Two leading voices for rural prosperity: Tony Pipa (Scholar, Center for Sustainable Development, Brookings Institution, and Host, Reimagine Rural Podcast), share his experiences visiting rural communities across the country, and Sarah Lucas (Director, Office of Rural Development, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development), highlights inspiring stories from within the state of Michigan. November, 2023.
0:00:00.4 Sarah Mills: I quieted the crowd a little too early, but that's okay because I'm so excited about today and I'm so excited to see this room full of people who are excited to hear inspirational stories from rural places. Hi. Welcome to the Ford School. My name is Sarah Mills, and I am the, an assistant professor of Practice at the Urban and Regional Planning Program. And I'm also the director of our Center for Empowering Communities at the Graham Sustainability Institute. And Graham is one of the co-sponsors for tonight's event. The Center for Empowering Communities conduct supplied research and engagement with the communities across the state to help them achieve their goals within the context of an energy transition. And we work with communities across the urban rural spectrum. I call it a spectrum, but I'll be real honest that my heart is with on the rural side of that spectrum.
0:00:53.5 SM: This focus on both the urban and rural and everything in between is actually something that I learned from CLOSUP here, the Center for Local State and Urban Policy, and that's right here at the Ford School. As a postdoc and then a program manager at CLOSUP, I learned from the CLOSUP team how to enter into a true academic partnership with the State's 1856 local units of governments. And the majority of them are, as you might imagine, rural. Through the Michigan Public Policy Survey, CLOSUP examines the policy issues common across that urban rural spectrum, but also has a lens into where there are different, where there are differences either between urban and rural places, or as we know within rural places themselves. At one point it was a running joke with, this is Tom Ivacko, who is the director of CLOSUP, that perhaps we should change the Center's name to CLOSRUP the Center for Local State Rural and Urban Policy. And I think if we keep collaborating on events like this, like that change needs to happen. Alright, before I introduce tonight's speakers, I want to first acknowledge Bonnie Roberts, here at CLOSUP.
0:02:08.4 SM: And Alex Haddad, who's with me at Graham, for all of their work in helping to pull things together for tonight. And I also want to suggest to you that if you are a faculty or staff or student researcher who is interested in rural, you should Google the Rural America Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop and get added to our listserv so you can find out about the other rural events going on on campus. Okay. Now it is my pleasure to introduce tonight's speakers. I have secretly, actually, they know this. So it's not so secret. They are both, I'm groupies of both of this tonight's speakers. So Sarah Lucas is the director of the Office of Rural Development in Michigan's Department of Ag and Rural Development. When Governor Whitmer created the office two years ago now, she appointed Sarah as its first director. And in that time, Sarah has done, in my opinion, a marvelous job, both standing up the office and all of its programming.
0:03:08.5 SM: So I was Sarah's groupie this summer when her office held rural leadership summits across the state, to understand what the key issues were in each of the different regions, to connect local leaders there with supportive programming from across state government, and to share with them inspirational stories of some of their peers from other parts of the state. And I hope that she'll tell some of those stories here tonight. Tonight we also have the honor of having with us Tony Pipa, who's the scholar at the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution. Tony founded the Reimagining Rural Policy Initiative at Brookings, to help modernize US policy for equitable rural development. And I've become his online groupie, being a regular listener of the Reimagine Rural Podcast. And I don't know when the next season is coming out. He maybe he will tell us, but I'm very excited for it.
0:04:00.4 SM: So over the course of the past year, I've really appreciated getting to know and engage with both Sarah and Tony. But, and in part because I think that the work they're doing to give voice to under celebrated rural successes and to help build capacity to empower more successes is truly inspiring. But I don't think, well, I know that they only met in person 10 minutes ago. And so I'm really excited to sit down with all of you and watch the conversation between these two amazing human beings. So please join me in welcoming Sarah and Tony.
0:04:43.5 Tony Pipa: Thank you, Sarah, and thanks to all of you for being here tonight. And thank you, Sarah for this conversation. As Sarah mentioned, I'm a podcaster. I've got the podcast, Reimagine Rural, find it wherever you get your podcasts.
0:05:01.5 TP: There's my shameless promo.
0:05:04.5 TP: And having some experience being a podcaster and asking the questions. I thought I'd get us started just with this conversation. And as Sarah mentioned, we just met in person just a few minutes ago. And so I'm also in learning mode. I'm here in Michigan also wanting to hear about what's going on in rural Michigan. But I think maybe we should start by just establishing why rural for us personally. Rural often comes from some rural credibility, like some rural roots. And so I think it would be great for us to have, just to describe to you all a little bit about where we're personally coming from both, personally and professionally. And so, I grew up in north central rural Pennsylvania, town of about 2000, in the anthracite coal country. Now, anthracite coal is very hard coal, so it went out of style actually before I was born. Oh, my mic! My Mic's not on? My voice is loud enough, but my Mic's not on. How about now? Is that working?
