Rural America was front and center in the 2016 national election. Media headlines focused attention on our nation’s acute rural challenges – the decline of critical sectors like mining and manufacturing, technology-driven worker dislocation in those industries and agriculture, inadequate job opportunities for dislocated workers, infrastructure challenges, community health crises, and more.
But a deeper understanding of rural America reveals a companion picture – one where innovation and collaborative local leadership are turning challenges into opportunities. Rather than wait on solutions from outside, many rural places are building on their existing assets and designing creative economic development approaches that drive toward more broadly shared prosperity while creating and retaining jobs.
America’s Rural Opportunity is a six-part series of panel conversations that invites policymakers, economic and community development practitioners, and business and philanthropic leaders to engage in real dialogue around advancing a rural opportunity agenda. The series is presented by the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group with the Rural Development Innovation Group. Over the coming year, the series will:
- Uncover the complex reality and diversity of America’s rural places, economies, businesses, development intermediaries – and people.
- Raise understanding about what works in Rural America by exploring enterprising economic development approaches that tap a range of opportunities to build wider and more enduring prosperity – and strengthen productive rural/urban connections.
- Identify what the private, public and philanthropic sectors can do differently to improve rural prospects.
This second America’s Rural Opportunity panel will focus on a group of innovators that drive the American economy – entrepreneurs and the organizations that support them. Particularly in rural communities, entrepreneurs are the engines for job growth and, with support, can become anchors for community economic development. Rural entrepreneurs bring leadership, create wealth that stays in the community, and diversify local economies to create resilience in uncertain economic times.
In many rural communities, the legacy of reliance on a single employer or economic sector has stunted the development of an entrepreneurial culture. The panel will highlight how leading rural economic development practitioners take on the task of cultivating entrepreneurs and how the entrepreneurs themselves leverage that support into successful business ventures. Their stories will highlight innovative ways to drive capital and other resources to rural entrepreneurs through public, private, and philanthropic channels.
Rural Entrepreneurs Creating Jobs and Quality of Life
Wing Champs, Raymondville, Texas
Lupe Ruiz, Co-Owner, Wing Champs
Ines Polonius, CEO, Communities Unlimited
Wing Champs, a restaurant in Raymondville, was opened in 2015 by the Ramirez and Ruiz families, the children of immigrants. The restaurant provides a gathering space for young people – they offer high speed internet so kids can do their homework – with the goal of improving quality of life and ties to the community. After a strong launch, with $361,000 generated in the first six months, the business experienced cash flow problems from two expensive predatory loans. The community was also suffering, losing 350 jobs when a large prison facility and local Walmart closed. Wing Champs employs 19 people in a community where every job counts. Faced with closure, the business engaged the management consultant and lending team at Communities Unlimited, who worked with the entrepreneurs to turn around the business and allow Wing Champs to continue serving as a community anchor.
Rural Entrepreneurial Support Organization
Northern Initiatives, Marquette, Michigan
Dennis West, CEO, Northern Initiatives
This 25-year old community development financial institution provides access to capital and business advisory services for an ever-expanding rural region of northern Michigan. Northern Initiatives has been an innovator in effectively providing business assistance resources – online and in-person coaching – to a growing portfolio of loan customers, while also supporting the growth of nature-based/heritage tourism and food systems sectors. They have a diverse set of partners including workforce development and philanthropy. In 2016, Northern Initiatives reached a milestone – $55 million loaned to over 950 small businesses throughout its northern Michigan region.
Sector Development through Entrepreneurship
Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, southern West Virginia
Jeffrey Lusk, Executive Director, Hatfield McCoy Regional Recreation Authority
The Hatfield-McCoy Trail system, about 600 miles of multi-purpose trails, many on reclaimed mining land, covers nine counties in southern West Virginia. Established by the state to encourage economic development through tourism, efforts have expanded beyond the trails to include enterprise development and connecting small towns to the trail network to provide lodging, restaurants and other services – all to capture more tourism dollars. A recent grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission will enable deeper work to connect communities along the trail and extend into neighboring states, as well as deliver more support to entrepreneurs. The goal is to increase the over $22 million the trails already bring into the local and state economies.