The Arizona Rural Policy Forum gathers leaders from around the state to share ideas and solutions. This year’s forum, the ninth, looked at stories of success, including efforts to build a recreation economy in the Verde Valley. Restoring the river has been a collaborative effort that could inspire other communities across the state.
The story of the Verde River cleanup in Arizona, which helped spur growth in the recreation economy there, could show other rural leaders in Arizona how to work collaboratively on community projects, said a participant in a statewide meeting on rural policy.
Royce Hunt, the director of a nonprofit in Safford, Arizona, said she thinks the lesson of the Verde Valley could help her community located two hours to the southeast.
“Seeing [the Verde River project] work here really encourages me to go back home and see what we can do to copy this example and have the same level of success that they’ve had here,” Hunt said.
Sharing stories of success is one of the goals of the Arizona Rural Policy Forum. The annual forum, held for the last nine years, is sponsored by the Arizona Rural Development Council, an initiative of the Local First Arizona Foundation. The event gathers hundreds of rural economic development professionals, nonprofits, community leaders, business owners, and other rural stakeholders who are interested in sustaining rural communities.
“Our goal with hosting the Arizona Rural Policy Forum is to hear strategies from national experts as well as learn about success stories around Arizona that will give our rural leaders the tools, resources and relationships they need to face current challenges,” said Kimber Lanning, director of the Local First Arizona Foundation and the Arizona Rural Development Council. “We want Arizona’s rural communities to learn best practices form each other in order to build real prosperity for all.”
This year’s forum drew over 200 attendees from every corner of Arizona to the small town of Clarkdale, a former mining town located in the Verde Valley about 90 minutes north of Phoenix. Arizona isn’t just all desert and saguaros; the Verde Valley sits at over 3,000 feet and is home to one of Arizona’s burgeoning wine regions. Some attendees enjoyed special excursions outside regular forum programming, including a tour of the Verde Valley aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad, touring the historic downtown and local businesses, plus dinner and a show with the cowpokes of Blazin’ M Ranch.
Every year, the Forum explores an array of topics relevant to rural communities across the state. Many of the sessions this year focused on how rural communities can build wealth for themselves. Participants explored a variety of strategies that rural towns across the country could employ to build wealth and prosperity for their communities:
1. Stop the wealth drain. Many rural communities are seeing their young people leave for more urban lifestyles, and as their populations age it is important to set up legacy donor strategies to build sustainable wealth for the community. In “A Philanthropy Indexed Transfer of Wealth Study for 2005-2055” prepared by Wayne Fox of Northern Arizona University, Fox estimates that about 87% of Arizona’s wealth transfer due to charitable giving will take place in Maricopa County and Pima County, Arizona’s most urban and populous counties, over the next 40-50 years. To keep charitable dollars circulating in rural communities, these communities must first make sure to add charitable giving as a metric to any economic development reports. Being able to track philanthropic data will be imperative moving forward so that communities can understand at first how many dollars are staying in their communities. Communities can also identify an individual to be their “philanthropy advocate,” someone who can talk to community members about the importance of local charitable giving. Essentially, rural communities need to get used to talking about philanthropy and weaving it into as many conversations as possible so that regular giving to local communities becomes commonplace.
2. Identifying the right funding sources. Rural nonprofit organizations and local government agencies may be eligible for a variety of funding and not even know it! At the Arizona Rural Policy Forum’s Funder’s Circle, we gathered the top rural funders including mining companies, utilities, community foundations, the United States Department of Agriculture, state government agencies, and a variety of other groups to meet local nonprofits and those seeking funding for specific projects. This session allowed organizations to find where they fit best so that they could have greater success at winning grants and funding for their efforts.
3. Collaboration. The saying “a rising tide lifts all boats” certainly holds true in rural communities due to the variety of opportunities for collaboration. In Arizona, the rising tide is that of the Verde River, one of Arizona's largest perennial streams that runs about 170 miles through the Verde Valley, intersecting a variety of towns. The river had potential for becoming an outdoor recreational destination, drawing outdoor enthusiasts from nearby Phoenix, but the river was in no condition to serve visitors in this manner. At the Rural Policy Forum, Clarkdale Mayor Doug Von Gausig, also with the Verde River Institute, told an inspiring story of how towns, community groups, and Arizona State Parks came together to clean up the Verde River in an effort to clean up their local economy. This collaborative effort has led the Verde River to become a thriving outdoor recreational tourism attraction, injecting tourism dollars into the local economy and benefiting all communities involved.
4. Think Local First. One of the easiest and simplest ways for individuals to make a difference is to think “Local First” and support the locally owned businesses in their rural communities. Studies show that up to four times more dollars stay in the local economy when those dollars are spent at a local business rather than a national chain store. When you spend money with local restaurants, retailers, or service providers, or invest with local credit unions and give to local nonprofits, you are putting those dollars into the hands of your fellow rural community members. As they then spend those dollars locally on supplies and services for their business, the multiplier effect shows that the dollars you originally spent have a far greater local impact as they continue to circulate throughout the local economy.
In planning the Rural Policy Forum, we took the Local First mantra to heart. We used a locally owned venue for the conference space, and encouraged attendees to stay at local hotels and inns. For meals, we brought catering in from several local restaurants as well as hosted attendees at some major attractions in the area. We also hired a local recycling company to make the event as sustainable as possible. We received a great amount of positive feedback from attendees thanking us for using local businesses in the community.
If rural communities are going to see a sustainable future, it is important that they invest in themselves first. These strategies mentioned here can easily be implemented in rural communities across the country in order to build true prosperity for all.
Erica Pederson is communications director of Local First Arizona, a statewide nonprofit that supports local business development.