Rural communities need to cut back

Steve Tarter

 Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon told representatives of rural communities that it’s time to do more with less.

Addressing the 23rd annual rural affairs conference held at the Four Points by Sheraton, Simon said Wednesday that funding levels dictate the strategy.

“From the federal level down to the smallest township, there’s a need to think about how to do more in these tight-budget times,” she said.

Rural communities have to think in terms of collaborating more than ever, said Simon at the two-day program that looks at ways to boost economic development in Illinois small towns.

Rural Illinois is already seeing benefits from the expansion of broadband connectivity and efforts to produce local food, she said. “Students at Black Hawk Community College in the Quad Cities are growing vegetables that are being sold at the Whole Foods store in Chicago.”

Christopher Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, the conference sponsor, said there’s “a smidgen of optimism” for rural communities this year.

Merrett, pointing to what he called a strong agricultural economy and the return of manufacturing to the Midwest, said there’s good news to report on the rural front.

“The question is how rural communities survive when they can’t rely on Springfield or Washington for funding,” he said.

“We know there’s wealth in rural communities. The challenge is to keep it there,” said Merrett, pointing to community foundations as one of the possibilities and the focus of one of Thursday’s workshops.

“You have to see if a rural resident is willing to invest 1 percent or 2 percent of that wealth in their community,” he said.

David Oppedahl of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago provided an overview of the rural economy in the Midwest at Wednesday’s meeting.

“Many rural areas are losing population while metro areas are gaining population. Rural communities will have to fight to generate jobs,” he said.

One of the things that is generating some employment for small towns has been a rebound in manufacturing, said Oppedahl. “Rural manufacturing is up 14 percent in the United States since 2009,” he said.

The biggest success story on the rural front and for the nation, as a whole, has been the agricultural sector, said Oppedahl. “Ag exports have been a real positive for the economy,” he said.