By Matthew Chase
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What do the White House, Council on Foundations, Farm Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative have in common? All of these prestigious and powerful thought leaders are now shining a bright light on our nation’s rural development policy at a critical moment in time.
· White House Rural Council: President Obama signed an Executive Order on June 9, 2011 that “establishes a council to better coordinate Federal programs and maximize the impact of Federal investment to promote economic prosperity and quality of life in our rural communities.”
· Council on Foundations: With less than one percent of our nation’s philanthropic community investing in rural America, the Council is hosting a national conference dedicated to rural philanthropy on July 25-27 in Kansas City, Missouri. As noted in the conference material, “Philanthropy in rural America has generated some of the most innovative success stories in our nation.” Amen, now we need to bring these investments and practices to scale, not just isolated pockets across the rural landscape!
· Clinton Global Initiative: Under the leadership of President Clinton, CGI is holding its first event focused exclusively on the domestic economy as part of CGI America on June 29-30 in Chicago. The event features high-level working groups on education, healthcare workforce, manufacturing, small business growth and smart infrastructure. Notably, CGI is dedicating another work group to exploring innovations and immediate actions to strengthen rural America.
Like most rural-based advocacy groups, our organization is incredibly appreciative of the renewed attention on rural development. At the same time, we have one special request of our nation’s most influential policymakers and thought leaders… Rather than think about rural America as a political football, in isolation from the rest of the nation or only as a charity case, we’d encourage the Obama administration, Congress, philanthropic sector and the business community to start thinking about our nation’s micropolitan hubs and rural regions as a major contributor to a new One America policy.
In today’s global economic race, we must develop and pursue new public policies and strategies that leverage ALL of our nation’s community, economic and workforce development assets. Similar to a sports team, would you rather win through teamwork (i.e. Dallas Mavericks) or have a collection of stars with no championship ring (i.e. Miami Heat)?
In the world of economic development, rural America can and must play many different roles, from the U.S. star in exporting through high quality and safe agriculture and production of value-added products to a supporting role in advanced manufacturing, global service industries, and tourism.
During the Farm Foundation’s June forum on rural development, Chuck Hassebrook from the Center for Rural Affairs commented that regular funding for the USDA Rural Development mission area has fallen by more than 25 percent since 2003. This includes cuts in the core programs from water and sewer infrastructure upgrades, business development finance and community facilities. In previewing the 2012 Farm Bill and FY2012 federal appropriations debates, the outlook for these essential resources is even more bleak in the near future. The same could be said for most other federal support and transfer payment sources for farmers, healthcare, dislocated workers and other public human services in rural America.
This is why USDA Secretary Vilsack’s vision on rural revitalization through regional innovation is so desperately needed and timely. We don’t want to just survive in rural America, we want to prosper and thrive. So, we basically have only two options – stand by and watch as rapid advancements in global trade, technology, transportation, innovation and productivity continue to devastate much of small town and rural America, or we can get off the mat and use American ingenuity to tap and leverage the assets of these communities to shape a future generation of prosperity and competitiveness.
Right now, USDA is trying to pilot some of this new thinking in a very modest yet important initiative called Great Regions. This place-based approach ranges from looking at the feasibility of building new recycling and remanufacturing facilities in the Great Plains to examining value-added uses of forest materials in the Northwest to developing regional food systems with the necessary infrastructure, value added food processors and product reliability in several areas of the country.
Unfortunately, it took a Herculean effort by Secretary Vilsack and his team just to launch this small $2 million pilot program within USDA Rural Development because of outdated funding restrictions, stove piped nature of the agency and resistance to change. Rather than tinker around the edges, we need federal policymakers to take a fresh look at proven strategies and approaches from across the world that address the fundamental needs of rural communities, yet also provide the technical assistance, flexibility, incentives and investments needed for rural America to unleash its creativity and assets in a sustainable and responsible way.
If we don’t want to leave our rural communities behind in the new economy, we must start rethinking our national rural development policy in the context of a One America policy. Like a jigsaw puzzle, we need all of the pieces on the board to fit and complement each other. We need to think about the value of rural communities within regional economies. It is time to empower rural regions to pursue regional innovation and place-based strategies that build upon regional and local assets and priorities, whether it involve value-added agriculture, advanced manufacturing, global service industries, tourism or other natural resource-based industries.
Since we always seem to come back to the Farm Bill, one immediate step is to stop asking rural communities to write grant applications to fit very specific and dwindling federal funding silos (especially within USDA Rural Development). Instead, let’s push the Obama administration and Congress to give rural regions the same flexibility, incentives and resources to pursue sustainable economic growth strategies as metropolitan areas currently enjoy through DOT, HUD, EPA and other programs.
About the author: Matthew Chase has served as the Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) and the NADO Research Foundation since October 2003. From March 1997 to August 2000, he served as the association's Director of Legislative Affairs until he was promoted to Deputy Executive Director. Prior to joining NADO, he was the Chief Operating Officer and Membership Services Director of the Professional Managers Association in Washington, DC. To visit NADO's web site, click HERE.
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