0:06:16.5 TP: All right. Sorry. [laughter] The town where I grew up called Ellensburg actually continues to do pretty well. It sustained, it's kind of a level of prosperity. But the town where I went to elementary school seven miles away, Shamokin has hollowed out. I mean, literally since I went to school, lost 40% of its population. It's lost a lot of its working age population. It's much older. It's lost a lot of its industry, obviously lost coal a long time ago, but there was textile industry that lived off of coal. It lost that, it lost a lot of its industry, but it's on a play. And in fact, now it would be seen as a persistent poverty place. So a level of poverty, 20% or higher for more than 30 years. And yet even in what many people coming in from the outside would say looks like despair, there are positive things happening and people creating the seeds of an economic renewal that I wanna tell a little bit of the story of. But I'm a person who grew up out of that particular community. That community really shaped me and had a great effect on who I am as a person. But I left and went to school actually, traveled around the world for a bit, have landed back in Washington DC and came to Brookings out of the Obama administration doing work on international development.
0:08:00.5 TP: I was at USAID in the State Department. And yet I was at USAID at a time when we went through about 15 years worth of reform and policy and practice on how we made our public investments to address poverty overseas. And one of the reasons why I came to Brookings was to say, okay, if I'm looking through that lens, through how we've really been pushing the frontiers of how we support economic growth and development in developing countries, how do we look through that lens? And what would I learn if I were to turn that lens into some of the places like where I grew up that have been left behind in the United States? So that's kind of the frame of reference that I came to when I launched the Reimagining Rural Policy Initiative. And one of the reasons why I've launched the podcast was because in the midst of starting to do very wonky analysis on where federal resources go and how they do or don't get to those communities and support those communities, I started to feel as if there was a difference between where people creating change in their communities are, and decisions that policy makers were doing to support them.
0:09:22.6 TP: And so to kind of narrow that delta, was one way to have people tell their own local stories. So that's where I'm coming from, and I've been traveling around the US in the midst of doing a lot of analysis on federal resources and the extent to which they leave the government and get to the communities who might be able to benefit most from them and what the bottlenecks are. And we're gonna talk a lot about, I think, those bottlenecks, both at the state level and at the federal level. I also feel as if there are a lot of bright spots in rural America that are narrative of decline, which is, and there are places that are struggling, like I just described, but there are bright spots that we don't give much attention to and that we don't think of when we think about policy. So, Sarah, why don't you tell us about yourself and also about the office and and give us your frame of reference for this conversation.
0:10:21.5 Sarah Lucas: Sure. Thank you, Tony. Can everyone hear me okay? Is my mic on? Okay. So when I talk to rural communities and I go all over the state of Michigan talking to different groups, whether it's local government or nonprofits or economic development organizations and talk about the office and mostly listen to what communities have on their mind and what they're working on, I always try to make sure that they know who I am and where I'm coming from. And I think maybe if Tony and I get deep enough into it, we'll talk about how important trust is in building some of these solutions in rural communities. And so it's really important for me that they understand where I'm coming from. Now. When I first started working in this office, I already knew pretty much the northern half of the state, pretty much everything north of Manistee.
0:11:09.3 SL: But having worked in southern Michigan more and more over the last year and a half, it's been, I think, helpful for me to explain that I grew up on a fourth generation dairy farm in McBain, which most people in this part of the state haven't heard of, unless you know about the windmills or about the dairy farms, or about the high school sports teams, which is what it's basically known for. But it's a very, very rural area. And I grew up there with a large extended family. And graduated from Cadillac, went to Eastern actually, so it's nice for me to be back in Ann Arbor, where I spent a lot of time in college. And then moved back to Northwest lower Michigan and worked in that 10 county region from Manistee up to the Mackinac Bridge.
0:11:56.5 SL: So in that region there's about 190 units of government and all different iterations of prosperity, I guess. And I think that that's a really important point that Tony already kind of hit on, is the differences between rural communities and the extent to which some of them are thriving and some of them are not. We had both, in northwest lower Michigan, and I got to know them both sides of the equation very well. And then moved on up to the UP where I lived and worked for a couple years in planning and economic development. So I've been in this field essentially working with local governments and nonprofits for about 20 plus years, all over northern Lower Michigan and the UP. In that time I've gotten to know, like I said, a lot of different kinds of communities and have gotten to experience alongside of them some of the challenges that they're trying to resolve and am really inspired by the resourcefulness that I see in rural communities and the creativity and the innovation that they're bringing to some of these really complex challenges in the face of a very limited number of resources that are available to them.
0:13:09.2 SL: And so I've kind of taken, I feel that I have been so close to their individual challenges as communities, as they really try to access the resources that, some of the resources that Tony mentioned and fail because of a variety of factors which we'll talk about later, and really want to be helpful to them as they're working to serve their own community. So I'm really, really in this position, really excited about the Office of Rural Development because it gives us a way, as a state to look specifically at what rural communities are struggling with as they work towards solutions. And that's a thing that's been missing from a lot of the policy conversations that have happened in the state and in the country over the last however many decades.
