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More alike than different

Micah Gursky

I could not agree more with Cynthia Duncan’s insights in “Community Development in Rural America: Collaborative, Regional, and Comprehensive” into what’s working in community development in rural communities.

She is right on target when she explains how rural communities are often comprehensive by necessity, as we often rely on the same volunteers and professionals to work in different community development areas.

But I strongly encourage my rural counterparts to resist the temptation to read only Ms. Duncan’s insights in “Investing in What Works for America’s Communities,” as informative as they are.

The entire collection of essays is as relevant for small and rural communities as it is for cities. They illustrate that our community development efforts are much more alike than different, and that we can all learn a lot from sharing our experience of what works.

Having practiced rural community development in my nondescript small town for 17 years, I have found that what works in urban and rural development is largely the same.

"A blighted house or a boarded-up 20th century factory are the same regardless of whether they are in a 'Metropolitan Statistical Area' or what might as well be called 'everywhere else.'"

A blighted house or a boarded-up 20th century factory are the same regardless of whether they are in a "Metropolitan Statistical Area" or what might as well be called "everywhere else."

The definition of rural as "non urban" still pervades and influences political, business and personal beliefs in America. Furthermore, perceptions and portrayals of rural communities often lead to misconceptions, particularly when it comes to rural community development.

Rural communities are not just "the food, fuel and fiber" of our country. They are or can be fully formed, economically diverse places with rich histories and opportunities. Rural communities don't exist to provide for urban areas any more than urban areas exist to provide rural areas with museums, theater and professionals sports teams. Our communities and economies—rural and urban—have more depth and diversity than that.

And so, what works in small towns like Tamaqua is what works for large cities like Chicago: the simultaneous development or enhancement of jobs, infrastructure, safe and affordable housing, amenities, educational opportunities, access to health care and the investment in human capital. And the same tools work, including Main Street, cluster strategies, regional marketing and workforce development. 

Tamaqua's refurbished train station.

And it works because comprehensive community development fills the essential, fundamental needs of people—not urban or rural people—but all people. I've heard these defined in many ways but they always include: a safe, quality home, meaningful employment, the ability to create wealth for your family, access to education, access to healthcare and access to amenities (things to do).

When you have them you take them for granted and when you don't, people, families, communities and nations suffer. These are, it is no surprise, common goals of community developers.

The most significant difference between urban and rural is the scale. When we have a need for health care expertise in my town of Tamaqua, a medically undeserved area, we may need to go from zero to one specialist. An urban medically underserved area may need to recruit 10 specialists to serve that same need.

Similarly, Tamaqua may only need to create 50 jobs to make the same impact on the unemployment rate as 500 new jobs would in an urban area. A specific recent example is a 12-unit affordable housing development we recently celebrated in Tamaqua. We consider this a very large development, but it would be a very small project for our counterparts who develop in urban communities.

This difference in scale is both a blessing and a curse for rural community development. It is a blessing because small increments (one doctor, 50 jobs, 12 units) have a big impact. It is a curse because communities often lack the necessary expertise.

"The same level of effort and expertise is needed to recruit one doctor or 10 doctors, attract 50 jobs or 500 jobs and build 12 units or 120 units."

In many ways, the same level of effort and expertise is needed to recruit one doctor or 10 doctors, attract 50 jobs or 500 jobs and build 12 units or 120 units. The smaller scale might make capacity building appear less desirable and less of a priority in rural areas. But it’s not. Rural communities that build, grow, import or borrow professional and human capacity are able to accomplish things others cannot.

What gets me out of bed in the morning is the desire to grow, create or borrow that expertise and capacity for my community and couple it with the scaled investments necessary to make it work. It is not easy but it works. And the incremental improvements are significant.

The best approach I've seen for rural communities is to create a comprehensive and sustainable effort. I'm convinced that some urban areas have more nonprofits than we have people. That's OK. We just need to make our talent and our organizations reach beyond a narrowly defined mission if we are going to accomplish larger community goals.

We have asked the same nonprofit organization in our town that is doing housing to also do arts projects. We've asked our industrial development group to support a heritage tourism project.

The other key component is scaled investment. A very large bank (with a local office) refused to even consider investing in that 12-unit housing development in Tamaqua because it was only a $3.8 million project and they don't consider anything less then $5 million projects. "It's the same paperwork and effort for a small deal as a large deal, so we stick to the large deals," we were told.

Well, in our rural community, a $3.8 million development is big, really big! Fortunately, we found a local bank who was willing to invest in this scale development and it worked.

Downtown Tamaqua

When funders, foundations, government, investors and banks rule out rural communities because they are too small or too rural for investments in infrastructure, education, housing, jobs and other improvements, rural communities weaken and erode—a condition which can often be used to justify ruling rural communities out in the first place.

What works in rural areas are investments that are comprehensive, strategic and on a community-specific scale. Yes, my rural counterparts, that means appropriately large investments in urban areas and appropriately scaled investments in rural communities.

There are many enlightened people, companies, agencies and foundations who have figured this out and have built their for-profit, charitable or public investment strategies to be inclusive and scalable. The rewards can be both financial and non-financial, and either builds community.

As all of our communities—urban and rural—continue to adapt and transition from the economies of our fathers and grandfathers, resist the temptations to look for a "silver bullet" that will solve all problems. "All we need is more jobs." "All we need is houses that people want to live in." "All we need is better education for our kids." "All we need is better infrastructure." "All we need is better leadership." "All we need is things for our young people to do." "All we need is better access to health care."

What works is a comprehensive approach that recognizes that our communities need all of these things. And the places that have them—whether its rural Tamaqua or urban Chicago—are robust Places with a capital P. Places that are inter-connected but not dependent, both unique and alike and, most importantly, competitive places for people and investments.

Micah Gursky is the director of the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership in the borough of Tamaqua in rural eastern Pennsylvania.


This article is part of a series of essays by community practitioners about ideas from the book Investing in What Works for America's Communities. Click here to see the list of other articles.


Posted in Affordable Housing, Commercial and Economic Development, Rural Community Development, Thinking Out Loud, Tamaqua, PA

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