Foothills Eco-Agri-Tourism Corporation (FEAT) and the UK Cooperative Extension Service hosted a workshop for entrepreneurs interested in advancing their ideas at Morehead’s Regional Enterprise Center in West Liberty, KY earlier this week (see post for details). Entrepreneurs working in Wolfe, Menifee, Morgan, Elliott Counties were the target audience for the event – but the combination of excellent speakers and networking among creative folks with great ideas drew a crowd from across Kentucky.
Peter Hille, Director of Berea College’s Brushy Fork Institute, set the tone for the workshop with a talk entitled “We Cannot Wait.” Hille talked about the lag effect often present between the national economy’s events and the impacts on rural communities, noting that it is possible the brunt of the economic downturn could just be hitting Appalachian communities now. Therefore, according to Hille, we cannot wait for a factory to show up and jump-start community economies – the local opportunities present in each and every community need to take off. Existing resources – capable people networking together to address challenges – need to be tapped to confront challenges in local economies, schools and government. Hille stressed the need for communities to take matters into their own hands – and not wait for outside help from the state or federal government, private foundations, or businesses. One such way for local communities to resource themselves is, according to Hille, exploring the opportunity to create a local community foundation, drawing on contributions of those who have made their lives and livings in the communities themselves. Hille cited the efforts of Hazard’s Gerry Roll, who has said that “When people begin to feel like and be considered investors in community building, we will begin to see our region transform.” See more about Gerry’s efforts with the Community Foundation of Hazard & Perry County here.
Vaughn Grisham, Director of the Institute for Community Development at the University of Mississippi, put context behind the types of efforts and ideas conference participants brought to the table by sharing several stories. Grisham recounted the determination of his grandfather – a farmer who put in his last crop at 96 years old – who had lost a leg and only completed the 1st grade, yet in his later years was able to obtain a degree in German and mathematics through the community college campus he helped establish by leasing his land. Grisham reminded participants that the times we are living in now are as revolutionary as the Industrial Revolution itself, pointing out that in the 1800s 95% of workers in our economy were farmers. Today, less than 2% of workers make a living farming full-time, while still managing to produce more food and fiber than ever before. The emergence of the knowledge, or creative, economy – a concept made popular by Peter Drucker – has meant new demands on participants in our economic system. It also presents new challenges, considering that no industrial society on the planet reproduces itself. This leaves the dual-challenge of economies made up of fewer young people (and the impact on school-age populations/schools accordingly) as well as an aging population, which will require ongoing educational opportunities to keep pace with the fast-changing world. Communities that are able to anticipate these changes will be well positioned to thrive in this knowledge economy – those that don’t will be playing catch up for years to come.
Todd Comen, Founder of the Institute for Integrated Rural Tourism, stressed that community assets go far beyond financial or economic definitions, and are instead made up of the geography, geology, cultural resources, and most of all the talents and abilities of the community members themselves. He encouraged participants to go through the conference with an eye towards developing linkages and partnerships between and among their individual efforts.
Citing the example of Elliott County, Gwenda Adkins of the Elliott County Extension Services highlighted the ability of communities to strengthen their own capacity – in 1992, Elliott County was listed as the #1 poorest county in the country and today is not even on the list of the 40 poorest counties by median household income, or top 100 by per capita income!
The conference itself offered networking opportunities to people with ideas – some big, like launching significant tourism infrastructure and outreach efforts, some small, like establishing hoop houses to extend growing seasons and enhance farmers’ market seasons. But the common themes among participants were undoubtedly enthusiasm for new ideas and a desire to collectively strengthen the assets of their communities. Big things will come of these efforts!