0:14:01.5 SL: What we have found, and I am gonna kind of segue here into why the Office was actually created. What we have found is that while rural communities experience a lot of the same issues that urban communities experience, around disinvestment, around housing challenges, around workforce development needs, they don't have the same kinds of resources available to them. They don't have the same organizations. They don't have the population, they don't have the governance capacity in a lot of cases. But what they do have is a lot of geography, a lot of territory to cover. And so they're trying to do more with less. And that's really the big difference between how policy impacts urban versus rural communities. And the governor's office last year recognized it was a priority for the governor's office to try to kind of put a more rural lens on some of those policy impacts and how the differences in resources available to rural communities really impact what we're trying to do as a state.
0:15:04.6 SL: So the Office of Rural Development was intended to be that rural voice and policy conversations to be a liaison between rural communities and different agencies and different rural partners, whether they're state agencies, federal agencies, or university partners like the University of Michigan. So we're sort of a connection point for all of the different stakeholders that are working in rural communities that are rural communities that are developing policy that impact rural communities. We're trying to make sure that rural voices are connected and heard. We are kind of in the midst of a transition right now. There was another executive order this year that's transferring us from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, LEO. So our name will change to the Office of Rural Prosperity. But the song will remain the same.
0:15:55.4 SL: So we're gonna be doing the same work just under a different umbrella agency, which I think is really important to note. We've worked really closely with LEO, the other agencies under LEO's umbrella and other state agencies since the office was created in 2022. That's really our role is to be a cross agency, cross sector liaison for state government. And in the time that the office has been up and running, we've added some staff. We've received some funding that we've used to develop a grant program that I'll talk about a little bit later. But our primary focus is to serve as that connection and that rural voice and policy conversations.
0:16:36.3 TP: What I love about what you're saying, Sarah, so first off I should say that not every state has an Office of Rural Development or Rural Prosperity. This is something that's starting to happen more and more. You see, Michigan, within the last couple of years, Wisconsin, Kansas, we're seeing it more and more, but not every state does this. And where it's also placed is in different places within the state government structures. I will say that personally, I love that it's moving from the department it's in, to the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. Rural economies are much more diverse than agriculture. Agriculture plays a really large role in some rural communities, but frankly, nationally speaking, 7% of the jobs and employment in rural America is now Ag related. Rural is just very diverse, and part of that diversity is economic diversity. But actually the majority of jobs nationally speaking in rural places are service oriented. And you still have manufacturing also playing a large role. And then you have growing sectors like the outdoor recreation sector. So that diversity and you mentioned innovation. We often don't think of the innovation economy as a rural economy. We think of it as Silicon Valley or Seattle or Boston, or even what's happening in Ann Arbor that might spin off of the university and they get commercialized.
0:18:24.0 TP: There's a lot of innovation actually happening in rural places. It just looks different. And there's a uniqueness about rural that I think it's important to bring that lens. And so it's not only important to have the office, but also to bring sort of that perspective. I think, that's different. One of my frustrations in Washington is that policy makers still often just conflate agricultural policy with rural policy, rural development policy. And it's kind of tough because there's a whole division at the US Department of Agricultural called Rural Development that makes a lot of financing available to rural places for key infrastructure like water and sewer and communications, telecommunications, huge broadband project that's, are a huge broadband program. That's part of it. But frankly, we looked at a lot of the resources that come for rural community economic development, and they're just spread all throughout the government.
0:19:26.5 TP: We found more than 400 programs actually spread throughout the government that rural communities could use for their community economic development. And the trick is there are so many programs and they have such narrow descriptions and what they're available for and have such different requirements that it's really hard to even understand what kind of program could meet the needs of a particular community have at a particular point in time. And what you were also saying about the uniqueness of rural, local governments and capacity, also creates a dynamic. Because in a rural place, you might have one person doing three or four different things. Lots of times they're just volunteer elected officials who have full-time jobs, otherwise, even the staff in the city halls are very focused on the services like that water and sewer or public safety or other services might not have planning staff or economic development staff or things like that. So being able to access those and then the ecosystem around of nonprofits or others can be quite constrained. And so finding the capacity to be able to access all those resources, I know from the federal perspective can be quite a challenge. I imagine it's the same at the state.
0:20:55.4 SL: Very much so. So to your point about the volunteers within local government and sort of the lack of staffing capacity, that's a huge issue in rural communities. And I could tell you so many stories about the ways that rural communities are stretched in that context. But one example is a city near where I grew up. The city manager is also a part-time superintendent at a private school. And he's also a basketball coach. And so, and he runs the DPW and he's actually been really successful in bringing down some of those dollars. But he's paid, a lot of these rural communities don't have paid staff that are thinking about the next grant cycle or whether or not they have the plans in place to actually position themselves to apply for funding. So that's something that we've really tried to work with agency partners in other departments and across the state, along with federal partners to try to understand what are the ways that we can streamline processes to support local governments that are trying to figure this out and move forward.
