Governors ponder how to fix rural economies with ‘innovative strategies’

(Courtesy photo) The Dairy Farmers of America recently opened a new concept store, called The Creamery, in the rural Utah town of Beaver. Visitors traveling along Interstate 15 can sample and purchase everything from farm-fresh cheese to ice cream to other Utah-made foods.

Rural jobs historically have revolved around what Nathan Ohle of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership calls an “extraction economy.”

Mining coal. Harvesting crops. Logging.

But as rural areas in Utah and elsewhere in the nation move into the future, Ohle said his organization is trying to help them shift toward innovation and wealth creation.

Utah Sen. David Hinkins offered a different perspective during a Friday panel discussion at the National Governors Association summer meeting at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City.

“The extraction industry is not going to go away,” said the Emery County Republican whose district covers a swath of rural communities. “All the Sheetrock in this building comes from the gypsum mined in Nevada and Utah.”

The “war on coal” has led to painful job losses in Hinkins’ part of the state, he said, but the trick is to repurpose and find new markets for fossil fuels. Other nations are still investing in new coal-fired power plants, he said, and Utah officials are trying to open export routes to meet this demand.

Gov. Gary Herbert moderated the Friday panel discussion — which took place on the closing day of the three-day conference — that focused on “innovative strategies” for rural and disinvested communities.

Herbert, who set a goal in 2017 of creating 25,000 rural jobs over four years, opened the discussion by describing a recent trip to Garfield County, where he asked some students how many of them planned to attend college. All of them raised their hands. Then he asked how many expected to return to their hometowns after they graduated.

“One hand remained up of the 30,” Herbert said.

Scott Hamilton, executive director of the Appalachian Regional Commission, pointed to the Crooked Road, a southwest Virginia heritage music trail, as exemplifying how rural areas can showcase their cultural and natural treasures — and attract new residents in the process.

“So when people come, they think, ‘I could live here,’” he said.

Changing the narrative about sleepy rural communities is also part of revitalizing these economies, Ohle said. Small towns are ideal places for innovation and entrepreneurship, he said.

Still, governors from several states described a variety of challenges facing rural areas. Raising up the next generation of leaders can be difficult in sparsely populated regions, where the same faces often pop up on city councils, school boards and nursing home boards, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said. Lack of broadband internet is another obstacle for these communities, Maine Gov. Janet Mills said.

Ohle pointed to the value of leadership programs and said his organization has helped launch an app that will develop a picture of rural broadband access. Better understanding of these high-speed internet gaps, he argued, will enable advocates to make a case for funding additional broadband development.

During the discussion, Herbert asked Hinkins how federal and state governments can assist rural communities in building up their economies. Hinkins replied that the most helpful thing they can do is get out of the way and avoid stifling industry with overregulation.

Herbert warned attendees that economic opportunities will flee areas that seem unfriendly to business.

“Capital is a coward," he said. “It won’t go where it’s not wanted.”