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Bank’s Rural Conference Highlights the Impact of Collaboration

Carrie addresses the audience at Investing in Rural America 2023

Start small, build trust, self-examine and course correct together.

These were among the takeaways recently shared by panelists and presenters at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond’s fourth annual Investing in Rural America Conference, which took place in Roanoke, Virginia, and showcased the efforts of stakeholders to strengthen the financial base, court new industries and jobs, and recruit and retain a talented workforce in their small towns and rural communities.

More than 230 rural community leaders, business leaders, policymakers, economists and others traveled to the western Virginia town to take part in the April 11–12 event, which was developed around the theme of Partnering for Success. Keynote presentations, panel discussions and breakout sessions showcased the numerous small towns and rural communities across the Fifth District territory the Bank serves (Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and most of West Virginia) that are making strides to rebuild or reinvest in their infrastructure and unique offerings. The sessions also offered an opportunity for communities still facing challenges to learn how to better pool their surrounding resources — from brainpower and manpower to capital investment.

“At the Richmond Fed, we’re committed to understanding the unique challenges faced by small towns and rural communities across our District,” Bank President Tom Barkin said during opening remarks at the conference. “We are constantly on the ground with local stakeholders in these communities, learning about their challenges and promising solutions. Once a year, we invite these leaders, along with other rural development experts, to share their perspectives on a bigger stage’’ and come away energized and recommitted.

Barkin’s sentiments were followed by remarks from U.S. Senator Mark Warner, who is a member of the Senate Finance, Banking, Budget and Rules Committee. He applauded the Richmond Fed for convening a conference on an issue that is important to such a large swath of constituents and encouraged the rural stakeholders in attendance to capitalize upon the opportunity to learn from each other. Warner also discussed critical needs in rural areas — housing, broadband and continued COVID relief support — and shared how federal leaders are trying to make an impact. He recommended that community leaders get creative in seeking and leveraging capital, including support from corporate entities because it’s in their best interest for small towns and rural areas to thrive, too.

Conference-goers also enjoyed a thought-provoking presentation from keynote speaker Dr. Anita Brown-Graham, founder and director of the ncIMPACT Initiative at the UNC School of Government. Brown-Graham challenged rural stakeholders to take a hard look at their strengths and weaknesses and “see what we are not and begin to see what we could be and how to become that. Friction is an asset. If you don’t have friction, what you really have is apathy. Some communities are fighting for a different outcome and others have given up.”

She then provided suggestions for those that are willing to roll up their sleeves and keep trying. Keys to success will include bridge-building, cross-sector collaborations and holding a bigger vision than what seems readily possible.

Program panelist Carolyn Fryberger, in a separate conference discussion, echoed those sentiments.

"It’s so important for communities to switch the conversation and say, ‘What do we have? What can we build on?’ instead of just focusing on deficits,” said Fryberger, assistant director of Economic Development for the NCGrowth initiative.

Additional conference sessions included:

  • “It Takes More Than a Village: Partnering to Drive Equitable Development,” with leaders in Old Fort, North Carolina, and their key external partners describing how they collaborated to develop the Catawba Vale Innovation Market.
  • “What’s in your Backyard? Leveraging Assets for Community Development,” during which panelists discussed strategies to identify key institutions, natural resources and their residents’ ingenuity in their efforts to build and sustain thriving communities.
  • "If You Build It, Will They Come? Strategies for Attracting and Retaining Skilled Workers," where education, housing and community development experts described the meaningful investments that small towns and rural communities are making to attract new residents and retain existing ones.

The conference also featured workshops on community development finance and on strengthening rural development strategies through research, as well as a poster session highlighting successful initiatives from across our District. 

"We are committed to rural communities and small towns," said Richmond Fed Community Affairs Officer and Vice President of Community Development Carrie Cook. "The conference provided a platform to connect and share transparently about the barriers and opportunities around rural economic conditions. Thank you to the attendees who shared their knowledge and experiences with us, and each other. We remain grateful for their engagement.”

As Barkin noted, as more small towns and rural communities grow savvier in telling their stories, building a pipeline for talent, and finding ways to lure both industries and workers to come and stay, the more their success will build upon itself.

“It’s trendy to say that post-COVID-19 we are in a ‘new normal,’ Barkin said, “but I really do think, when it comes to small town economic development, the ground has shifted.”

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