0:22:08.1 SL: While at the same time understanding what some of the opportunities are to build that capacity and build that governance infrastructure for rural communities. And I can talk more about our grant program and how that's sort of presenting itself as a platform for some of that capacity building. But essentially what we're trying to do is provide some dollars to local governments and to nonprofit organizations to find the staff or the consultants or the other support that they need to build the plans to apply for the grants and access those state and federal resources that Tony mentioned more efficiently. And what we're finding is that, because of our close partnerships with other agencies, we're in a position once we receive those applications, to redirect them to another opportunity that might be out there. And I think that that's potentially an important model going forward, where we don't have local governments who are looking under every nook and cranny for the right grant program for their project.
0:23:15.5 SL: Like Tony said, they're very, most of the time they're very narrow. They're very specific. You have to check all of the boxes. And it's more than a full-time job to understand the full landscape of funding opportunities that are out there for community projects. And so how can we help communities streamline that process? One way is to sort of triage their projects, help them understand what the agencies are that they need to be working with and direct them to the appropriate resource. So that's one way that we're approaching it. But it is very much an issue within state government, even within state government to know everything that is available to potential applicants.
0:23:58.5 TP: Talk to me a little bit about the capacity building program that you've developed and how do you get communities to understand that that's even available and that it's something that they might want to take advantage of? I'm gonna talk a little bit, 'cause I wanna hear about that because I'm involved in Washington in trying to also have legislators do something similar in the current negotiations of the Farm Bill, actually.
0:24:27.6 SL: So, about our grant program, there's different ways that we're kind of getting the word out about it. And I should say that we talk with rural communities a lot, [laughter] So that's one of the really big priorities for our office is to be really engaged with rural communities. So we're not the quintessential office in Lansing. We are out among the communities themselves. And so we're communicating our programs, related programs to communities every chance we get. We have built a big network of rural communities that we share information with electronically and in partnership with other agencies. So, we have a pretty broad reach in terms of who we talk to. It's across sectors. It's across the state. And we have, I think that people who are working in rural communities, when they hear about the Office of Rural Development, it catches in their mind and they pay attention.
0:25:31.3 SL: So it's easy for us to kind of get the attention of rural communities. And we have had a really incredible response to the grant program, which we launched as a pilot in April. So we had, to give you a a sense, we had $750,000 available in the first round, and we received $4.3 million in requests. So, again, not nearly enough resources to meet the demand, but it was clear that people were really excited about the opportunity because it addressed a need that hasn't been addressed in other programs that have been offered or available recently. So we talk in the grant program about things like capacity building, which is a big broad term. It can mean a lot of different things. And we tried to leave it open-ended, so that communities could respond in a way that made sense.
0:26:19.4 SL: We talked about planning, pre-development activities, building partnerships and collaboration. And so what we ended up with was a really interesting mix of project types that range from everything from a study to identify specific housing needs and strategies to a consultant that would provide grant writing, education and capacity building to pre-development activities on a specific property to build housing, to trail planning, to, you name it. And it's clear that this really touched a nerve for rural communities and a lot of agencies started paying attention to, not just to our program, but specifically the projects that people were applying for funding for. And so now there's kind of, I think offshoots of the program that are developing and sort of evolving, as we learn more about specifically what communities are trying to do around capacity building.
0:27:24.4 TP: I love the flexibility of that. That's the one word that I really emphasize in the conversations that I have in Washington DC with legislators in the executive branch, because it's that kind of flexibility that really rural communities are missing to be able to access when they're trying to access investment. So one thing to keep in mind is that rural communities like philanthropy, just charitable foundations and donations writ large, philanthropy is disproportionately lower in rural places in the aggregate across the nation. Using let's, so there's many different definitions of rural, the federal government has at least 15 that they use in different ways in different programs. But I'll use OMB's non-metro definition just as a definition of rural. So using that, about 14% of the population in the United States is rural and even the most generous and this very generous analyses of philanthropic funding has about tops out at about 6% or 7% of philanthropic funding going to rural places.
0:28:36.5 TP: And if you look for rural community economic development, it's actually much lower as well. That's very generous because it includes a lot of things that actually aren't place-based. So that flexibility to actually have flexible dollars not inside those very specific and narrow programs, and to do the things you were talking about, hire a staff person if you need it, put a partnership like coordinating a partnership or just doing some analysis or planning. Many different communities have many different needs, and it's that flexibility just to be able to find that connective tissue. Shamokin, the town where I went to elementary school, that I said, has fallen on hard times, even become a persistent poverty place. They have a group of local leaders and some investors as part of those local leaders that have helped put together, taken 8000 acres of reclaimed mine land and put together sort of an ATV and conservation site, which has now become a destination for folks to come in from the outside.
0:29:46.6 TP: But they realized that they were gonna need a lot more investment to be able to create economic development off of that park. They were able, they had a state legislator who's local boy, was able to get some money set aside so that the council of governments could second a person into the city government. And the city government at that time was basically on the brink of bankruptcy. So that more or less, couple $100,000 investment over three years to have that person come in has turned into more than $15 million of public investment in private and state funds. And so just having that one person who has some expertise and some connection to networks can really unlock a lot of resources in public investment and give them a fighting chance to sort of take what they built to the next level.
