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Spotlight on Rural Best Practices: Lessons From the 2023 IRA Poster Session

Regional Matters
December 14, 2023
Rural Spotlights

Throughout our region, small towns and rural communities are continually working to improve outcomes for their residents. And we can learn a lot from how different communities, and the organizations within them, are gaining positive traction. What are their ingredients for success?

While the mix of ingredients differs from one community to the next, a top five list has emerged from the Richmond Fed's engagement with rural communities over the past several years: 1) regional collaboration; 2) strong local leadership; 3) telling a compelling story; 4) playing to strengths; and 5) taking a long-term view of success.

Last spring, at our annual Investing in Rural America Conference, community organizations shared their recipes for success when they presented their initiatives during a poster session. As the year ends, we're excited to recap their projects and open the call for additional communities to spotlight their initiatives at our upcoming 2024 conference.

Foster regional partnerships and collaboration.

Spurring regional collaboration requires getting the right people to the table. When leaders at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC) were looking for ways to maximize their on-site training labs to support local workforce development, they engaged with leadership at local community colleges, school superintendents and career and technical education coordinators, and regional business and industry leaders. SVHEC, through ongoing conversations with these stakeholders, helped refine and operationalize the Career Tech Academy, a dual enrollment technical training program that gives students hands-on workforce training and offers employers a pipeline of future workers.

"When employers feel listened to and see tangible results, they are willing to engage in the process of developing long-term workforce solutions."

— Poster by Southern Virginia Higher Education Center: Career Tech Academy

The Shenandoah Community Capital Fund (SCCF) demonstrated the importance of engaging partners already deeply planted in their local communities. SCCF developed the Shenandoah Valley Community Navigator Program (SVCNP) to amplify and expand the ongoing work of grassroots organizations that support minority entrepreneurs across the valley. By directing funding and coordinating efforts among organizations embedded in their communities, the SVCNP was able to take an ecosystem approach to providing funding and technical support to minority entrepreneurs in the region.

Partnerships also help organizations take a comprehensive approach to finding solutions to deep-seated challenges. The Health Collaborative's REACH partnership in Danville, Virginia, is a system of coordinated care providers that had previously operated independently despite similar objectives. Rather than duplicating resources and diluting the potential impact of community health interventions, the REACH partnership creates coordinated care teams to address clinical needs and connect community members to local resources. This process allows each partner to play a role in targeting generational and socioeconomic factors that impact health and prosperity.

Support strong local leadership.

Local leaders are often visionaries who can turn ideas into transformative projects. In Bristol, Virginia, local coal entrepreneurs advocated to turn a vacant shopping mall into a casino. To ensure that the casino benefitted the local economy, Virginia Community Capital (a community development financial institution, or CDFI) partnered with the state's Small Business Administration to host a pitch competition for local small businesses to compete for the casino's procurement contracts.

"Without their leadership, the casino would not be in Bristol today, and none of the associated economic opportunities for locals or small business development would exist."

— Poster by Virginia Community Capital: Southwest Virginia Regional Bristol Casino Pitch Contest

Community organizations are also focusing on leadership development to better serve their communities. The South Carolina Association for Community Economic Development (SCACED) took this approach with their Broadband Community Champions Training Initiative with the goal of increasing broadband internet access in underserved rural areas. The model was designed to educate grassroots leaders about broadband and equip them with tools to engage directly with internet service providers. Since 2020, SCACED has trained over 150 Broadband Community Champions in rural communities across South Carolina.

Tell a compelling story.

In many communities, storytelling is an important way for practitioners to connect with local leaders and funders. On-the-ground anecdotes to describe challenges can motivate action, particularly in rural areas, where limited data may not tell the full story. The Community Foundation of the Central Blue Ridge (CFCBR), a 501(c)(3) in Virginia, used the power of storytelling to illustrate the reality of the region's housing challenges through the "This is Home" project. The CFCBR teamed up with local partners to tell stories of those affected by housing insecurity through a photography exhibit and companion website. The images and stories helped to dispel myths about families facing housing insecurity and inspired public officials to discuss potential solutions.

Practitioners also leverage storytelling to demonstrate the benefits that their work brings to the local community. Southside Virginia Community College's Campus Within Walls program provides higher education opportunities to prepare incarcerated individuals to rejoin the workforce after release. The program strategy includes using key data points to inform both community and prison partners on the transformative potential and importance of higher education. The program leaders learned that establishing clear communication between the program and community is critical to shaping a positive dialogue around corrections education and future workforce success.

