, entrepreneurial-minded team! And we’re grateful for your partnership to be successful lifting up viable and thriving forest communities.
If you aren’t already a supporter of the Center’s work, I invite you to join us! Please, consider financially supporting our work. Thank you for your interest!