0:30:45.5 TP: And so I think it's that kind of flexibility and that kind of capacity that really can create some forward momentum. And, but I also think, you talked about trust earlier, so I'd love to hear your take on that because I think even in the work that they've been doing in that town, and one of the things that they did to try to connect the ATV park to the town was, do an ordinance that allowed the ATVs to come off the trail and actually come onto the city streets so they could go to restaurants and take advantage of what's in the town. They found a lot of resistance in doing that. And I feel like there's a lot of opportunity that comes to rural, that rural people don't necessarily jump at, right away. And sometimes one of the things that I'm finding through the podcast that, there's a difference between how things change in an urban environment and how things change in a rural environment, and trust is really at the heart of that. So I'd love just some reflections on how you take it, how you sort of think about trust from your own perspective as the office, but then even what it means for how change happens at the rural level.
0:32:15.5 SL: So it's a complicated question to answer because I think it's so big. But I think one of the first things I will say about it is that, probably the best way to build trust and engagement is to just listen. And so that was one of the things that I've been trained to do as a community planner is not to go blowing in with all these big ideas about how we're going to change your community. That's a recipe for disaster. So it's really important to show up with an open mind and hear what people have experienced, hear what they're working on, hear what their priorities are. And a lot of times we think that we have the answers for these communities, and so we show up and we tell them, but they've already tried that and it hasn't worked.
0:33:07.4 SL: And there are a lot of reasons why, and we have a lot to learn from them. And so I think that's probably the most important component of building that trust and creating the foundation for an actual constructive conversation. But I do think it is really important to have that going into some of these more complex issues. And it can be really difficult to get there because there's a history, there's always a history and you have to kind of position yourselves in the right spot within that history if you're gonna be constructive. I think maybe one good example of how I've seen it work is, in Petoskey area, I'm sure everyone's familiar with Petoskey, but they have a really significant housing shortage in Emmett County. It's a very seasonal community, and they're really struggling to hire people just across the board.
0:34:00.4 SL: It started out as an issue with seasonal workers. Now it's pretty much every industry is impacted by this. And they had a group of cross sector leaders who were really engaged in all of these conversations, really wanted to make a difference, wanted to get some housing projects started, and immediately hit that wall that you're talking about, where there's a lot of resistance to that kind of change. If you wanna see people get upset, talk to them about affordable housing. So [laughter], what, they took a step back and understood that we need to have local governments on board and we need to have local leadership actually in front of this conversation so that they're not reacting emotionally to this conversation. And so this group of local leaders, volunteers, went out and did this sort of education campaign targeted directly to local governments.
0:34:51.2 SL: And over the course of a couple years, they've built enough support that they're able to actually build. They have multiple projects that are underway within the city of Petoskey. They have multiple townships working together on an infrastructure plan. This is one of the projects that we're funding. And if, again, if you want to see people upset, talk about sharing infrastructure [laughter], across municipal borders, so they've actually come together as a community to be more proactive about this. Philanthropy has been a really big supporter of some of their efforts, but I think that kind of, they are very much connected with outside resources and experts to understand the problem, to understand what their options were, but they knew that they were going to have to kind of lead the conversation locally and build that grassroots support among local leadership. And it's really paid off. The problem isn't solved, the problem's never gonna be solved completely, but they have made significant progress.
0:35:51.4 TP: But I think one of the things that you're highlighting there is that, when we think about how change and development happens in rural places, it really is locally led development. And it really does have to be local people leading and owning that solution. And from the outside we can provide experience or sometimes expertise, but it can't be a solution that comes in that says, this is your solution. The solution has to come, I think, locally and then build out in some ways. And it's wonderful to hear jurisdictions actually collaborating as well. I think one of the things that, it's really interesting to me how at the federal level we often measure and the way even our data systems are set up, we measure kind of rural at the county level. There's enormous differentiation underneath the county level. And we kind of assume. Ohh we're a county, those jurisdictions, they'll all get together and do some work together.
0:36:54.9 TP: And I kind of call it the Friday night light syndrome. You talked about high school athletics a little earlier. Like the town where I grew up in and the town I went to elementary school seven miles apart are not natural collaborators. I'm sorry. It's just not the way in which community identity and history works and how people even think of themselves, actually. It's not even where their kinships lie. And they're used to being rivals in some respects, trying to outdo each other in different ways. So, in an environment now in the 21st century where it might be fruitful to collaborate on things like infrastructure or even economic development, like a regional, connectivity to regional markets and things like that. It doesn't come naturally. And frankly, we don't have great governance models for it either. It's tough. You kind of... Communities are making that up. I find a lot of that when I'm talking to communities about the podcast, the stories.
