By Jeffrey Spivak
The decline of rural America is well documented. Populations are falling, jobs are disappearing, and poverty is on the rise, among other indicators. As the Wall Street Journal sadly proclaimed in an article two years ago: "Rural America is the new 'inner city.'"
But the decline is not universal. Some communities have eluded it by taking a different strategy to economic and population growth: Instead of merely chasing manufacturers or retailers to locate in their communities, they have focused on their own inherent advantages and assets, taking a homegrown approach to growth that builds a renewed source of economic vitality and creates additional development momentum.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put it this way in a 2015 report on how small towns can rebuild their economies: "Successful communities identify the assets that offer the best opportunities for growth and develop strategies to support them."
The following five case studies represent examples of these strategies. Cullowhee, North Carolina, promoted outdoor recreation. Martin, Tennessee, leveraged gigabit broadband access. Rexburg, Idaho, aligned with its local college. Sheridan, Wyoming, built on arts and culture. And Walterboro, South Carolina, cultivated local food entrepreneurship.
These aren't rural communities that won the geographic lottery, with natural advantages such as ski slopes in Colorado and Utah or oil and gas reserves in Pennsylvania and Texas. No, the five places presented here were chosen because they identified something that could improve their economies and quality of life, formed community coalitions, and then followed planning processes to make it happen.
Building the Business of Food
Walterboro, South Carolina
The Great Recession hit Walterboro hard. Downtown storefronts emptied. Restaurants closed up. Before that, the population had been making a comeback, and in 2008 it surpassed 6,000 residents — its highest population since the 1970s. But by 2013, Walterboro had again lost one-eighth of its residents. A third of the remaining residents lived below the poverty line, and Colleton County's median household income fell to 25 percent below the state average.
"We had become the stereotypical rural town where people were packing up and moving out," says Matt Mardell, director of the county museum in downtown Walterboro.
In the face of such economic hardship, more residents were growing their own food. Agriculture had always been a staple of the regional economy — the town holds an annual rice festival. So when Kevin Griffin, AICP, who had once been the county's planning director, came back to Walterboro as the county administrator in 2010, one of the first development objectives became finding more room for the local farmers market.
That was achieved when the farmers market was moved to its own building adjoining the county museum. But that success spawned some new needs. Some farmers wanted to go beyond selling fruits and vegetables and develop food products. That led to an idea to develop a public commercial kitchen, a facility with equipment that no one had at home — large-scale ovens, industrial food mixers, even automated bottle fillers and labeling machines.
The county then put together a partnership with a rural telephone cooperative to secure a $1 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It bought four vacant downtown lots and developed a new building adjacent to the farmers market. It opened in 2015 and became an immediate hit. Residents and even some out-of-towners have rented the kitchen to develop and bottle new sauces sold at grocery stores, and bake and package cupcakes sold down the street, among other products.
Colleton Commercial Kitchen has basically become a small-business incubator. Mardell, who now also manages the facility, recently estimated that it has launched 33 new businesses and created 120 jobs.
In addition, as the kitchen has become a de facto community center, it has led to more development projects in a formerly rundown part of downtown. It features an adjoining cafe, and nearby there's a dance studio, a gym, and some new offices; a grocery store has doubled in size.
"The kitchen has really brightened that end of downtown," says county administrator Griffin. "It's been far more successful than I would have imagined."
Local foods can indeed be an economic development strategy. A coalition of federal government agencies, including the U.S. Department of agriculture and the EPA, even started a food economies funding program in 2014 and created a local foods development planning guide.
Dozens of small towns have already benefited with projects such as new farmers markets and food cooperatives. North Wilkesboro, North Carolina (pop. 4217), for instance, created a community marketplace with a permanent farmers market that doubles as a summer concert pavilion, and it has attracted several new businesses to open in the downtown, including a farm-to-table restaurant. Such projects "use the benefits of local foods to help revitalize downtowns and neighborhoods," according to a 2017 EPA report.
The Great Outdoors
Cullowhee, North Carolina
Western North Carolina, between Charlotte on the east and Knoxville, Tennessee, on the west, is a heavenly expanse of land that encompasses the Great Smoky Mountains, multiple state parks, and not one, not two, but three national forests, providing an abundance of destinations for hiking, biking, climbing, canoeing, and fishing.
In a study earlier this year, the Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation ranked the Western Carolina region surrounding the town of Cullowhee (pop. 5,753) as the 13th most dynamic rural area in the country, based on job growth and income growth, among other measures. "Cullowhee's economic success is due in large part to growing businesses around these resources," the foundation study observed.
But it took a regional public-private partnership to rally and build economic momentum. It started with a crisis. The region lost 10 percent of its total jobs during the Great Recession and was slow to grow coming out of it. Then, a 2016 regional economic analysis found recreation was actually the region's main source of job growth from 2010 to 2015. For locals who in the past equated hikers with undesirable hippies, "that was a big wake-up call," says Sarah Thompson, executive director of the Southwestern Commission, the regional council of governments.
