Rebuilding Healthy Communities in Rural America
Small towns face unique hurdles in economic development
by Carl Vogel
Gloria Dickerson grew up without much in Drew, Mississippi, one of a dozen small Delta towns in Sunflower County. She left to get her accounting degree at Ole Miss and after graduation in 1974, she moved to Jackson for a job.
Her story is not uncommon in rural America. Small towns like Drew struggle with declining, and aging, populations as youth move away for greener pastures. Drew lost 14 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010 alone. Economic development is difficult to jumpstart without population — or capital — to support it. But without a robust economy, families struggle, poverty takes hold and persists, sometimes for generations. In Sunflower County where Drew is located, poverty rates are 35 percent and jobs are hard to find. With persistent poverty, health suffers. Rural Americans are at higher risk than others for chronic diseases and injuries, and life expectancy in rural America is two years shorter than in the rest of the country, research shows. And the disparities are widening.
Unlike many of those who leave small towns, however, Dickerson moved back to Drew. After taking an early retirement, she returned in 2009 to try to make a difference. She started a nonprofit, We 2Gether Creating Change, to inspire and give opportunities to local youth, and last year she won a seat as a county supervisor. Today she’s leading a comprehensive community planning process in Drew to envision a more secure, and healthier, future for the town and its residents.
With persistent poverty in rural areas, health suffers. Life expectancy in rural America is two years shorter than in the rest of the country.
“We’ve got some old dilapidated houses in the community that are falling down,” Dickerson said. “There’s kids walking to school in the morning past them, seeing that every day. Exposure to other opportunities is very limited. You settle for what you know.”
Poverty and disinvestment in rural communities like Drew typically don’t get as much attention as similar troubles in urban neighborhoods. But the need can be just as great or greater in rural areas.
“Working in New York City, I saw crushing levels of poverty in the South Bronx,” said David Lipsetz, senior fellow for the Housing Assistance Council, a national nonprofit that builds homes and communities across rural America. “But the South Bronx looks like a virtual launch pad of opportunity compared to pockets of rural poverty in Appalachia, the colonias on our southern border, and Pine Ridge Reservation.”
Lipsetz, who also served as deputy assistant secretary at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and an associate administrator for rural development at the US Department of Agriculture said the demographics and economic structure in rural areas are fundamentally different from those in urban areas.
Those differences mean that the blueprint for community development in urban areas often does not apply in rural communities.
Challenges in Changing Economic Times
Wisconsin Rapids (pop 18,000), on the banks of the Wisconsin River almost exactly in the middle of the state, was lucky. For 96 years, Consolidated Papers, Inc., the paper mill that printed Life Magazine, drove the local economy and employed generations of residents.
But that era essentially ended on February 22, 2000, when the Daily Tribune ran an all-caps headline across the entire front page: “CPI SOLD.” Like many US industries, Consolidated Paper’s heyday was behind them. In the following years, as the Finnish company that bought Consolidated struggled against global competition, the region lost 40 percent of its manufacturing jobs, and average household income declined from $60,100 in 2000 to $48,622 in 2015.
In a vicious cycle, declining incomes mean declining taxes and less money for economic development, which in rural communities is often a bootstraps, community-led project.
“In urban areas, there are more public, philanthropic, and corporate resources,” said Alan Branson, executive vice president and chief operating officer of HOPE Enterprise Corporation, a community development financial institution (CDFI) that focuses on economically distressed areas in the Mid-South. “In rural areas, the resources just aren’t there.”
Services and supports are fewer as well, said Suzanne Anarde, vice president for the rural program of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), often because of the very thing that defines small-town life: fewer people spread across sometimes vast areas. The lack of population density skews the economies of scale for new projects and programs. Although 30 percent of the people in a town could use the programs offered by a service like LISC’s Financial Opportunity Centers, in a town of 5,000, that’s only about 1500 clients. The need is great, but the overall numbers served are not.
“You need about as much in terms of space and back-office costs to run a program that serves 1,000 people as you do one that serves 20,000,” she said. And if the next town is 50 miles away, it’s hard to make a collaborative enterprise work.
Local Development in Mississippi
Lack of density can mean less local expertise as well. Developing a property requires knowledge of state and federal programs, bonding requirements, architecture, assessment, and more. In rural towns, where public officials wear many hats, it can be hard to pull in the knowledge and relationships needed to get a project off the ground.
