Community-based initiatives that foster citizen engagement and support workforce development are critical to the success of rural communities. An effort underway here in Alabama is a good example.
Called the Rural Alabama Initiative, the effort was launched in 2007 as a way to provide financial support for worthy economic and community development projects across the state. In the years since, Alabamians have been working together to improve their communities, providing a true success story for others to emulate.
This blueprint for growth begins with leaders who work together to develop a vision and realistic plan for change. In struggling rural communities, hope for economic prosperity is often pinned on the recruitment of a large manufacturing plant to “save” the town. However, business retention and expansion, small business and entrepreneurial development, tourism, and retiree attraction are actually better determinants of strong local economies.
More significantly, local leaders often pay scant attention to building the infrastructure upon which strong local communities must be built. And yet our research over the years has indicated that this infrastructure must be in place if local economies are going to prosper and thrive.
…local leaders often pay scant attention to building the infrastructure upon which strong local communities must be built. And yet our research over the years has indicated that this infrastructure must be in place if local economies are going to prosper and thrive.
For instance, a community with a strong civic infrastructure has many leaders. It mobilizes the knowledge, talents, and perspectives of every segment of the community and builds strong connections and partnerships among community stakeholders. Programs of government, schools, churches, the business community, and others, operate in concert with one another, rather than independently. And citizen leaders work together to address community concerns, to attract more leaders, and to boost community participation.
Human infrastructure is also important. Indeed, the number one issue in economic development today is workforce quality. Companies will not choose to expand or locate in a community without educated and skilled workers. The highest priorities for rural economic development include maintaining excellent schools and strengthening the local workforce development system with active collaboration among business leaders, K-12 educators, and community college stakeholders.
All rural leaders also understand the importance of the physical infrastructure. They know that roads, water, gas, electricity, and sewers are necessary to support economic growth. For many companies and industries, transportation of data, images, voices, and sound is at least as important, if not more so, than the transportation of goods by highway, rail, and air. Communities without access to high-speed Internet cannot compete in the 21st century economy.
One of the goals of the Rural Alabama Initiative is to help make sure that civic, human, and physical infrastructure is present in local communities across the state. The Initiative was designed and is managed by the Economic & Community Development Institute , which is a partnership between Auburn University and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Over the past five years, RAI has committed over $1.3 million to fund 157 community projects statewide, helping communities in a range of areas including leadership, workforce development, entrepreneurship, tourism, the arts, planning and design, youth programming, technology, conservation, and small farming.
In the interest of building a stronger civic infrastructure, over 75 percent of RAI projects have gone toward supporting adult or youth leadership development programs. These programs foster collaboration across community sectors, build the relationships needed to design and sustain holistic community growth, and bolster community pride and energy. RAI projects have also enhanced civic infrastructure via a new regional elected officials consortium, strategic planning sessions, and a community study circle on youth violence. In one of the state’s most rural counties, an RAI project supported establishment of a new community center that focuses on maintaining local traditions and culture. Another project brought community residents together to develop ideas for new community landscaping following a devastating tornado.
A similar investment has been made in building a stronger human infrastructure. To that end, many RAI projects are geared toward workforce development, including career fairs, teacher trainings, workforce development academies, technology camps for high school educators and counselors, high school robotics competitions, Hispanic work-readiness programs, women’s job-readiness programs, entrepreneurship training, and business-education roundtables. One very successful project brings local high school faculty and administrators together with area business and industry officials to share information and better align school curriculums with the employment requirements of businesses.
One of the goals of the Rural Alabama Initiative is to help make sure that civic, human, and physical infrastructure is present in local communities across the state.
The RAI has also sought to strengthen physical infrastructure in rural communities. Though several RAI projects have focused on increasing computer skills and broadband use in rural communities, the Initiative also aims to raise digital literacy in a much broader scope. One such effort is called “Connecting Alabama: Boosting Broadband to Bridge the Digital Divide.” Now being utilized in all 67 Alabama counties with the help of County Extension Coordinators, this effort seeks to educate rural residents and local leaders about the social and economic benefits and applications of broadband technology.
The bottom line is that investments like these in community infrastructure will significantly boost the chance for economic success in rural communities. By enhancing civic leadership, workforce readiness, and community access to broadband, the communities become more attractive to both existing and potential residents and employers. Ironically, strategies emphasizing community development ultimately make small rural towns much more attractive in the competition for those large manufacturing plants they covet.
Today, even small communities must compete in the global arena. As the days of communities chasing “smokestacks” come to an end, towns across Alabama are successfully building the community capacity needed to meet today’s challenges and to take advantage of emerging economic opportunities – making the
Rural Alabama Initiative not just a success story for our state, but an example for the rest of America as well.
Dr. Joe A. Sumners is the Director of the Economic and Community Development Institute at Auburn University.