That set in motion a series of initiatives. Cullowhee's Western Carolina University, already known for its outdoor student activities, created a new position for community engagement and launched an annual Outdoor Economy Conference. An emerging network of outdoor equipment manufacturers called Outdoor Gear Builders expanded to nearly 1,000 jobs. And last year a partnership involving the college, regional economic development agencies, and local financial institutions, among others, won a nearly $1 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to start a program called "Growing Outdoors: A Regional Approach to Expanding WNC Outdoor Industry and Jobs."
With the addition of local matching funds, Growing Outdoors will involve, among other things, new college degree programs in recreation and outdoor leadership; an outdoor business entrepreneurship program; and a loan fund for rural-based outdoor business expansions. The hope is that all this will result in 35 new outdoor businesses, the expansion of 100 others and the creation of at least 150 jobs.
"The outdoors are our core asset base," says Noah Wilson, project manager for Growing Outdoors and president of Emergent Opportunities, a consulting firm that focuses on sustainable rural economic development. "Now we're seeing the outdoors driving industry here. It had never been coordinated before."
Cullowhee is certainly not alone in pursuing recreation as an economic driver. On the other side of the U.S., for instance, the New Mexico town of Gallup gained an official designation as the "Adventure Capital" of the state for its expansive biking trails and endurance races. Earlier this year, the Montana-based Headwaters Economics, which specializes in land analyses, measured some impacts of advanced recreational economies. Those rural counties, it found, had positive population migration rates and higher income growth, while non-recreation counties suffered continued population losses and low salary growth.
"Investing in outdoor recreation is one of several strategies that can help rural communities thrive in a changing economy," Headwaters concluded.
Keeping Up With a Growing Local College
Rexburg is a college town, home to the private Brigham Young University-Idaho. As in many college towns, the city and university stayed out of each other's way and led separate existences. "When I first got here, we didn't have a great relationship with the university," says Rexburg economic development director Scott Johnson, who was hired in 2010.
That has changed now, due to a mutual recognition that they should plan for growth together.
The university transitioned from a junior college to a four-year institution in 2001, and its enrollment has taken off this decade, climbing more than 50 percent since fall 2009 to more than 20,000 students. Rexburg has grown alongside it, but at a slower pace, with just 14 percent population growth this decade, to an estimated 30,000 residents.
The challenge: How can the public and private spheres accommodate and accelerate each other's growth? The city gets a boost from the new residents and new construction that the college brings. But the college needs the city to expand its infrastructure and create a more inviting environment for students and graduates.
So for the past several years, the university and the local governments — the city and the surrounding Madison County — have become partners in planning. "It's to make sure our goals are aligned with their goals," says Bradley Petersen, the county's planning and zoning administrator.
One of the city's economic goals has been to encourage homegrown, small-business job growth. So the university became involved in local efforts to create business start-up competitions in recent years, and the university partnered with the governments to launch a new business incubator called the Research & Business Development Center, available for both students and budding entrepreneurs from the community.
Meanwhile, one of the university's goals has been to become a more attractive destination. About one- quarter of the university's students are married, and they tend to live off-campus in housing close to downtown Rexburg. So the university participated first in a community visioning process and is currently lending a hand in the county comprehensive plan process to strategize how to add development downtown and make it more walkable, among other issues.
"It's more than a collaboration. They are a partner in everything we do," Johnson says about the university.
Across the U.S., small towns aren't usually the sites of major research universities or main campuses of state colleges. But many smaller colleges, even community colleges, are located in rural areas, and they deliver inherent benefits to their communities — ranging from students spending money locally to academic programs supporting the local economy.
Consider Walla Walla, Washington, near the Oregon border. After lumber mills closed in the 1990s, the local community college started an enology and viticulture program to train students in the art of winemaking. The number of local wineries has since sprouted to more than 150, and this growth has led to the creation of additional businesses, such as wine distribution.
"A local college is one of the unheralded characteristics of successful rural areas," says Ross DeVol, a fellow at the Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation whose research focuses on rural economic vitality.
Becoming a 'Gig City'
Once upon a time decades ago, Martin's carefree rural lifestyle prompted Esquire magazine to label the Tennessee town near the Kentucky border as one of the happiest in America. That earned Martin the nickname of "Happy Town." But the vibe didn't last forever.
Like a lot of rural hamlets, Martin has shrunk since the Great Recession, with its estimated population falling almost 10 percent since 2010 to about 10,500. It's home to University of Tennessee at Martin and a quaint downtown strip with century-old architecture. But it needed an economic development spark. Local officials decided one way to stand out would be with super-fast internet service.