The same issue affects nonprofit efforts. Rural communities have far fewer community development corporations, and although many rural areas across the country have dedicated community-based organizations, they can be stretched thin. In these cases, potential developers may find a shortage of local experience to call on to build affordable housing, new schools, health care facilities, or other resources.
“The first thing they all want is a grocery store because we need a place to buy good food.”
In Drew, Mississippi, Dickerson had been asking people what they thought the town needed to make it a better place to live. “The first thing they all want is a grocery store because we need a place to buy good food,” she said. “They’d mention a park, places to eat out, good schools. Those are all missing from this town, and we want them.”
To create that kind of change, Dickerson knew she would need outside help. In Jackson, she had worked for the Kellogg Foundation, which had launched a program to provide deep investment in several priority places, including Sunflower County. So she asked them to come to Drew to see what was needed.
When Kellogg showed interest, the next step was finding the technical assistance to develop a comprehensive plan. Dickerson contacted a nonprofit dedicated to building affordable housing, Delta Housing Development Corp., as well as HOPE.
Plans are now taking shape in Drew. HOPE is researching what is needed to get a grocery store and fresh produce to Drew — what distributors are available and interested, what the market will bear — and Delta Housing is planning to build five affordable, single-family homes in town.
“We can do this. We can transform our community,” said Dickerson, who has been providing space for a series of financial workshops to help residents improve their credit to qualify for mortgages. “Unless a rural community has some help, though, ordinarily they don’t get to this point.”
Community Input in Wisconsin
Wisconsin Rapids would find that help from Incourage, a local nonprofit philanthropic organization, and through its own residents. In 2012, the Gannett company put the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune building, a nearly 20,000-square-foot building on the river, up for sale. What could have been another nail in the community’s coffin instead has become a catalyst for redevelopment.
Incourage is spearheading a community-led re-emergence of the space as a shared workspace for entrepreneurs and small businesses, community gathering place for residents, a microbrewery, art studio, café, and retail and recreational opportunities for visitors. Through a series of public meetings and workshops, Incourage gathered more than 1,000 ideas from residents and is gradually putting some of that community vision to work.
“It does feel like we’re at a turning point in the community,” said Kelly Ryan, president and CEO of Incourage, “that people here see things differently, and the Tribune Building is at the center of that.” Along with the ideas and plans, Incourage has raised more than $1 million from the state’s economic development corporation, ArtPlace America, and, notably, local residents.
The Bottom Line About the Bottom Line
Projects like these in rural areas are neither easy nor cheap. They require a vision, patience, and above all, funding. Often that funding comes from the US Department of Agriculture.
“Affordable loans aren’t always available for small towns, rural businesses and local families,” Lipsetz said. “USDA programs try to fill that gap by providing low-cost financing in hard-to-reach places, to build most anything a rural community needs to succeed.”
“USDA is a lifeline for rural America,” said LISC’s Anarde.
According to Lipsetz, USDA’s Rural Development programs guarantee $24 billion a year in mortgages for homeownership in rural communities, while also lending and granting more than $8 billion annually to local governments, small businesses, and nonprofits. Locals use the funds to build utility services like water and electric, apartments, libraries, fire stations, and more.
“Hopefully, we’ve set in motion the kind of public-private collaboration that can unlock investment in rural America.”
Last year, Lipsetz helped design and launch a new USDA program, Uplift America. The program provides local lenders with low-cost capital to “re-lend” to nonprofits and others who are building much-needed community facilities. In its first year, the program provided $402 million to 26 rural CDFI’s and other local lenders. The program is a big win for CDFIs working to tackle persistent poverty. And in an innovative twist, a public-private partnership with Bank of America, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, and others was formed to help Uplift America lenders deploy the funds.
“Hopefully,” says Lipsetz, “we’ve set in motion the kind of public-private collaboration that can unlock investment in rural America.”
Investment such as those Lipsetz envisions are critical to small towns’s bottom lines. But their benefits reach far beyond the coffers and paychecks of local employers and residents. A community with well-paying jobs, good grocery stores, and schools are the foundation for good health. Without these investments, the disturbing disparities in life expectancy and other health indicators will only widen.
Community development has another benefit as well. In small towns, “You can actually see change happen,” said Ryan.