0:38:02.9 TP: The other thing that I do find though is that the communities that are these bright spots, they are finding ways to collaborate. They're collaborating both inside their towns, Shamokin itself, they created a new business coalition that hadn't existed, a faith-based alliance that then are working together, and they're partnering, like I said, with the Council of Governments in a way that they'd never done before. And that kind of collaboration has actually been really fruitful. And having a set of almost even regional organizations that have the expertise of being that go-between, between state or federal entities as well as local jurisdictions has also been really helpful to the stories that I'm finding. Is that something that you see reflected in your work as well?
0:38:52.3 SL: Absolutely. And so Sarah has heard this line so many times, having been to all of our leadership summits over the summer. But the one message that we really try to get across is that the successful communities are the ones that plan proactively and that collaborate with each other. So everywhere I go, people want to know, what are the success stories that you have to share with us? Where are people doing this well? And it's really difficult to just lay out a recipe, essentially, for success, other than to say, you need to plan and you need to collaborate with others because that collaboration brings additional resources, it brings additional capacity, it brings additional opportunities. And so that's, again, something that we're really trying to encourage and promote with our grant program and with all of our communications with local governments and with other rural partners.
0:39:44.7 SL: Because it's got a real urgency around it, particularly in the northern parts of the state where we have lost a lot of population and where we have lost a lot of tax revenue over the last 15 years. So that's one of the underlying issues here that we haven't really touched on, but a lot of communities in Michigan have lost population particularly since the recession, they've lost a lot of young people and after the recession their property values went down and they still haven't recovered and so we've really been dealing with shrinking populations and shrinking budgets that leave us fewer resources to do more work with and so some of the more resourceful communities and organizations are those that are finding ways to expand the services that are available within their organization, or they're expanding into another geography under contract. So a really common one is an economic development organization that contracts with another county to provide services to that county. Or the schools, bless them, like the amount of services that schools offer to meet community needs like expanding into offering child care when a child care center closes. So all of those kinds of partnerships are really vital and immediate to the communities because there's no other option other than to collaborate because no one else is coming to save the community. You really have to come together.
0:41:19.6 TP: Yeah, and that point about sort of diminishing population as well as pressure on tax base, and it's not just pressure on tax base, but it's also pressure on local institutions. The institutions that when you think of a town, and it goes beyond public institutions, everything from the library, it can be healthcare, it can be bank branches, it can be libraries, grocery stores, local newspapers. Many of those things are just under pressure in the way in which our economy works right now. And so communities have to be creative and innovative to be able to ensure that they've got the fabric that they feel like they need. But I will say that rural is kind of tip of the spear on an economy with population loss or populations staying stagnant. And one of the episodes we did for the podcast was in Vermont, which is, according to some standards, the most rural state in the nation, has an unemployment rate of 1.9%, even in places where there's been some economic decline.
0:42:36.5 TP: And part of that's population loss and also an aging population. And so if you look out 10 to 20 years, that economic vibrancy, even if they're maintaining some economic vibrancy now in some small towns. That's gonna be really difficult to do without bringing either people in from the outside or making sure that your young people are coming back. And I think that's one of the unfortunate things about the narrative of decline around rural that really dominates how we hear about rural, is that it doesn't allow youth to see their hometown as a place of opportunity and a place to come back and be successful and be the person that... And doesn't mean you don't come to Ann Arbor and go to university or go to other places, but see it as an opportunity to go back and have a fulfilling, both personal and community life in that home community. So how is that playing out and how are you even thinking about that through the office? I'm sure that's a... But that is... That narrative shift I think is really important and it's been interesting in the stories that we've done on the podcast to hear that narrative shift happen with the people who are working and the protagonists for positive change. They always talk about that, how important that is actually to shift the mindset of how they're even thinking about their community, the people who live there, and what it means as a place to them.
0:44:15.9 SL: Yeah, that's a really critical part of what we do, what we talk about, what we're looking towards, and I would say it's a really critical issue for Michigan as a whole. So Michigan got a wake-up call with the last census where we lost population as a state. This is something that rural Michigan has been dealing with for decades and so we've been kind of a canary in the coal mine and to Tony's point, rural communities have been dealing with the realities of population loss for a long time and so we've been trying to find ways to resolve some of the issues that come along with that. And I think that that gives Michigan as a whole, some really good stories and some examples to follow for what actually works. Because what we saw in the last couple years is that people are starting to move back to a lot of these rural communities These rural counties that have lost population for decades and the reason I believe is because we recognized in a lot of these rural communities that our greatest asset was our people and that we needed to build quality places to attract people to live in our communities.
0:45:23.7 SL: And so rural communities, I would say, for decades have been following this recipe of placemaking as economic development to try to build desirable places to live and work and invest. And that's really paid off in a lot of communities, particularly those with a lot of access to outdoor recreation or to other really, really vital outdoor or place-based assets like shoreline. We've seen a lot more people move back to those communities. Outside of that, I think, what you said about how people think of themselves and how people talk about themselves is something that's probably unappreciated outside of those communities themselves. But it can be a real battle to shift that narrative of we are a dying community to we are a community where people want to come and invest and raise their families. And I see Sarah. I know she's gonna cut us off here. So I just wanna say two things real quickly.
