A flawed, oversimplified narrative about rural America has taken hold. You’ve probably heard a version of it already: Rural America is poor. It’s white. It depends on factory jobs, agriculture and mining. It’s deteriorating. It needs to be saved.
This depiction casts a long shadow over rural places that don’t fit the narrative, and it effectively prevents productive discourse on how to break down barriers to economic opportunity and equity.
That’s the premise of a recent five-part research series from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that analyzes economics, development and metropolitan policy, among other topics. To add nuance to the narrative, “Building resilient rural places” looks at three thriving “micropolitan” areas and unpacks the foundational components of their success. The communities studied were Emporia, Kansas (population: 24,607); Laramie, Wyoming (Pop: 32,381); and Wheeling, West Virginia (population: 27,062). They were chosen for their successful downtown revitalization efforts, their significance within regional economies and their geographic diversity.
The Rural Business Show recently invited report coauthors Hanna Love and Mike Powe to the podcast to discuss their findings and highlight the hyperlocal strategies at play in these communities.
Debunking stereotypical solutions
“A big part of this report was really just showing there is no such thing as one rural America. Talking about rural America in itself doesn’t really do places or people that much justice because rural America is remarkably diverse,” Love told Rural Business host Ben Rowley.
That diversity is both demographic and economic. Love, a senior research analyst at Brookings Institution, cited statistics that indicate one-fifth of people in rural America are people of color, and just 5 percent work in agriculture and 15 percent in industries like manufacturing.
In truth, the structure of rural economies often reflects that of urban economies. Both are subject to the realities of the modern global economy. Globalization and automation mean traditional industry can’t singlehandedly save rural America, just like it can’t save urban America. And just like urban and suburban economies, most rural economies are not “doomed to decline.”
“There’s this perception that there’s no hope for saving rural America, or that rural America even needs to be saved by outsiders. There’s this idea that people need to move away and move to higher opportunity areas,” Love said. “We really wanted to make the case for how important rural areas are for economic growth nationwide.”
Building a brighter future on Main Street
That economic growth starts on Main Street. “You want to be flexing the local assets, the local culture,” Powe said. “You don’t want to have a community that just looks like the stuff … on the side of the freeway. You want to have really lovable, interesting places full of personality. Ultimately, the entrepreneurial ecosystem approach fosters that.”
The entrepreneurial ecosystem approach is championed by the National Main Street Center, a nationwide network of community revitalization programs, of which Powe serves as director of research. Each of the towns studied — Emporia, Laramie and Wheeling — had its own Main Street chapter, which localized transformation strategies and served as a launching pad to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“Thinking about entrepreneurial ecosystems is really about fostering, gardening, planting seeds and working to cultivate a good environment,” Powe said. It’s a support system of local organizations including the Main Street organization, as well as public officials, small business development centers, anchor institutions like universities, and residents.
This support system may create space to foster entrepreneurship, like the incubator space opened by Emporia Main Street. Their local program partners with Emporia State University, which has hosted a longstanding community course on how to start a business. It also partners with city officials to streamline the inspection process and help entrepreneurs learn how to bring historic Main Street buildings up to code.
Support may also look like capital-raising, through revolving loan funds, applying for grants or even crowdfunding. Wheeling residents raised thousands of dollars to support early stage businesses and overcome limited access to traditional lending.
Amenities for all
A critical part of revitalization is rebuilding in a way that is inclusive and equitable. In the three communities studied, “we found some pretty stark disparities,” Love said. In Wheeling, she noted Black residents were more than twice as likely to live in poverty as white residents, based on pre-COVID data. In Laramie, two thirds of Native American residents live in poverty, compared to one fourth of white residents. It’s likely the pandemic is hitting these communities extra hard, according to Love.
The communities are being intentional about how to overcome these barriers, but there is still work to be done. In Emporia, which has a large Latino population, the Main Street organization has partnered with community-based Latino organizations and made efforts to allocate capital to small business owners equitably. In Wheeling, which was a federally designated food desert, the strategy involved locating an affordable food co-op in a central area accessible for all residents, including those who lived in a historically disinvested, majority Black community near downtown.
“We are stronger as a nation and stronger as communities when you are getting everyone, getting the full community out, getting the folks from other communities out. More can always be done, and more should be done,” Powe said.
It is important to note the research for the Brookings Institution report was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The Brookings and Main Street teams kept in touch with the communities in Emporia, Laramie and Wheeling throughout the pandemic. While rural areas are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 economic crisis, largely because many have not fully recovered from the 2008 recession, Love and Powe are cautiously optimistic about what they’ve seen in Emporia, Laramie and Wheeling so far. Pre-COVID revitalization efforts are helping the towns build resilience during this unprecedented time — suggesting all of America can learn from these communities right now.
“There’s this perception that there’s this big divide between rural and urban communities and that the challenges they face are so remarkably distinct, and we’re in completely different worlds,” Love said. “But that’s just not the case.”