Skip to Main Content

Past Conference

Scott Hamilton talks at Investing in Rural America 2020
Thu., Oct. 8, 2020

Investing in Rural America 2020: COVID, College, and Broadband

The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond hosted the second annual Investing in Rural America Conference, a free event that was ideal for policymakers, community representatives, businesses and foundations. This year's conference was virtual and convened experts on the economic and social aspects of growth in rural areas.

A livestream of the conference was broadcast on YouTube. Two virtual Breakout Sessions were not broadcast live, but the recordings of these sessions are featured below. Attendees explored the following topics in a rural context:

  • Impacts of COVID-19
  • The changing role of higher education institutions
  • Labor market outcomes and examples of success
  • The importance of broadband and mechanisms for funding

Rural America Week, October 5-7

In addition to our conference, we will offer three days of virtual pre-conference opportunities to learn more about various aspects of rural America. Visit this page after 10 a.m. each day to find pre-recorded expert panel discussions and presentations, shared research and interviews on the following topics:

Who Should Attend

Convening policymakers, community representatives, businesses, funders and foundations, the virtually hosted, daylong conference will explore labor market outcomes in rural communities, review examples of success and barriers to growth, and highlight opportunities where investment could make a difference.


  • Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020
    12:00 pm

    Opening Remarks
    Kartik Athreya
    Executive Vice President and Director of Research
    Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

    Summary: Athreya discussed the economy's trajectory since the onset of the pandemic. The unemployment rate has continued to decline following its peak in April, and the labor force participation rate has remained relatively steady since June, after declining earlier in the year. Consumer confidence and investment both declined dramatically early in the pandemic but have since started to recover. Athreya argued that pandemic uncertainty and election uncertainty have hindered economic recovery. When a vaccine is released, economic conditions will likely improve, but until then, the path of economic recovery depends on the path of the virus.

    Underneath the aggregate statistics, the pandemic has affected people differently. For example, people in rural areas experienced higher levels of unemployment when the pandemic struck. As Athreya explained, this is because industries with high risk for layoff, such as food service and manufacturing, were hit the hardest. These industries often do not require higher education and are popular in rural areas, where people tend to have lower education attainment and earnings.

    Athreya concluded by discussing monetary policy and the FOMC's statement about inflation targeting. For many years, inflation in the United States has run below the Federal Reserve's 2 percent target. As a result, Athreya explained that the Fed would allow inflation to rise above 2 percent in the short and medium run in order to average 2 percent in the long run.

    12:20 pm

    Introduction of Keynote Speaker
    Kartik Athreya
    Executive Vice President and Director of Research
    Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

    12:25 pm

    Keynote Address and Q&A
    Scott Hamilton
    President and Chief Executive Officer
    Golden LEAF Foundation

    Summary: Hamilton began by describing community colleges as the bellwethers of communities and the catalysts of economic recovery. Hamilton explained that he is an avid supporter of apprenticeships. Last year, his foundation awarded $100,000 to Martin Community College to support apprenticeships.

    He continued by noting the resiliency of rural communities in North Carolina. Despite damage from two hurricanes and the pandemic, the state's eastern communities are rebuilding safer and stronger. Hamilton explained that resilience doesn't happen overnight but rather through consistent effort. Little by little, rural communities can move the economic needle and reach their goals.

    Such success requires four habits for success: focus, act, exalt, and forgive. First, Hamilton said, communities should focus on identifying assets and develop strategies to enhance those assets. The next habit is action: Change must be made locally and by community members to be successful. Third, communities should practice exaltation — not of who did the work but that the work was completed. It is important to celebrate success to motivate future efforts. The last habit is forgiveness. Hamilton explained that it is important to let go of the past so as not to hold back future progress. By practicing these four habits every day, communities are likely to find success.

    01:20 pm


    01:25 pm

    Expanding Broadband to Rural America
    Alexander Marré
    Regional Economist
    Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

    01:40 pm

    Panel: Bringing Broadband to Rural America

    Broadband is a critical utility for rural and small towns across the country, for attracting businesses, fostering entrepreneurship, providing employment opportunities, delivering education and health services, and reducing isolation. The COVID-19 epidemic has underscored the critical need for broadband. Rural people and places do not have the same access to high-speed, affordable internet service because the cost of expanding the infrastructure is too high to be commercially viable. This session will focus on ways to reduce the cost of providing universal access to broadband and increasing the adoption of broadband in rural places.

    Moderator: Alex Marre, Regional Economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond


    • Roberto Gallardo, Director, Purdue Center for Regional Development
    • Jordana Barton, Senior Community Development Advisor, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas
    • Evan Feinman, Chief Broadband Advisor, Office of the Governor of Virginia
    • Kathryn de Wit, Manager, Broadband Research Initiative, The Pew Charitable Trusts

    Summary: Marre began by highlighting disparities in broadband access and adoption and justifying broadband as a necessary utility.

    Barton discussed how witnessing homework and opportunity gaps motivated her to advocate for universal broadband. She worked with local legislators and government officials to help create partnership programs to expand broadband accessibility and affordability. She explained that the best programs invest in digital literacy and prepare people for "middle jobs," those that do not require a college degree. Barton argued that permanent infrastructure investment is the most cost-efficient way to close the digital divide.

    Feinman described the Virginia governor's plan for universal broadband by 2028 and argued that increasing broadband would significantly improve Virginia's economy. He explained that implementation costs are similar in urban and rural areas, but broadband is not as profitable in rural areas because there are fewer people. He explained that Virginia only gives grants to public-private partnerships that make policy changes at the local level, because they are five times more cost-efficient than federal programs.

