Seven Best Practices for Creating Rural Economic Vitality

February, 2014
At Rural Development Initiatives we focus on two things, developing leaders and networking those leaders to create rural economic vitality. Our success working with communities and regions to create economic vitality is based on the following seven best practices. 
 
The first step for creating economic vitality is building agreement to focus efforts on a few activities. One way to get agreement on priorities is to develop a strategic plan. Whatever process you use to develop and prioritize activities, communities are most successful when you build upon your assets, what the community already has, rather than trying to bring something in from the outside. It is also crucial to focus on diversifying your local economy; don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
 
After a thoughtful process to prioritize and focus your efforts, any of these ideas that fit with your community can be implemented in any order and one does not depend on another. However, we have found that the most successful communities have implemented several best practices.
 

Best Practice #1

  • Creating Networks to Support Entrepreneurs and Micro Business Development

    Your local economy is most successful when diversified. Don’t invest all your resources and hopes in one large employer. Communities are most resilient when there are lots of small and micro businesses. If one or several do not survive, there are still plenty of employment opportunities. These businesses will continue to contribute to the local economy in contrast to the impact of one major employer closing. Successful communities identify and connect entrepreneurs to the resources (expertise and financing) to get started and grow. Linking businesses together in a value chain can help each of the enterprises be more resilient.
 

Best Practice #2

  • Thinking Local – Supporting Local Businesses First

    Our local businesses cannot survive if we do not support them. When you “Buy Local” your money stays in the local economy longer. It circulates throughout your community by creating jobs and increasing income. A healthy community has a strong “Think Local” economy where people are not only buying locally but investing in those local businesses too. Community wealth and well-being are increased by local control and local ownership when you move your money from Wall Street to Main Street by investing in local businesses.
 

Best Practice #3

  • Retaining and Growing Local Businesses

    It is always easier and more cost effective to retain a business already in your community than to recruit a new business from outside. Utilizing an existing organization, like a chamber or business association, or starting a Business Assistance Team is a good way to retain or expand local businesses and a great way to create local jobs. A business retention and expansion program or a Business Assistance Team utilizes local volunteers to connect businesses to resources that can help with planning, marketing, financing, and other needs required for entrepreneurial success.
 

Best Practice #4

  • Helping Start New Businesses in Your Community

    Every community has people with great ideas but they often lack the resources and training to get a business started. Connecting these individuals to resources or programs is a great way to grow your local economy by helping entrepreneurs start home-based businesses. Selling products or crafts and providing services creates jobs and supports the local economy.
 

Best Practice #5

  • Implementing a Downtown Revitalization Program

    A healthy and vibrant downtown boosts the economic health and quality of life in a community. Specifically, a healthy downtown creates jobs, incubates small businesses, reduces sprawl, retains a community’s heritage, and is a symbol of community pride and history. There are many approaches to downtown revitalization, including the Main Street Approach which was developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and focuses on four areas: Organization, Promotion, Design, and Economic Restructuring. Most rural Northwest communities expanded from a historic, small downtown core. In many towns, Main Street is still the heart and soul of the community. Many Chambers of Commerce, cities, and Community Development Corporations have a downtown revitalization program.
 

Best Practice #6

  • Organizing Farmers Markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

    Farmers markets provide residents with fresh local products as opposed to many of the products offered at traditional supermarkets. Supporting local farmers ensures you know what you are buying and where it comes from and keeps money in your community – Think Local. Farmers markets help us focus on seasonal eating; for example, buying local produce in season rather than buying fresh blueberries in December from South America. This helps conserve fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions. Many farmers markets have become large community events where families come out and eat from vendor food booths and listen to live entertainment, all which help to build social capital.

    Another way to get products directly from your local farmers is through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Over the last 20 years, CSA has become a popular way for consumers to buy local, fresh, seasonal food. Through a CSA, a farmer typically offers a certain number of “shares” to the public. Interested consumers purchase a share (a.k.a. a “membership” or a “subscription”) and in return receive a box of seasonal produce delivered each week throughout the farming season. Community supported fisheries are starting to expand and are available in more areas and many ranchers offer shares in beef, lamb, and other meat products. If you have a farmers market, CSA, or an opportunity to buy from local ranchers and seafood companies in your community, supporting them is a great way to contribute to your community's economic vitality.
 

Best Practice #7

  • Developing Visitor Amenities – Rural and Geotourism

    The travel industry is a significant contributor to rural communities throughout Oregon. Based on data from Travel Oregon and research by Dean Runyan and associates, tourism employs the most number of people and ranks fourth for the level of earnings in Oregon. It brings in twice as much income in our state’s rural areas as compared with urban areas. Many of the tourism businesses in Oregon are sole proprietors, which builds a strong case that the tourism industry supports entrepreneurs.

    Geotourism sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place – its environment, heritage, and the well-being of its residents. Rural tourism promotes responsible travel by providing visitor services and attractions that generate local revenue while preserving cultural heritage and natural amenities. 
 
Remember, community economic vitality takes time. If you implement one or all of these best practices, you most likely won’t see results overnight. Many require a shift in our cultural thinking, and it takes time and commitment from community leaders, citizens, volunteers, businesses, and others to see many of these best practices take hold and become part of the community fabric. But don’t worry, you are not alone. RDI is here to assist you in your efforts, as are many other organizations and agencies. If you are interested in how RDI can help your community create economic vitality, contact Noelle Colby-Rotell, email: nrotell@rdiinc.org or phone: 208.954.9564.