by Dean Whittaker

While visiting a potential client this week, I had a chance to see and feel the effect the restructuring of our economy is having on small-town, rural America. When asked, community leaders had difficulty describing what was unique about their town. It was founded about 150 years ago, when one could earn a living with one’s hands. It is historically a “Blue Collar” town, where the major workers’ Union is now protecting older employees at the expense of younger ones and trying to buy time for both. Like many small rural towns, this one was bypassed by the interstate and has no institution of higher education. An aging workforce, a declining population, and a talent and brain drain to surrounding metro areas complete the picture.

Rural areas are struggling to compete in a global and knowledge-based economy. Many of the manufacturers who selected rural locations did so for the lower operating costs that these areas provided. Now, those same firms are seeking to move their labor-intensive, high-volume operations to even lower cost areas. Ok, so we know all of this. The real question is what can and should we do about it?

If one takes the long view (100 years or so), prosperity may once again return to these areas. As the economic cycle continues its oscillation, a town’s location at the intersection of two major railroads may once again be a critical factor for economic enterprise, especially with energy costs rising at a record pace.

Yet the question remains: what do we do today? How do people learn to earn a living with their heads instead of their hands? This employment challenge may be too difficult for many people, resulting in major new demands being placed on social service agencies.

For rural areas to continue a healthy existence may require that they create economic reasons for being. What can rural America provide to the metropolitan world? How about a place for a low-stress vacation or a simpler way to live? How about a creative, artistic community that’s also close to nature? How about a safe place to raise a family? How about a sense of community and belonging as one is greeted by name on the street and in the shops (including a local coffee shop where all really important discussions take place)? How about recreating the town as a nexus for antique collecting or weekend getaways? Or how about bringing the country to the city in the form of a farm-to-market service?

Reinventing rural America is going to challenge all of us to be more creative, compassionate and humane, and to think in terms of multiple generations when there is little short-term return on the investment. We’ve got a long ways to go, so we best get started!