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Published in Economic Development
Martin Lavelle, business economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Detroit branch Martin Lavelle, business economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Detroit branch Courtesy Photo

Q&A: Conference to define challenges, opportunities with rural economic development

BY Sunday, September 25, 2022 10:10pm

The W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago will host a conference this week in Greenville and Grand Rapids focused on rural economic development. Scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, the conference will discuss the “challenges and opportunities facing rural economic development.” Among the scheduled speakers is Martin Lavelle, a business economist with the Detroit branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He spoke with MiBiz on the issues the conference will address, including access to housing and how the pandemic and the rise of remote work has changed the equation.

 

What are some of the biggest barriers for rural communities pursuing economic development?

One thing we’re going to talk a lot about is housing. We’re going to be able to have the presence of two small town city managers on one of the panels up in Greenville and they’ll talk about where they have the ability to … be bedroom communities for people that want to live there, live in these small towns and commute into Grand Rapids for a job. But, there’s not enough housing. Developers won’t come in to build those houses because the infrastructure isn’t set up there — water and sewer. Second, developers are already familiar with the other areas that are growing around Grand Rapids. That’s happening in a lot of places.

What are other barriers to rural investments?

People look to move somewhere where they find the amenities they want around and to experience where they’re living. Between housing, between schooling (and) other things that are available to them, and then you can get into some area’s zoning and access to health care (and) access to broadband — unfortunately, there are multiple barriers.

 

How has the pandemic and the growth of remote work and working from home changed the equation?

This is where opportunities come in. With many more employers now embracing this flexible work arrangement, if you’re able to work from somewhere else and your employer’s OK with that, some people have taken advantage of this opportunity to move somewhere where there is a lower cost of living. If they can access broadband and they do find the amenities they’re looking for, they find places to live.

We’re already seen some of this. The question is whether or not this is permanent or temporary. I think some of that comes back to: Do some less-populated or rural areas have what’s needed for employees to be able to do what they need to do, working-wise?

We’ve seen much more emphasis in the pandemic and public funding directed to broadband deployment, especially in rural markets that lack or have inadequate service. Does that heighten the need for rural communities to examine their zoning and policies to ensure they keep their arms around it?

I think it highlights the need for just greater collaboration among all parties, whether it be government officials, economic developers, nonprofits (and) foundations. And not just on broadband, but on all these issues that especially pertain to rural development. They need to just keep having conversations, keep looking for solutions and trying to find the best way to do these things at scale and provide those opportunities, with broadband being one of those pertinent issues.

What’s your best advice on what rural communities should consider for economic development?

Having a conversation with a city manager, they mention that policymakers shouldn’t just say ‘no.’ They should find a way to say ‘yes’ and try to make things work. Hopefully, with that greater collaboration taking place, there’s just everybody looking to find a way to make it happen and not just view those proposals negatively right off the bat.

What exactly does the term ‘rural economic development’ mean?

That’s one of the challenges, too. You have multiple organizations or government entities that define it in different ways. We’re actually going to talk about that. 

In my opinion, rural communities do a pretty good job, actually better than most people think, looking to their peers to share best practices (and) even greater thinking outside the box, especially with the limited resources that they have. (They) maybe find different ways to think about different challenges. It’s not just the town next to you or in the same county or one county over. They easily draw upon other resources where you could find another town in another state that actually has a similar profile to you. Whether it’s on the manufacturing side or natural resources or leisure and hospitality, you can look at another community and say, ‘Oh, they look like us. They’re in another state, but it looks like they have some of the same challenges, opportunities, a similar profile, and maybe we can learn something from them.’

 

— Interview conducted and condensed by Mark Sanchez. 

Read 1336 times Last modified on Monday, 26 September 2022 12:35
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