"Recidivism rates for incarcerated people who participated in prison postsecondary education programs are on average 46% lower than those who did not take college classes."

— Poster by Southside Virginia Community College: Campus Within Walls

Play to your strengths.

Rural communities have diverse assets they can leverage to fuel their local economies. Piedmont Community College (PCC) built on its region's strong agricultural roots to address three economic challenges: health outcomes, educational attainment, and household wealth. PCC launched the Center for Educational and Agricultural Development (CEAD), a local agricultural campus that will offer a range of services including educational opportunities, a health clinic, walking trails, and support for agricultural entrepreneurs. Aligning its programs with the community's values and collaborating with local partners helped PCC build community support for the project.

"It is the community's vision that CEAD will help boost the local economy, while also embracing the agricultural roots and culture of its citizens. In fact, community members packed the historic courthouse during a Caswell County Board of Commissioners meeting in overwhelming support of this project and the possibilities it offers the region."

— Poster by Piedmont Community College: Center for Educational and Agricultural Development

Leveraging the unique strengths of local organizations can help drive efficient collaboration in which a range of partners can contribute to broad community goals. In Roanoke, Virginia, Freedom First Enterprise's (FFE) joined with local partners to launch the Local Impact for Tomorrow (LIFT) program. Each organization's goal is to help reduce generational poverty in the city's Fallon Park neighborhood. FFE, the community development affiliate of First Federal Credit Union (a CDFI), provides financial resources and counseling to families while other partners offer clinical interventions and wraparound services. The unique contributions of each partner allow the LIFT program to take a holistic approach to addressing economic well-being.

SERCAP, Inc., another CDFI based in Roanoke that serves rural communities in seven states, provides much needed development services to small business clients. Recognizing a significant gap in services for rural entrepreneurs, SERCAP combined two of its existing programs to launch the Small Business Development Initiative for Rural Communities to offer accessible financing and technical assistance to entrepreneurs and small businesses throughout Virginia. Through this program, SERCAP is empowering rural communities to build their small businesses and develop the tools for long-term economic self-sufficiency.

Take a long-term view.

In some places, a long-term view means developing a vision and taking continual steps to ensure a community continues to be a place where people want to live and work. Mayland Community College (MCC) in western North Carolina has taken a leading role in turning its local community into a regional destination with the goals of keeping families in the area and spurring growth in school-age and workforce populations. The college launched a 501(c)(3) to support forward-looking development anchors including a new planetarium, a rapid prototype center at a local manufacturing school, and a downtown hotel and coliseum revitalization projects. Through direct investments and strong community partnerships, MCC is driving regional economic growth and strengthening its own long-term potential as an economic anchor institution.

Investing in the workforce pipeline allows communities to increase economic resilience and prepare for changing industry demands. The Great Opportunities in Technology and Engineering Careers (GO TEC) project in southern Virginia uses a hub-and-spoke model to expose middle school students to high-demand career pathways and provide training and educational opportunities. In these regions that were historically reliant on industries like textiles and furniture production, the GO TEC program is giving communities the tools to pivot to different industry needs and drive a new economic future.

Taking a long-term view can also involve building key community resources. Virginia Community Capital uses its Virginia Fresh Food Loan Fund (VFFLF) to help communities address a nonskill barrier to long-term well-being: food access. The Great Valu project in Wakefield, Virginia, used VFFLF funding support and technical assistance to expand the offerings at the community's sole grocery store. Healthy food access is a critical input to a community's long-term health and vitality.

"Increasing access to healthy foods requires a holistic financing approach that supports the entire value chain of the food system. Food financing often takes many months or even years."

— Poster by Virginia Community Capital: Virginia Fresh Food Loan Fund


These initiatives are incredibly diverse, reflecting the priorities and needs within each community, yet they are tied together by threads of collaboration, leadership, storytelling, community assets, and long-term vision. Another common refrain we heard from the poster presenters is the importance of building trust and getting buy-in within the community. Not only is this critical to lifting projects off the ground and sustaining them, it's also essential to building broader momentum to move the community forward.

That leads us to the theme of our 2024 conference: "Building and Sustaining Momentum." If you have an initiative that is helping to build and sustain momentum in your rural community, we want to hear from you! You can submit a proposal to spotlight your initiative at the next Investing in Rural America Conference. Send us your poster presentation proposal using this online form before Friday, Feb. 23, 2024.

Views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.