If you follow us on Facebook or Twitter (as you should!), you'll know that lastweek I was in West Virginia for a conference hosted by the Central Appalachian Network on "the Rural-Urban Continuum," or how to better connect rural Appalachia with urban markets in and around the region. This is a challenge for our region, as many of our communities are far from urban centers with their increased buying power.
Often we hear that the cities are the economic engines of an economy, with surrounding rural areas being a drain on resources. However, the research presented at the conference, by Brian Dabson of the University of Missouri, found that this isn't necessarily the case. The chart to the left shows that, with the exception of Louisville and Cincinnati, the rural areas (labeled "periphery") surrounding the urban core actually generate more revenue than the cities. The problem is that the wealth doesn't stick – it flows back into the urban areas and tends to stay there.
So how do we fix this problem? Dabson offered seven strategies:
After discussing these strategies, the audience broke into small groups and came up with six more:
8. Support physical infrastructure development for rural communities, and advocate for technology and broadband access.
9. Develop sector-specific strategies for increasing market access (eg. energy, food, forestry, manufacturing, health).
10. Explore new/external consumer demand and urban markets. Identify competitive advantages for rural products/enterprises that build on strengths/assets.
11. Develop new forms of capital, especially transfer of wealth/new wealth in the region.
12. Build cross-sector collaborations around triple bottom line values and value chain concepts.
These strategies are all well and good, but what do they look like in practice? We heard from a panel of entrepreneurs (pictured at right) who are actively working to bring their rural-made products to urban markets:
The conversation flowed from there, with small group discussions about how practitioners of research and policy, philanthropy, economic development, and business and social enterprises could help develop this rural-urban connection. A key need that was discussed often was the first strategy from the research – intermediaries and brokers, folks who can bridge the gap between producers and buyers. Farmers want to farm, and food service workers want to cook; neither want to have to seek the other out and figure out the details for how to get local food into a hospital cafeteria. But brokers can fill that need so that everyone can do their own jobs more efficiently. We also need to be better about "telling the story" of our region and its wonderful goods and services. Why are our products and experiences better? Why should folks outside the region want to buy or use them?
While this conference was more about learning than practice, we did have some takeaways for moving forward: building relationships and trust between urban and rural markets and intermediaries is important; we need to learn from each other; and we must share and build upon best practices that are already seeing success in the region.
A proceedings paper covering the conference will be produced by the Central Appalachian Network. It will be posted here when it's available!