Another city in the state, Chattanooga, had made a name for itself — as "Gig City" — for becoming the first major U.S. city to roll out a citywide gigabit network, with internet surfing speeds (1,000 Mb per second) that are 40 times faster than the federal government's definition of broadband service. "We wanted the same thing for our city," says Brad Thompson, Martin's director of economic and community development.
It took an unusual partnership and funding solution. After getting nowhere with larger telecom and cable companies, the city forged a partnership with West Kentucky & Tennessee Telecommunications, a cooperative specializing in building out rural networks. Then to pay for it, city officials tapped a water and gas fund, so part of the plan's sales pitch was connecting high-speed internet to public water meters in order to automate the process of meter reading.
"A creative use of funds made all this work," Thompson says.
Rural Success Playbook
- Determine an existing or conceivable asset base with growth potential.
- Engage the community with a plan that can generate public support and partnerships.
- Take advantage of outside funding.
- Continue to build on early successes.
The $19 million project to build 150 miles of fiber optic lines was completed last year, and it has already nearly paid for itself in economic returns. Since the service was announced, a financial technology software company moved into downtown, and a South Korean automotive and appliance supplier moved into Martin's industrial park, nearly filling it up. In all, a state assessment of Martin's gigabit project indicates it has already created 270 jobs and generated $18 million in new industry investments. "It has been a shot in the arm for us," Thompson says.
Gigabit service is no longer a novel technology. But access is still sporadic and coveted in rural areas. (See "Equal Access Equals Opportunity.") For those places that get gigabit, it's "completely transforming how rural communities grow and thrive," the NTCA — The Rural Broadband Association wrote last year.
That's certainly the case in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, about 100 miles from Martin. It has developed a burgeoning technology district and software training hub in its downtown, thanks in part to its gigabit status.
"It has brought downtown Cape Girardeau into the 21st century," says Ryan Shrimplin, AICP, the town's city planner. "It is a jobs generator."
Arts Adding Vibrancy
Sheridan (pop. 17,816) has a long history as a cowboy town. The city's namesake hotel, the Sheridan Inn, was built in the 19th Century and originally managed by "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Nestled in the shadow of the Big Horn Mountains and surrounded by expansive ranches, the town still has a strong rodeo tradition, an annual horse drive, even a downtown saddle store.
So it might have seemed odd when a local economic opportunity study in 2007 identified the arts as one of Sheridan's recommended growth targets. "I'm sure there were people who thought, 'The arts? You've got to be kidding me,'" says Joanne Garnett, FAICP, a partner in the firm Orion Planning + Design, who came to town around that time.
But the town had an arts heritage, too. Outside of town off one highway, the Brinton Museum showcased art of the American West, and off another highway, the Ucross ranch operated an artist residency retreat. Downtown, one of the city's iconic buildings housed the WYO Theater, and public art had been displayed in the business district for years. So there was plenty to build on.
Since then, the community has embarked on a series of investments in the arts. A state grant helped fund an initial renovation and expansion of the WYO Theater at the beginning of this decade. That helped spur the redevelopment of other downtown buildings. New art galleries opened, and the state arts council stepped up with funding support for theater and dance programs. Then the WYO was expanded again in 2016, and public art continues to dot sidewalks downtown.
All this has created a unique quality of life and economic advantage in the rural West. "Every community and state have some sort of economic development program, and it's difficult for us to out-compete other communities because of our size," says Robert Briggs, AICP, Sheridan's city planner for years and now planning director for the local community college district. "But what we can sell is a community with a vibrancy to it, and the arts provide that vibrancy. It makes it a place you want to live in."
Sheridan is hardly the only rural community to follow this formula in recent years. The town of Lanesboro, Minnesota, population about 750, decreed the entire town as an arts campus in 2014, and with a combination of local, state, and federal funding, the town has been renovating facilities and developing an artist residency center, which helped spur momentum for 10 new businesses to open.
The National Governors Association studied rural arts and culture initiatives this year and found several economic benefits. Rural counties with performing arts organizations had population growth rates that were three times higher than rural counties without arts institutions, and higher per-capita incomes, too. Beyond direct dollars, the so-called creative sector was also acclaimed for enlivening rural communities and improving the quality of life.
"Arts-based economic development builds on a community's authentic traditions and home-grown assets rather than imported solutions," the governors association stated in its 2019 report on rural prosperity through the arts. "This approach ... increases the likelihood of sustained success."
Jeffrey Spivak, a market research director in suburban Kansas City, Missouri, is an award-winning writer specializing in real estate planning, development, and demographic trends.
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APA's Small Town and Rural Division's newsletters.
"A Course in Small Town Revitalization," Planning (November 2016).
"Going Rogue Goes Mainstream," Planning (June 2018).
"Rural Event Venues — Rustic Charm and Rural Zoning," Zoning Practice (November 2018).