0:46:32.5 SL: When I think of that narrative, I think of Ironwood. If you're familiar with Ironwood, it's as far west as you can go in Michigan in the UP. It's actually farther west than St. Louis, which is a fact I learned recently. But it was a mining town. It's lost a lot of population. It has very much an aging population. And they have struggled with a lot of disinvestment, population decline, but there's been sort of this renaissance in Ironwood and this newfound pride that's come from sort of community investments in the downtown, in the trails, in arts and culture. They have a new, a really incredible sort of world class entertainment festival in the summer. And when people talk about Ironwood, it's with a sense of pride. And you can really see that play out in how other people are looking at Ironwood and how businesses are looking at Ironwood.
0:47:25.8 SL: And it's, I think, one of many examples across the state of where that mindset is starting to shift. The other thing I want to say about how our office is addressing this, and something I want to say to all of the many young people I see here in this room is that we're trying to make sure that we understand what young people are looking for in rural communities and how we can communicate that to decision makers and make sure that we have younger voices in the conversation about what matters in rural communities. So we actually started a young rural leaders network where we invited people under the age of 35 to come and talk about, what are they experiencing in their communities? What do they need in order to be successful, in order to stay? And it's, again, really inspiring and really powerful. And the message that I will leave, and I think that should probably be communicated more regularly among rural communities and outside of rural communities, is that in rural areas, you have the opportunity to build something in a way that you don't have in a bigger community.
0:48:34.6 SL: Because you're doing so many jobs at once, you can make it into anything that you want. And there is such an incredible need for volunteers and so much opportunity for some of that kind of service work that we know is really important to young people. I think that if you're motivated to make a difference in the community you live in, there's no better place than a rural or small town.
0:49:00.2 TP: As someone who's spent time in international development where the social entrepreneurial movement is huge, it's my personal crusade to get people thinking about social entrepreneurialism in rural places, exactly to Sarah's point.
0:49:15.3 SM: I'm not here to cut them off.
0:49:17.4 TP: There you go.
0:49:17.7 SM: Because if you're like me, you could listen to them all night long. But I want to make sure that if you have burning questions, you have an opportunity. So there are microphones, raise your hand, I'll call on you. I see Sam's got his hand up here.
0:49:40.0 Sam: Sarah, you mentioned that successful communities plan proactively and collaborate. What can you do at a state level to help encourage communities to proactively plan?
0:49:51.4 SL: So one way that we're doing that is through our grant program. We're using that as sort of a model and a template that hopefully will expand. But since we've launched the program, there's been interest from other agencies about how they can actually facilitate some of that work themselves through having staff actually based at the regional level to support some of those activities. So, there's a couple different, probably multiple different ways that we can do it as a state and that are being tested right now. One is through simple grants like ours where we're actually providing funding support for it to happen or funding support for staff within the community to do the planning. The other is having state staff available to facilitate the process or make those connections for communities. And the third is something that we're still sort of developing concepts around that would facilitate not just the planning but the collaboration across community boundaries through grants or other incentives. I guess maybe one example, if you're familiar, is the Redevelopment Ready Communities program, where if you develop a set of plans, you are eligible for dollars that you wouldn't be eligible for otherwise. So that's one model that's been really successful. Sometimes hard to access for communities, but a good template for how to move people in that direction, I guess is what I would say.
0:51:20.2 Sam: Thank you.
0:51:22.1 SM: Do you have anything to add, Tony, while somebody raises their hand?
0:51:27.3 TP: I guess one of the things I would say back to... So I think proactively planning is exactly right. It's also interesting that a lot of what happens in less densely populated places. So first off, they're less densely populated, so community engagement can really work. You can really get people together and in a room and get people participating in what that planning looks like. Often, too, there's a lot of things that happen organically that it's important about connecting the dots within a particular community. And sometimes it's not a grand economic plan, it's just how do we make the community's quality of life better? And what are the trails that you talked about. Like people getting together and just starting. And so planning, I think, has to happen sometimes in conjunction with action, people seeing small things building on top of each other, and that creates sort of a sense of momentum.
0:52:29.2 SM: Jenna.
0:52:33.2 Jenna: This is on. This has been amazing. Sarah, I've got a question for you that actually builds on what Tony just started to say, but it's also bringing back in some of the conversations that you had together. I'm wondering about your measure of success. You use that word a lot. And given that the title of your office is changing to prosperity, the easy measure of success, of course, is academic activity. But there are a lot of other things that are coming up here. The strength of the civil society, for example. Or you were talking about pride or dignity. These are harder to measure, but may actually be ultimately contributing to prosperity. So even if that was your long run measurable, do you try to track some of these other things?
0:53:19.8 SL: So that's a great question. And it is something that there's actually a sort of effort right now to better quantify the measure of success for terms like thriving. What is a thriving community? And the reason for some of those initiatives is exactly what you just said, that we're always looking at jobs created or exports. And what really matters is, do people want to stay there and how connected do they feel? And you can't really measure those things outside of really involved surveys. And so we are, I would say, participating in some of those efforts to better quantify the results. Right now we don't, we're looking at things like population change. Are people leaving an area or are they moving to an area? That's a pretty blunt instrument for measuring some of that, but it's where we're starting.
