The lack of resources — despite billions of dollars available to help — is a familiar paradox for many rural communities.
Federal funds have flowed to rural areas since the start of the pandemic, thanks to the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The funding was earmarked to address needs exacerbated by the pandemic, such as those related to education, housing and healthcare.
The vast majority of rural communities applied for funding — but some actively rejected it. About 2.5% of small municipalities eligible for funding chose to decline it, according to 2021 data from the National League of Cities, an advocacy organization for cities, towns and villages. The municipalities that declined funding were relatively small, with an average population of 561 residents. NLC concludes that limited staff or experience may have contributed to the decision to reject relief funds.
While considered rare, seeing communities in need reject funding was troubling to Andrea Hutchins, CEO of the El Paso Chamber in Texas, and former COO of Thomas P. Miller & Associates, a national consulting firm focused on workforce, economic and community development.
“It just furthered the message that communities don’t know where to put these funds and how to put them to best use,” Hutchins said on the Rural Business Show. “Folks were just sending them back rather than using them in what they believed to be the wrong way.”
Hutchins has over two decades of economic development, community development, and community organizing experience. She joined TPMA by way of El Paso, where she was previously the director of economic development for the county. In that post, Hutchins recalled observing a stark difference between the way rural and urban communities approached federal relief funding. She noted that many rural communities simply didn’t have the resources on hand to apply for funds, deploy them or ensure compliance. The result was that many of the smallest and most vulnerable communities went without.
“What surprised me most was the lack of resources even in the face of unprecedented federal funds being presented to rural areas,” she said.
On the show, Hutchins addressed why communities rejected the funds and what community leaders can do to make sure rescue dollars are going to good use going forward.
To help answer these questions and provide a snapshot of the pandemic’s impact on rural America, TPMA launched the Prosperity Through Equity Survey in May 2021. The firm surveyed 148 community leaders from around the country and conducted listening sessions to collect additional qualitative data on rural strengths, areas of need and local recommendations. Their findings highlighted a critical need for community input and planning around economic development.
The top five greatest needs identified were access to affordable housing, living wage jobs, broadband internet, child care and reliable transportation, according to the survey. Four out of five of those needs also ranked among the top issues with no plan in place to address them.
“It helped us really identify that even though there were these major issues in rural America, one of the bigger issues was that none of [the communities] had plans in place to address them. That’s kind of scary,” Hutchins said.
On the podcast she detailed the challenge. Rural communities are often understaffed and underfunded. Many municipalities are run entirely by a single executive or a small group of leaders who work full-time in other industries. When pandemic relief funds came with hundreds of pages of directions and parameters, they became more of a burden than a boon to local leaders who were already stretched thin.
“Help and assistance doesn’t mean more parameters. It means more guidance,” Hutchins said.
So how can we solve the rural resource paradox? To start, Hutchins said she wants to see greater flexibility and assistance from federal and state governments. Until then, she recommended local leaders implement the following three strategies:
1. Seek community input. Every community has unique strengths and needs, depending on local resources, demographics and geography. The best place to start when seeking to identify opportunities for growth is by asking the experts — the residents.
2. Make a plan. Every community needs a comprehensive strategic roadmap, whether it’s for 5 years or 20 years into the future. Building out a plan is also an eligible use of federal funds, according to Hutchins.
3. Start with projects that spur organic development. Community leaders should identify one or two attainable, top priority projects that can continue to build momentum independently. This helps maintain progress through leadership transitions and ensures community engagement and support.
“Communities that are taking those short-term win opportunities coupled with long-term, future goals [and] taking that all in with an understanding of where the key areas of opportunity and need are … those are the communities that are going to come out ahead,” Hutchins said.
Creating opportunity in rural areas often requires more than funds alone. To make the most of the resources available, local leaders can look to the community for input, create a strategic plan and invest in organic growth opportunities, with an eye on short- and long-term benefits.