Director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania
PRP Board Member
In my 20 years of work in rural research and policy development, I have been fortunate to work with many people in government, academia, business and community-based organizations from across the country. Pennsylvania has many dedicated professionals who “get it,” especially when it comes to sustainable community development. Taking from those rural experiences and contacts, I offer these considerations for how Pennsylvania can recover from the lingering effects of the 2008 recession and create and sustain livable communities.
First and foremost we have to understand there is no rural economy that is separate and distinct from our overall economy. We are one commonwealth – urban, suburban, and rural – that is economically linked together and to the national and global economy. Rural Pennsylvania does not need separate policy; rather it should be an integral part of all public policy. Rural Pennsylvania is every much as dynamic and changing as urban Pennsylvania. It should not be marginalized by placing it in a separate policy box. The bottom line is – for Pennsylvania to succeed, its rural areas must also succeed.
However, we also have to understand that one-size-fits-all economic development policies and programs do not always work as intended for rural Pennsylvania. What we need to ensure the maximum return on public and private investment are flexible policies and programs that recognize the diversity of Pennsylvania, its people and its communities. As cluster development studies have shown, Pennsylvania cannot be economically homogenized; each area needs to capitalize on its assets and strengths. Place-based development strategies that build and capitalize on an area’s or a region’s unique qualities have a better chance of succeeding.
Local capacity or leadership also is critical in any project. Throughout America, local leadership is the key human element for successful projects. However, there are two demographic trends affecting this in Pennsylvania; we continue to experience out-migration of youth and the leaders who remain are getting older. By the year 2025, rural Pennsylvania will have more residents age 65+ than age 18 and younger. We must continue to invest in human capital development.
Another piece of human capital development is local entrepreneurship, which is a critical component of any sustainable economic development strategy. A 2008 study sponsored by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania on rural small business owners found that these businesses were very “local” in nature, with 90 percent of all revenues from sales within Pennsylvania. We need to provide the education, infrastructure, and affordable capital necessary to grow our local entrepreneurs. By fostering an “entrepreneurial climate,” we can create an environment conducive to risk taking and entrepreneurial growth.
We must also encourage the practice of lifelong learning. Paul Saffo, a Silicon-Valley-based technology forecaster, said: “Lifelong learning will be the key to unlocking the future. If you stop learning, you will become unemployed or unemployable very quickly.” In today’s world, a four-year college degree isn’t the only option for career advancement. According to surveys from Manpower, a worldwide employment services company, some of the top 10 hardest jobs to fill in America don’t even require a college degree, but they do require specific skills and continual training.
Finally, when local economic development efforts include a primary focus on improving overall quality of life, everyone – businesses, the community and the commonwealth – wins. Whether it’s implementing a downtown beautification project, developing recreational programs, or undergoing an historic preservation project, by developing and enhancing the community’s assets, the area becomes more vibrant and more attractive to new businesses. And that may give our youth a reason to stay and sustain their communities.
Barry can be reached at email@example.com