Rural Economic Development Conference – Take Aways

Last Tuesday, I attended the Rural Economic Development Conference held by the Oklahoma Department of Commerce in OKC. Speakers and panelists were available for discussion over a variety of topics including the 2020 Census and data that can be obtained for use on American Fact Finder, Rural Broadband Research and Resources in Oklahoma, Tribal Partnerships, and then the two breakout sessions I attended included information on Oklahoma Main Street and the Small Business Development Center, and Strategic Planning for Communities. Here are some of my take aways that I hope you find helpful or interesting. Stick with me here… (the last two paragraphs are about my favorite sessions!)

The Census Bureau has no definition of ‘rural’, they just know what urban is and is not. There are two types of urban areas; Urban Areas (UAs) which are areas of 50,000 or more people, and Urban Clusters (UCs), an area with a population of no more than 50,000 and no less than 2,500. Johnston County is considered completely rural and this is important from the standpoint of economic developers when considering a community to invest in. Thriving rural counties are best for investment, meaning their population and median household income are increasing, while median age and unemployment are decreasing. For anyone interested, American FactFinder is a great resource that has census information and thousands of charts, graphs, and population information for national, state and local use.

The second topic, Rural Broadband in Oklahoma, is especially important to those living and working in Johnston County. The internet connects us, providing the population with ways to look for jobs, access banking information and distance learning, and increases literacy. OSU Extension has launched a pilot Library Hotspot program, where hotspot devices are loaned to libraries, and they are checked out, like books, to local patrons. They keep them for a week and use them to gain access to the internet, oftentimes for the reasons stated above. This is an internet option for low-income households. ACRS Telecommunication Engineers work to provide community connect grant programs, distance learning tele-medicine, and through the Connect America Fund, financially support broadband initiatives. OneNet, in partnership with OCAN, has been working to provide connections by creating 75 community anchors in 35 Oklahoma counties. This is a viable option for our area.

The Oklahoma Main Street program, a segment of the National Main Street Center and the National Historic Trust, is a program that looks to help communities increase sales tax, tourist draw, protect property values, and create a positive reflection of the community’s feeling of itself through efforts that revitalize and grow it’s downtown district. Oklahoma Main Street offers services like facilitating investor meetings, survey and statistics creation, street-scape layouts, way-finding, re-branding, and more. There are several criteria for a community to become an official Main Street, including creating a board of directors and hiring a part-time executive director. I would absolutely love for Tishomingo to pursue this distinction! Main Street also offers a 2-year associate program which helps communities get to the place they need to be to become official. Oklahoma Main Street employs architects, consultants, and designers who help every step of the way. The contact I made is Buffy Hughes and she can be reached at 405-815-5249. There are several wonderful examples of communities that have benefited from the program, two stand out; Duncan and Okmulgee. Duncan has aggressively begun to re-brand the entire town with new signage and activities. Okmulgee is one of two of the first cities to join the program and has since reinvested $18 million dollars in the community. Their main street has been ghost-townish for some time, but they have now sold 35 buildings downtown and have had 9 new businesses open, renovating the older buildings using a national historic tax credit. They have also been working with OSU-Okmulgee on a fantastic project that included turning a very large eye-sore into a useful facility that meets the needs of student housing. (Look up #GOPO OSUIT) They have also formed a partnership with the Creek Nation to renovate the 1878-built Creek Council House, which will become a museum upon conclusion of the project.

The last bit of information that I wanted to share is about Strategic Planning for Communities. Dave Shideler with Oklahoma State, a community development specialist, spoke on the idea of ‘Adaptive Planning’. When it comes to meeting and planning, he said that we need to change the paradigm to reflect today’s realities; people are busy, they won’t come to meetings, aren’t engaged, and have erratic work and family schedules. People also don’t plan like they used to (long term), their attention spans are shorter, and they are technology dependent. So why plan 5-10 years out? To get people engaged, we have to use the internet, because that’s where their attention is. We can also use data sites to find information instead of spending countless hours trying to calculate everything ourselves (back to FactFinder), consider shorter time horizons (think months instead of years) taking many small steps, and stop thinking of communities and businesses as islands. We all want the same thing and why re-invent the wheel, something I’ve heard dozens of times since starting this job. So, in a 1-hour meeting, with whoever cares enough to show up, we should be doing five things to get a project done: Ask 1) Who’s present? 2) What resources do they control? 3) What can be done with the resources? 4) What should be done with the resources? 5) By when will the project be finished? You can do this with any issue, any task, any event. Set monthly 30/30 meetings (or 60/60 or whatever) that is about what has happened in the last 30 days, and what needs to be done in the next 30 days to accomplish the goal. Alternatively, take action instead of holding a formal meeting and talk online. Be inclusive, experiment, and learn from failure. Gather a crowd, build connections, and take small steps. This comes from Becky McCray, creator of which has webinars, articles, and tool kits for issues and communities like ours. I have subscribed to their weekly emails and can’t wait to start receiving more information!

I truly learned so much from this conference. Please come along with me next time something like this is available! The more the merrier!