Saturday, July 30, 2016

Inspired, cooperative leadership is key to pulling rural places out of economic funk, writer says

The paper mill and harbor in Newport, Oregon, have
benefited from recent investment. (David Kidd photo)
What can help pull rural America out of the recession that lingers in many places, six years after the Great Recession bottomed out nationally?

"Experts in the rural economy say what separates the winners from the many losers is inspired leadership on the ground, whether that’s a plant owner who figures out a way to modernize and stay profitable, or economic development officials able to find a niche by building on successful enterprises or attractions that are already in place," Alan Greenblatt writes for Governing magazine, published mainly for those who govern or lobby the states and localities.

For his readers who may not be familiar with rural problems, Greenblatt writes: "While some metro areas are thriving, two out of three rural counties have experienced a net loss in their total number of businesses since 2010, after the recession had technically ended. According to a recent report by the Economic Innovation Group, half the new businesses started throughout the nation since 2010 were created in just 20 counties, out of more than 3,000 nationwide. Urban America recovers from recessions, but rural America no longer seems able to."

He adds, "It’s no longer far-fetched to talk about permanent, Appalachian-style poverty spreading across rural America. There just aren’t enough jobs. . . . The prevailing fear of the moment -- that robots are going to take over all the work -- has already happened in agriculture. A machine knows more about the exact fat and protein content of the milk from every cow it touches than a human hand ever would. Farmers are becoming almost as likely to plant sensors as seeds, helping them map out where their drones should apply fertilizer. Already, farms account for less than 1 percent of employment, but the number of agriculture jobs is projected to decline another 6 percent by 2024. The old notion that jobs in timber, farming and small-town manufacturing are secure and will last for life is not just outdated but antique."

And here's a current news peg: "The anxiety caused by diminished prospects is starting to play out politically. People wondering what happened to their good-paying jobs have been drawn to Donald Trump’s message that bad trade deals are to blame for their struggles, or to Bernie Sanders’ complaint that the economic system is rigged. . . . The decline in rural prospects is not only feeding political resentment, but causing serious social problems. Nationwide, the number of deaths among working-class whites at most age levels has been increasing, the sad result of a combination of preventable causes such as suicide and abuse of illegal or prescription drugs."

Newport and Lincoln County in Oregon
After that litany of woe, Greenblatt gives an example of local cooperation with inspired leadership: Newport and Lincoln County, Oregon, on the coast about 100 miles southwest of Portland (Wikipedia map). It has an aquarium, a marine science center that's developed a highly edible and processable seaweed, a base for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fleet, and the Oregon coast's last paper mill, which has benefited from recent investment.

"The Newport area has managed to build a collaborative culture, with city, county, port and state officials pulling together with private-sector actors to make things happen," he writes. "All the players in town seem to belong to one another’s boards -- which is not unusual -- but everyone, from Georgia-Pacific executives to county commissioners, also meets routinely through the Yaquina Foundation and the Lincoln County Economic Development Alliance. In many struggling communities, various jurisdictions will jealously fight over every scrap. In Lincoln County, a couple of calls is enough to start people working on ways of lining up financing to get a project going. The different local entities have learned that scratching each other’s backs and putting up money for projects of shared interest can end up benefiting everyone."

The lesson from Lincoln? Greenblatt writes, "There’s no magic formula, nothing you can bottle, when it comes to turning around a rural area. Rural economies once ran on commodities -- timber, corn, cattle, coal -- that by their nature were essentially the same regardless of where they came from. In today’s economy, though, places have to find a way to offer something that other similar places can’t." There's a lot more in his 3,200-word story; read it here.

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