0:54:24.4 SL: I think looking at incomes, and these are long-term measurements. Population change, income growth, those are really good indicators that a community is thriving. But it's definitely not the whole story. And having worked in housing specifically for many years, where you think that the answer is... The measure of success is how many more units you have built and actually you need to talk about how many people do you have on the city council that would support new housing development. It's a difficult question to answer.
0:55:00.6 TP: We're actually co-hosting some round tables with federal officials from different agencies across federal government, specifically about how metrics that they use, do not reflect rural realities. And the jobs created, jobs retained, just drives me crazy because we don't even talk about quality jobs or who's getting those jobs. But one of the things that we're in conversation with them about is how do you measure a sense of momentum in a community? And is that reinvestment? Is that levels of participation? Those are gonna be more process measures, levels of participation in community engagement or in planning or in, maybe social capital in some way, to your point about civil society. And I think that there are things... That is an area where there's things to learn from like international development. Like they've been trying to push the boundaries of what measures like work when you're really outsiders to a community and you see what community... You have a sense that this community is on the move or is doing things to sustain itself over time. And we're in the midst of, literally, just in the midst of creating roundtables to put people from USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation together with their cohort from USDA and EPA and HUD and others, just to have that conversation and learn from each other.
0:56:28.9 SM: Depending on the length of the answer, this may be our last question.
0:56:30.9 TP: [laughter] Sorry.
0:56:31.1 SM: If not, then you get the last word. Go ahead.
0:56:34.8 Speaker 6: Lots of pressure here. Love the discussion about metrics, but I'm wondering even before we get there, and you're talking about federal investments specifically and whether those investments get to rural communities, one thing we've heard, I'm a researcher, food security researcher in Appalachian, Ohio, we hear communities talk about how they're not even putting their hat in the ring because...
0:56:53.2 TP: Exactly.
0:56:53.4 S6: A lot of the grants require matched dollars and they simply don't have that money. And so I'm wondering to what degree are we seeing that reality evolve at the federal level or see mechanisms at the state or local level to address that barrier?
0:57:07.2 TP: So I [laughter] I'm blue in the face talking about match require... So I think we are definitely seeing recognition amongst policy makers that match requirements are an immediate barrier for the communities that might benefit most. So if you're trying to maximize public benefit of some federal resources, that match requirements take certain communities just out of the running immediately, for a bunch of reasons we've already talked about. So they're starting to build in more flexibility around those match requirements, what counts as match requirements? Can it be in-kind? Can it be sweat equity? Or waivers, especially for highly socially vulnerable communities or communities that are low capacity? But unfortunately, and I literally had a conversation with a lead staff member yesterday that's trying to develop legislation for the farm bill around capacity building and had a match with it.
0:58:12.0 TP: And we were like...
0:58:17.4 TP: And it's the thing, it's how Congress thinks. They think it's really important both because there is scarce resources, it says something about community's readiness and be able to spread those scarce resources around. And there's just this idea of skin in the game, like a community is putting something in. I think we're just gonna have to be... Continue to be more creative about what a match is and what counts towards a match. And it does come back to that idea of flexibility, I think. And having been... I spent most of... A lot of my career before I went into federal government and philanthropy. And it was something we always looked for. How do we know that a community is invested in this project and that they're gonna continue to sustain this going forward? So I understand that argument, but frankly, it almost, it becomes...
0:59:19.1 TP: And because in aggregate, a lot of our most poor rural places are actually communities of color. I mean, 86% of the persistent poverty counties in America are rural and 60% of that aggregate population are communities of color. It's almost discriminatory in some way, the way in which matches are set up. So it's an issue to deal with. I think we just need to continue to make policy makers aware of it and aware of when it creates those bottlenecks and it creates a barrier. But the unfortunate thing is, especially if there's been a loss of trust between, say, a federal agency because of the way a program is already set up, to your point, a lot of communities don't even look at the programs now. They completely write them off before they even get too far into thinking about whether they can make use of that funds.
1:00:24.0 SL: I'll just add really quickly that on our grant program, we made sure to allow in-kind match instead of cash match. And the other thing that we're trying to do right now is work with philanthropy to understand how they might support an actual pooled match fund so that rural communities who are trying to apply for some of these grants but don't have the match resources, could tap into that. So we're trying to figure some of that out. We're in the process.
1:00:52.6 SM: I am going to have to cut us off because I started a minute early and now I'm ending us two minutes late and I don't want to lose my job ever of being a moderator again. Please... So you can ask your questions though, they are very nice people, obviously, afterwards. Please join me in thanking Tony and Sarah for tonight's conversation.
1:01:11.3 TP: Thank you.
1:01:17.3 TP: Thanks for your interest in rural places. It is great to see a packed house, so, it's wonderful. Thank you. [chuckle]