Is There a Government Role for Rural Development?

A scene from Dollywood, near Knoxville, Tenn.

by James A. Bacon

John Accordino, a planning professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been giving extensive thought to a perennial problem, the nation’s urban-rural divide. As author of a newly published article and State and Local Government Review, he provides a broad overview of his thinking in a Richmond Times-Dispatch column.

Accordino sees the urban-rural divide — the divergence in incomes and job growth — as unhealthy for America’s economy, society and politics. And he thinks it is something that government intervention can address.

I know John, and I think he is a very thoughtful guy. And I agree that there may be a limited role for government. But I am skeptical that the federal and state governments can be very helpful. The solutions, such as they are, must come from the bottom-up — from rural communities and local governments themselves.

But before I get into that, let’s see what Accordino has to say.

Internet connectivity is a prerequisite for participating in the modern economy, rural Internet connections are slow, and government can help accelerate the deployment of broadband. Accordino points to a “digital inclusiveness” program in Minnesota and a “Digital Equity Action Plan” in Portland as examples of what can be done. Likewise, he points to telehealth as a way to connect health practitioners in urban areas with patients in under-served rural areas. He also highlights collaborative economic development partnerships, citing Virginia Tech’s Vibrant Virginia initiative to “identify and encourage urban-rural linkages” as well as the Virginia Intiative for Growth and Opportunity.

But more is needed. “It’s now time for the federal government to replicate and scale up successful models, provide flexible assistance so regions can devise solutions sensitive to their needs, and remove federal policy silos that undermine state and local efforts,” he writes. “And it must enact, and work with states and localities to implement, a national digital infrastructure and inclusion policy, to give all communities — urban and rural — a chance to prosper together in our 21st-century economy.”

The federal government has been trying to solve rural poverty for decades. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, accompanied by busloads of reporters, descended upon Inez, Kentucky, in Martin County, one of the poorest localities in the country. Posing with Tom Fletcher and his two young sons on the front porch of their ramshackle, tarpaper house — the resulting photographs would come to define the face of Appalachian destitution — LBJ declared a war on poverty. That was 56 years ago.

Martin County subsequently enjoyed a burst of prosperity when the Norfolk & Western Railway built a rail spur into the county, opening up vast coal reserves for exploitation. Coal production would increase from 200,000 tons a year to 18 million tons, creating hundreds of jobs in the mines and ancillary businesses. The coal industry created Martin County’s brush with prosperity, not the government. But when the best coal was mined out, the market for coal collapsed, and coal-related jobs evaporated, government policy was powerless to reverse the decline.

A regional economic development authority has invested funds building several industrial parks equipped with water, sewer and fiber in eastern Kentucky, but the build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy has achieved limited results. The region is remote. Martin County lacks four-lane highway access. The workforce in a county of 10,000 people is small and needs training. Many people are struggling with drug addiction. There’s not enough outside money in the world for outsiders to fix these problems for Martin County and the hundreds of other struggling rural counties like it.

What outsiders (whether government or private foundations) can do — and Accordino touched upon this idea — is “replicate and scale up successful models” of development. This would start with the recognition that different rural counties have very different assets. Some have mineral wealth, some do not. Some have the climate for specialty agriculture, like vineyards and wineries, some do not. Some benefit from proximity to major metropolitan areas. Some offer natural amenities such as mountains, lakes and rivers. Some have anchor institutions like colleges and universities. Some have wealthy local residents who can bankroll new business ventures. Some have vibrant towns that can serve as nucleii for development — Virginia towns like Abingdon and Farmville come to mind — while others do not.

There is no one-size-fits all solution for rural counties. Each community must find its own path forward. What a rural development think tank could do is identify the most successful rural counties and examine what led to their success — and then disseminate that knowledge. In many if not most instances, I suspect such a study would find, there was a visionary and passionate entrepreneur behind the success, whether it was Friedl Pfeifer who created the Aspen, Colo., ski industry or Dolly Parton who launched one of the nation’s largest amusement parks in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

Economic growth doesn’t just happen. You can’t just throw a bunch of ingredients together — three ounces of broadband, a pinch of telehealth, a wallop of industrial development authority loan guarantees — and expect something to happen. Someone has to make it happen, and those someones have to come from the communities themselves.