Commentary: How to Make Rural Development More Than Industrial Recruitment

Small towns have more to offer than cheap land and tax abatements. Building a development plan based on holistic community needs can be a recipe for economic and social success.

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Whenever I think of rural economic development, I’m reminded of a quote from “Dirty Harry” Callahan.

“A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Scott Thompson

In late 1983, while driving through a small town in Central Illinois, I passed a large vacant lot with a motel beside it. The lot was overgrown with weeds but in the middle of it all was a weathered sign advertising the town’s industrial park. For the next two years, when making my twice weekly commute to and from Chicago, I drove past that empty overgrown lot and that increasingly deteriorating sign. Fifteen years later and for the next five or more after that, nothing really seemed to have changed. The motel next to the industrial park changed hands a few times, but neither seemed to have improved.

The same story was playing out in countless towns across America.

During the early to middle 1980’s, the Midwest and particularly Central Illinois, was transitioning from one of its most difficult economic periods, to its next most difficult economic period. First it was manufacturing, next it would be farming. The times were marked by billboards, bumper stickers, and handmade barn signs. “Will the last person leaving Peoria please turn out the lights,” “Land for Sale,” and “Farm Auction.”

Small and rural towns were beginning to feel the pinch. JC Penney, IGA, and Montgomery Wards were closing. Storefronts were going vacant. Rural school districts were contemplating the unthinkable: consolidation.

The response by many local leaders in small towns was to begin engaging in the growing field of economic development. Why not? Small towns have bright, ambitious, hard working people, too. Jobs were needed in Rushville, Beardstown, and Havana, as much as Quincy, Galesburg, Peoria, Chicago, or St. Louis. It was also the municipal version of an economic sacrificial rite. The sacrifice was free or cheap land, free or cheap public utilities, and tax abatements. “If just the right person would drive through our lovely town and past this promised land of economic opportunity…”

“If you build it, they will come.” In the case of the small rural industrial park, it’s likely nobody came.

Many communities also invested their funds in hastily hired economic and community developers. Often, these developers were locals. They were good folks who were well liked and respected. They knew the right people in town, but possessed no knowledge of development practices. After foundering and raising the ire of locals, some were fired by the boards who hired them, or the developers gave up and quit. Many towns were left with a vacant office, some equipment, and the same empty lot with a rotting sign.

As mayor, I once terminated the employment of an economic developer, in part because of the shortcomings of our city’s leadership. Our city council and I in particular weren’t good economic development leaders. We weren’t prepared to face the challenges real economic development would present. We needed a plan created by the community that addressed community-wide issues. We needed to focus on developing our community and broaden community engagement in large projects. This became the opportunity to put social capital to work for improving Rushville.

Conceptually, social capital has been an identified presence since at least 1916. Lyda Hanifan, a West Virginia state supervisor of rural schools, made reference to social capital in an article he authored. Hanifan also discussed the accumulation of financial capital and the building of community infrastructure, all in the context of community building. In part, he was describing what would later be called the Community Capitals Framework (CCF). Within this framework, there are seven types of community capital: natural, cultural, human, social, political, financial, and built. In his 1916 article, Hanifan describes three (social, financial, and built) types of capital.

The Community Capitals Framework was created at Iowa State University (my alma mater) by Cornelia and Jan Flora. The beauty of the framework is how it facilitates a more holistic approach to community development. It also allows those who are engaged in rural development work to make assumptions that are important and unique to rural communities. The most basic of these is that the rural prospective is valuable and worthy of exploration.

The Community Capitals Framework can help us to conceptualize our communities as socioeconomic structures with more to offer than vacant industrial parks. In future columns, we’ll explore how we can use this framework to measure our progress toward reaching rural development goals.

Scott Thompson is a labor market economist who lives in Iowa. Read Scott’s previous Daily Yonder column. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.

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