What passes for rural development in Alabama and most of rural America isn't worth much. There is light in this tunnel, however, and there could be much more.
What we’ve called “rural development” has failed us miserably for decades.
More than one million people call rural Alabama home. They deserve more than the lip service they’ve been given. We’ve talked way too much about “initiatives” and done way too little to put meaningful processes into place.
We’ve held “forums” and “listening sessions” and created “commissions.” We’ve measured “success” in how many people attended meetings, not in whether lives were being improved.
We’ve looked for the “quick fix” so that we could pat ourselves on the back by the next election and brag about “progress” while ignoring empty factories, vacant homes and fewer seats filled in classrooms.
But wringing our hands and reliving our failures is of no value whatsoever—unless we vow to truly understand what happened and pledge to devote our resources to reasonable and meaningful responses.
This will mean that we can’t keep setting timetables based on the next election. Rural Alabama did not come to this low point overnight, and as distasteful as it may be for political leaders to accept, its fortunes will not reverse overnight either.
What It Means to Stay the Course
The Rural Medical Scholars program at the University of Alabama is a great example of staying the course. Started in 1996 to encourage students from rural areas to get a medical degree and practice in a rural location, it took more than a decade for the program to return dividends.
But given the fact that bringing a doctor to a rural community has the economic impact of $1 million or more annually, RMSP has contributed over $100 million to rural economies in the last six-seven years.
We can see that it’s possible to make a different in rural Alabama. So where should we start?
The two most pressing needs of rural Alabama involve education and the economy. When building a house you first put the foundation in place. Education and the economy must be rural Alabama’s foundation.
Education — Seeking a Foundation
As the Center for Rural Alabama pointed out in its 2009 study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, there are outstanding schools in every rural corner of Alabama. However, the outstanding ones are greatly outnumbered by ones that are only average at best.
Several things must be done to improve rural education. One is to give rural principals every opportunity to improve their skills by offering professional development specifically designed for them. “One size does not fit all” is as applicable to helping rural school administrators as it is to helping rural economies.
The Center for Rural Alabama is currently working with an education consultant to assess the needs of principals and to determine what roadblocks must be overcome to offer meaningful professional development to these school leaders.
We must redouble our efforts to engage communities in schools and the process of education. It is imperative that local citizens understand that education is vital to community survival. As has been pointed out earlier, this task will not be easy because of the steady erosion of the “education foundation” in most rural places.
The faith-based community should play a key role in this because the church remains an integral part of the rural landscape.
We must work hard to “grow our own” rural educators. Teachers and administrators who come from rural communities are the ones most likely to remain and thrive in such environments. Yet, the pipeline of such people is little more than a trickle.
The Career and Technical Education division of the Alabama Department of Education now offers a program known as “Teach Alabama” that introduces high school students to the field of education. This program should be expanded and it should place an emphasis on rural school systems.
The Economy — Second and Long
It is impossible to maintain any semblance of community without economic activity. But rural Alabama and statewide policymakers must look beyond our traditional manufacturing economy.
Grandpa would’ve scratched his head at the notion that housewives in affluent suburbs would pay a premium for “free-range” eggs or organically-grown vegetables and meat, or that “city folks” would spend their vacation working on a farm.
Economic development is about bringing outside dollars to a community, whether they come in wages from a company, from ladies in Birmingham and Mobile who want brown eggs, in dollars spent by outdoorsmen, in the income of retirees escaping the crime and congestion of a metro area or in activity created by a new doctor in town.
A recent report points out that retiring Baby Boomers are far more likely to re-locate to a rural area than any other population segment. How does rural Alabama capitalize on this?
We need to devote far more energy and resources to helping entrepreneurs get their feet on the ground and to helping small business grow and succeed. Alabama has known for many years that about 75 percent of all new jobs annually come from industry expansions.
But there is nothing sexy when a cabinetmaker hires one or two people. There is not a groundbreaking or photo op for mayors, county commissioners and officials from Montgomery.
We must recognize that, by and large, rural Alabama is the land of small businesses. Census data shows that of the 25,000 businesses in rural communities, 96 percent of them have 49 or fewer employees.
State officials need to understand that what may be small in one area, may be large in another.
For example, a legislator friend represents two rural counties and part of an adjacent metro county. Several years ago a company in one of the rural counties wanted to expand and add 50 jobs. He went to Montgomery to see what kind of assistance might be possible for the company and was told, “Fifty jobs aren’t in our matrix.”
Here’s what Montgomery didn’t understand:
For every person in the labor force of the rural county in question, there are 12.8 in the metro labor force next door. When you multiply 50 jobs times 12.8 you find that the impact on the rural county’s labor force was the same as 640 jobs in the metro location.
No doubt had my friend told Montgomery that he was dealing with 640 jobs, he would’ve received a different response.
Yes, it is second and long in rural Alabama. But the game is not over if we will profit from the past and adjust our game plan for a very different future.
Larry Lee is Director of the Center for Rural Alabama at the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries. [email protected]