    De Wit examined states' roles in increasing digital connectivity. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution and this problem cannot be solved by the public or private sector alone. While many short-term connectivity solutions have been developed in response to COVID-19, these are not sustainable and should not distract from long-term broadband expansion. She suggested that state-level policymakers should observe what other states have done to successfully expand broadband and create similar programs.

    02:40 pm

    Comments from President Barkin
    Tom Barkin
    Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

    Summary: President Barkin talked about the importance of resiliency and innovation in rural communities and how the pandemic may have created opportunities for small towns to improve their economies. He began by addressing four key issues from last year's conference: the labor market gap, the development of local education, the information gap resulting from geographic remoteness, and overcoming obstacles to participation such as disability and addiction.

    In Barkin's view, this unprecedented crisis could have a silver lining for smaller communities, as the demand for living and working in urban communities may have decreased. People are leaving cities to be closer to family and decrease their cost of living. Geographic location is no longer necessarily an obstacle to staying connected. In places with broadband, people can telework, access telehealth, receive a quality postsecondary education, and shop online from home.

    Barkin also echoed Scott Hamilton's view that small towns should market their amenities to attract new people using an integrated regional approach. By working together, a cluster of small towns can attract more people than any individual town. He closed by praising rural communities for their creativity and innovation this year.

    02:55 pm


    03:05 pm

    Breakout Session #1: The Changing Landscape of Higher Education and Workforce Development

    The COVID-19 pandemic has forced both short-term and structural change in higher education and workforce development. This panel will bring together a community college president, a university president, and Federal Reserve experts on higher education and occupational mobility to explore the following questions: What short-term and structural changes are currently being implemented and/or are on the horizon for community colleges and four-year institutions? What does it practically take to implement some of these changes (e.g. broadband/distance learning infrastructure, funding streams, etc.) and what learnings can be shared across geographies and between types of institutions? And, how can a skills-based approach to occupational mobility help inform workforce development more broadly, particularly for individuals without a college degree and those in more rural areas?

    Moderator: Laura Ullrich, Regional Economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond


    • Stuart Andreason, Director, Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
    • Tuajuanda Jordan, President, St. Mary's College of Maryland
    • Walt Tobin, President, Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College

    Summary: Panelists talked about short-term and structural changes at colleges, how to implement those changes, and ways to develop rural occupational mobility.

    Andreason explained how the pandemic has made people rethink what it means to attend college. He described community colleges as anchors of society because often they are one of the largest employers in the area, especially in rural communities. Partnerships between community colleges and local businesses help connect people to opportunities and drive entrepreneurship. He emphasized that it is vital to support the institutions that support economic recovery.

    Jordan described some of the structural changes her institution has made, such as removing SAT/ACT requirements, transitioning to a hybrid model of instruction, and developing a skills-based curriculum to prepare students for the workforce. She discussed how the Honor's College Promise leads to scholarships and full-time job offers, which encourage students to stay local after graduating.

    Tobin explained that increasing dual-enrollment participation creates greater flexibility for college students and described how they have increased dual-enrollment participation by marketing to high school students. He also discussed his school's transition to remote learning, which was made easier by the fact that all faculty were required to have an online presence prior to the pandemic. He said that technical colleges meet the needs of local employers by providing students with the training that makes them competitive in the workforce. He described technical colleges as the first stop on the American dream.

    Video is temporarily unavailable.

    03:05 pm

    Breakout Session #2: Hurricanes, Fires, Pandemics, Oh My! Resiliency and Recovery in Rural Communities

    Disaster response and resilience have long been critical for rural communities, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the need for solid resiliency planning and disaster preparedness. This panel featuring health and disaster planning experts will focus on questions such as: What can we learn from rural communities that have been well-prepared to respond to crises, whether health crises or natural disasters? What planning and response lessons are critical for rural areas to consider when evaluating their own resiliency? What can rural communities do today to help prepare for future emergencies?

    Moderator: Tim Marema, Editor, Daily Yonder


    • Dr. John T. Cooper, Assistant Vice President for Public Partnership & Outreach and Director of Texas Target Communities, Texas A & M University
    • Susan Dentzer, Senior Policy Fellow, Robert J. Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University
    • Whitney Kimball Coe, Director of National Programs, Center for Rural Strategies

    Summary: Panelists discussed the critical nature of disaster response and resilience in rural communities and how the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for resiliency planning and disaster preparedness.

    Cooper opened the discussion by emphasizing the importance of having both disaster preparation and disaster recovery plans. This is especially important in rural areas, because they are often the last to receive state and federal aid. He described resources rural communities can use to help develop their own plans. Cooper explained that, on average, every $1 spent on pre-disaster preparation saves $6 of post-disaster relief.

    Dentzer elaborated on the differences between public health disasters and other types of disasters. Typically, rural communities are resilient because of their social connectedness, but it has not been advantageous during this pandemic. Dentzer argued that over the past few months, communities that rejected public health strategies suffered more relative to communities that listened. She criticized the federal government's response to the pandemic and advocated for more stimulus to help local communities.

    Coe described the social resiliency of small towns and cited several ways communities have come together to help each other during the pandemic. She explained how COVID-19 exposed deficits in rural communities that existed before the pandemic. Coe discussed the importance of developing leadership capacity at the local level to speak on rural-urban disparities and make sure rural voices are heard in national discussions.

    Video is temporarily unavailable.

    04:00 pm

    Closing Remarks
    Kartik Athreya
    Executive Vice President and Director of Research
    Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

    Matt Martin
    Vice President and Regional Executive
    Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

    04:00 pm


Phone Icon Contact Us

Research Department (804) 697-8000