Skip to main content

Rural Community Developers Gather to Celebrate – and Build On – Their Successes

Rural LISC Seminar attendees gather to hear speakers in the Franco Center, a deconsecrated Catholic Church transformed into a performance space in Lewiston, Maine.

Jen Dean Photography

Rural community development is a tough job. Practitioners often work in isolation, counties or even states away from their nearest peers. Rural LISC has spent the past 20 years supporting, convening and connecting rural community developers from across the United States, building their knowledge and networks so that they can do their jobs more effectively while going about the business of helping their communities. Rural LISC recently marked its 20th anniversary with its Annual Seminar, gathering rural community development partners from 72 community development corporations (CDCs) in 43 states together in Portland, Maine.

While the event was a celebration of 20 years of achievement for Rural LISC and its CDC partners, the tone of the workshops and plenary sessions focused forward: What is in store for rural America? How can we leverage opportunities, overcome challenges and build on 20 years of success? Throughout the course of the seminar, several trending realities emerged about the work of building communities in rural America:

The geography of rural America brings both challenge and opportunity.
Rural CDCs must be nimble and creative to overcome their geographic constraints. The isolation of rural communities in far-flung locations has always been a reality, but the world is shrinking in some ways. The rise of telecommuting and internet service, the boom in outdoor recreation and the reach of new federal highway projects have brought some very remote rural areas within reach of city-based tourists and commuters.

At the same time, many rural communities remain extremely isolated and struggle to attract both businesses and residents due to distance, a lack of desirable housing stock and an inability to offer competitive wages. CDC leaders such as Peter Carey, former Executive Director of Self-Help Enterprises in Visalia, Calif., noted that staff retention can be a challenge because “where we are is not a big draw for people in their twenties.”

Small-town Lewiston has seen an influx of Somali immigrants, whose small businesses are bringing new vitality to the Lisbon Street commercial corridor.

Samuel Dolgin-Gardner

Some lenders are not willing to invest in rural areas, where the scale of development is often more modest than it is in urban areas and where development costs may exceed the potential income from sales or rents. But other lenders and funders are actively seeking ways to get more deeply involved in rural markets. CDC leaders and advocates discussed strategies to garner more support and attention for the smaller-scale development and to make it more sustainable.

The tiny hamlet of Thomas, W. Va. illustrates how the geography of rural places has both benefits and drawbacks. For Thomas, challenge comes with opportunity. Entrepreneurs and town officials leveraged unique qualities – nearby recreational opportunities and a culture of homegrown music and art – to attract a thriving tourist trade. But with opportunity, challenges arise. The region’s attractiveness as a destination has given rise to a vacation home market that is making the housing market more competitive for year-round residents. Dave Clark, President of Woodlands Development Group, described workforce housing as a key issue for his organization’s work in Thomas.

Jobs and economic development: the puzzle everyone wants to solve.
Economic development sessions were the most heavily attended workshops at the seminar, evidence of how critical this topic is for rural communities. Rural community developers are urgently seeking ways to bring economic vitality to their regions.

Supporting small businesses is one key strategy for CDCs. Eileen Stenerson, Senior Vice President at Wells Fargo and a member of LISC’s Rural Advisory Committee, spoke of the catalytic power that a first spark of economic life can bring to an empty main street: “If they can just get that first business going, that first café or shop, it can pave the way for other activity.” This spark is visible in Lewiston, Maine, where Somali immigrants supported by Coastal Enterprises, Inc., are opening businesses in vacant storefronts, bringing new life to a mostly vacant commercial corridor.

However, CDCs also prize the ability to attract larger businesses that will bring significant jobs to a community or region. Employers want to be in places where there is a workforce that can meet their current and future needs, and many businesses believe that means they need to be in urban areas. Presenters in the “Rural Models for Improving Family Income and Security” panel acknowledged that there is a skills gap in the rural workforce and discussed how to address it.

Mable Starks of Mississippi Action for Community Education explains how the YouthBuild program teaches young people in Greenville, Miss. both job skills and life skills.

Jen Dean Photography

Mable Starks, President and CEO of Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE), Inc., cited a Manufacturing Institute report that found 69 percent of job applicants lack basic employability skills such as reading, math, English language and teamwork. MACE is addressing gaps locally through its YouthBuild program. The YouthBuild model provides job skills training as well as academic education, counseling, graduate resources and leadership development. Participants emerge with both job and life skills, and are more prepared to be productive employees and citizens.

It may not be rocket science, but the work is becoming more complex.
Community developers recognize that housing alone is not enough to transform communities. Comprehensive revitalization approaches require CDCs to develop basic expertise in an array of other disciplines, such as health and education.

A slide from the "Rural Economic Development Tools" workshop illustrates the complexity of modern real estate financing.

Slide by Christopher Howard, Pierce Atwood LLP

Even the “traditional” community development disciplines are increasingly complicated and can be overwhelming, especially for small organizations. Affordable housing production and preservation require knowledge of specialized programs like HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration and green and healthy housing strategies. Commercial and economic development tools such as the New Markets Tax Credit necessitate a sophisticated understanding of commercial project underwriting. Each program or project type comes with a unique set of regulations and sources of financing. CDCs have to parse these opportunities, identify realistic strategies and balance them with their resource constraints.

Organizational capacity: The rich get richer?
The increasing complexity of community development work requires CDCs to have greater capacity to assemble project financing, administer programs and comply with the administrative requirements of their funders. CDC staffs today must include professionals with expertise in finance, asset management, grants management and other topics. But, paradoxically, groups must have capacity in order to build capacity. To win grant funding (and especially to keep it), CDCs need systems and employees that can keep up with funder demands for information.

Marcia Erickson, CEO of GROW-SD, noted that the reporting requirements for her organization’s grants and contracts include the generation of more than 250 individual monitoring reports per year, covering thousands of data points. To fulfill these requirements, her CDC needs employees who can manipulate and analyze data and know how to use the appropriate software.

In light of this trend, one CDC director expressed concern that the capacity gap between organizations will widen in the future, and that smaller organizations with less capacity will be left behind. Training and knowledge-building opportunities like the Rural LISC Seminar become increasingly critical in this environment.

It’s all about relationships
In a video address to the conference, Maine’s Sen. Angus King noted, “Nothing happens without support from both sides.” It was a sentiment echoed many times throughout the conference: cooperation and collaboration are essential to success – on Capitol Hill and out in the field. This work thrives on the partnerships rural CDCs form: partnerships with the public and philanthropic sectors to bring resources to remote communities, with experienced developers that can help accomplish complex deals, with community colleges to bring job skills to rural residents, with arts organizations to invigorate public spaces, and with other nonprofits to provide essential services to residents.

A time capsule collects artifacts from rural community developers across the United States.

Jen Dean Photography

At the 20-year mark, Rural LISC and rural CDCs are continuing to move forward, meeting new challenges and forming the critical connections to help rural places survive and thrive. Both LISC and the CDCs believe that building, sustaining and participating in rural networks with their peers and partners is a critical element to meeting the challenges rural communities face, while capitalizing on their opportunities.


Posted in Rural Community Development

Stay connected

Stay up to date with news and events related to the Institute: