Charting a Course for the Future: How Rural Communities Can Thrive

In this episode of Breaking Down Barriers, we welcome Gisele Hamm, MA program director for the MAPPING the Future of Your Community strategic visioning and planning program at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University and Chris Merrett Dean for Innovation and Economic Development and the Director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at Western Illinois University (WIU). The IIRA is a university-based research, outreach, teaching, and policy development center that identifies and implements strategies for sustainable rural community and economic development. Merrett also serves as WIU Distinguished University Professor.

Many rural communities across the country face challenges like population decline, limited resources, and a lack of opportunities. But there’s good news: with strategic planning and a focus on homegrown solutions, these communities can not only survive but thrive.

Empowering Communities to Take Charge

Programs like the Mapping Program, offered by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, are making a difference. This innovative initiative brings community members together for a series of intensive workshops, fostering a grassroots effort to create a vision for the future. By working collaboratively, residents identify their community’s strengths and weaknesses, establish shared goals, and develop concrete action plans to achieve them.

Turning Challenges into Opportunities

The challenges faced by rural communities can be daunting, but they also present opportunities for innovation. Here are some key strategies to consider:

  • Community Planning: Develop a data-driven plan with the Mapping Program or a similar initiative. Leverage hidden assets like community foundations to fund local projects.
  • Supporting Small Businesses: Shift the focus from attracting large corporations to building an ecosystem that supports entrepreneurs. Offer training programs, create a welcoming environment for startups and remote workers, and establish co-working spaces.
  • Workforce Development: Partner with local community colleges to develop training programs that equip residents with in-demand skills. Recognize the growing diversity in rural communities and expand opportunities for underrepresented groups to become entrepreneurs.
  • Building Hope and Capacity: Tap into resources like Peace Corps Fellows and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers to supplement local expertise. Provide ongoing support to communities that have completed a strategic planning program.

Building a Brighter Future, Together

By working together, rural communities can overcome challenges and create a future filled with opportunity.  With careful planning, a focus on local businesses, and a commitment to developing a skilled workforce, vibrant rural communities can become a reality.

About Breaking Down Barriers
This podcast explores the opportunity to build wealth in local, regional, and national economies through entrepreneurship-led economic development. Episodes feature changemakers with innovative approaches to empowering people to start businesses that create wealth for their families and improve outcomes for their communities. Conversations highlight work being done in communities across the U.S. to break down barriers to entrepreneurial opportunity in underserved and underrepresented communities. In this series, we share authentic stories about the impact that entrepreneurship-led economic development has on the local economy and connect a global network of passionate economic developers. 

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Breaking Down Barriers is a presentation of Economic Impact Catalyst and is hosted by David Ponraj with production and editing by Jacqui Dietrich and Lauren Bernard with voice talent by Antoine Long. Please rate, review, and subscribe to Breaking Down Barriers, available for free wherever you listen to your podcasts!

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