Aspen Institute Proposes a New Path for Rural Prosperity: Elevating America’s Rural Development Hubs

November 19, 2019

Policymakers, national funders and news organizations encouraged to address rural disparities by supporting organizations with a fresh approach to community and economic development

Contact: Jon Purves
Senior Media Relations Manager
The Aspen Institute | 202 736-2111

Washington, DC, November 19, 2019The Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group (CSG) today released Rural Development Hubs: Strengthening America’s Rural Innovation Infrastructure, a groundbreaking report that identifies common traits of regional organizations creating positive change in rural America. The report challenges the narrative that innovation is confined to urban America, and puts forward Hubs as critical models for advancing comprehensive economic development strategies in rural places. Its findings, developed with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, are based on more than 40 interviews with field-leading Rural Development Hubs across the nation.

Rural Development Hubs are defined as place-rooted organizations working within and across a region to build inclusive wealth, increase local capacity and create better well-being for rural people. They are identified as a strategic entry point for national and regional funders and policymakers to engage with rural America. For a thriving, equitable nation, attention to and investment in rural places and people is essential.

“Rural Development Hubs are unsung action heroes that analyze what is – or is not – working in a region’s community and economic development ‘system’ and then innovate, partner and stretch to fill gaps,” says Janet Topolsky, executive director of CSG. “Here’s the big secret: Many Hubs are under the radar because Hubs are not any one type of organization. In one region, a Hub might be the local community action agency, but it’s a community foundation four counties over, and the community college or a community development financial institution on the other side of the mountain.”

Among the report’s key facts and insights:

  • Effecting positive change in rural America benefits from working across a region. Hubs think and act regionally – but struggle at it because few helpful systems or structures exist to fund or incent regional efforts.
  • Education, health, manufacturing and energy are leading rural employment sectors – not agriculture, which employs only 5% of rural workers.
  • Every state has both growing and declining rural counties. Some rural places are actually experiencing a rural “brain gain” of people aged 30-49. People of color are 21% of America’s roughly 60 million residents – but account for 83% of 2000-2010 rural population growth.
  • Though it has declined in recent years, the rural poverty rate is higher than urban’s. Anyone working and investing to increase equity in America must include rural people and places.
  • From impact investing to Opportunity Zones, the will to invest in rural places is growing. But pipelines and marketplaces that connect investors to America’s rural development opportunities – and that prepare rural businesses for that investment – are a big missing piece.
  • The structure of many government programs and funding formulas systematically place rural America at a disadvantage. Changing laws, regulations, eligibility criteria and formulas that perpetuate rural disinvestment is paramount.

“In response to radical shifts in technology and the structure of the economy, rural communities are devising innovative, bottom-up solutions. They would be even more successful at building durable economies and dynamic, healthy communities with the benefit of a modern policy framework that recognized the importance of investing in rural places, local people, and regional institutions, such as Hubs,” says Katharine Ferguson associate director of CSG.

Examples of successful Rural Development Hubs include:

  • In eastern Oregon, land ownership, use and stewardship are often in tension. Wallowa Resources brings together the range of stakeholders to find common ground so they can create stronger economies and healthier landscapes together.
  • In South Carolina, many striving but struggling African American families jointly own land inherited over generations but lack the “clear title” they need to use it productively. The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation first developed tools and services to help families through that legal maze. Then, in partnership with the U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities, the Center started helping families who own small forest stands learn how to sustainably harvest and sell timber, creating an ongoing source for building family wealth.
  • The six independent Minnesota Initiative Foundations, launched by the McKnight Foundation in 1986, each serve a multi-county rural region of the state. Like the Southwest Initiative Foundation interviewed for the report, each has become a hybrid of a community foundation building funds and distributing grants, a community financial institution making gap loans to small businesses, a leader in developing early childhood programs and addressing workforce development in its region, and much, much more.

The report includes recommendations grouped around “10 Routes to a Stronger Rural Development Ecosystem.” Most relate to an enabling environment that understands rural and urban America’s interdependence and what it takes for Hubs to do their work. Rural Hub leaders nationwide shared their insights as part of this process:

  • Commenting on inclusion: Chrystel Cornelius of First Nations Oweesta Corporation offered: “Start including rural America. We are integral to the economy and integral to how this nation is and was formed and the direction we are going in the future.”
  • Focusing on investments in leadership capacity: “The difficult problems that we are up against in place are best addressed by leaders in communities who are supported by expertise and capital – not programs, not projects. Leaders in a place are ultimately how you create change,” remarked Jim King, president of Fahe, a network dedicated to ending persistent poverty in Appalachia.
  • Using a policy lens: “So much of what is decided in D.C. and state capitals doesn’t translate in rural regions. It often feels like we are being impacted in ways that are the exact opposite of what is intended,” says Stacy Caldwell of the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation in rural California.
  • Connecting America’s shared future: “Valuing the contribution of rural communities is critical to embracing national challenges ranging from climate change to technological automation. A host of robust, vibrant and resilient rural regions are gaining the knowledge and skills to respond to these challenges in ways that advance the dignity, health and prosperity of everyone. Let’s build more,” says Nils Christoffersen, CEO of Wallowa Resources.

The Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group (CSG) convenes, equips and inspires local leaders as they build more prosperous regions and advance those living on the economic margins – with more than 75% of that work in rural America. Aspen CSG’s work to produce the report was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Aspen CSG will next collaborate with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in a co-learning venture that will bridge rural knowledge and experience with the best research and ideas from community and economic development and public health to uncover and document what is working and what it takes to create dynamic, sustainable rural communities where people can realize their full potential and live healthy lives. To track that effort as it unfolds, visit

The Aspen Institute is a community-serving organization with global reach whose vision is the creation of a free, just and equitable society. For 70 years, the Institute has driven change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve the world’s greatest challenges. With headquarters in Washington, DC, the Institute has offices in Aspen, Colorado and New York City, as well as an international network of partners. Learn more at


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