In this third of our four-part series. “Rural Communities: Conquering Challenges, Optimizing Opportunities,” produced in association with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Michelle discusses rural economics and business with Janet Topolsky, who directs the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, specializing in connecting low-wealth rural and urban places and populations to regional economic development; Ines Polonius. CEO of Communities Unlimited, Inc., a CDFI and community economic development organization in the rural South; and David Erickson, senior vice president and head of Outreach and Education at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Polonius works with leadership teams in rural communities, concentrating on water systems and entrepreneurial development, while collaborating with management consultants. Both Aspen and Communities Unlimited, the guest note, focus on wealth creation by looking at the social, cultural, and economic resources that already exist or could be filled locally to develop the economy, as opposed to building from the outside. There has actually been modest population growth in the rural sector, with persons of color responsible for much of that expansion, Topolsky points out. It’s also important, says Polonius, to recognize the explosion of the gig economy, in those from rural communities who return home to pursue freelance opportunities online. Her group also supports black-owned farms in expanding the distribution of healthy local food. In Minnesota, notes Topolsky, community foundations have looked at local businesses and started to do business lending to meet gaps, such as new technologies, putting together sustaining partnerships to grow manufacturing.
Polonius says it’s often more beneficial to offer local entrepreneurs several micro loans rather than one large loan. Erickson says, in his personal opinion, there are three types of rural communities: those relatively thriving, such as vacation destinations; those struggling because of their distance from more prosperous markets; and those that chronically struggle with poverty and other issues. The New York Federal Reserve encourages banks to invest in rural areas and also acts as a facilitator, curating possible economic growth by bringing together stakeholders. Thought its market connection program, the NY Fed plays a “matchmaker” role, as it will in an upcoming meeting in Puerto Rico. This episode is sponsored by Thomas USAF, which on December 4 is sponsoring the 20th Annual National Rural Lenders Roundtable in Washington, DC, www.nrlrt.com. This episode and the entire four-part series is sponsored and supported by the +Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, rwjf.org.