Ru­ral and re­silient

Com­mu­ni­ties with vi­sion, lead­ers like­lier to reap eco­nomic ben­e­fits

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Aldo Svaldi

Across ru­ral Colorado, com­mu­ni­ties in the same area, with sim­i­lar pop­u­la­tions and with com­pa­ra­ble as­sets are in much dif­fer­ent places eco­nom­i­cally, a dis­par­ity the last re­ces­sion only widened.

To un­der­stand why, the Colorado Of­fice of Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment and In­ter­na­tional Trade, with the help of the Uni­ver­sity of Colorado, stud­ied why some places such as Du­rango and Sal­ida are thriv­ing while oth­ers such as Trinidad con­tinue to strug­gle in a land that time for­got.

“We think about re­siliency as how do you bounce back from nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and from all man­ner of things,” said Gov. John Hick­en­looper, but he added that the con­cept also ap­plies to ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties.

Brian Le­wandowski, the CU re­searcher who led the study, looked at job growth go­ing back to 1990 in 47 non-metro coun­ties. The study also in­cluded fo­cus groups to un­der­stand the preva­lent at­ti­tudes.

In gen­eral, the more di­ver­si­fied a ru­ral econ­omy was, the bet­ter chance it had of adding jobs over the long haul, he said. Agri­cul­ture was linked with slower growth over time, while tourism con­trib­uted to faster growth.

A larger pop­u­la­tion or a higher share of peo­ple em­ployed in lo­cal govern­ment, how­ever, didn’t cor­re­late with stronger growth in ru­ral ar­eas.

In­vest­ments in ed­u­ca­tion and health care mat­ter, in part be­cause of the peo­ple they can help at­tract to a com­mu­nity. But build­ing ex­pen­sive pub­lic as­sets, such as a re­gional air­port or a com­mu­nity col­lege, weren’t an­swers in them­selves, Le­wandowski said.

Rather, the study sug­gests that in­tan­gi­bles — such as a com­mu­nity’s vi­sion of its fu­ture and strong lead­er­ship to get it there — are what mat­tered the most in the end.

Op­po­site of re­silience are at­ti­tudes, still preva­lent in some com­mu­ni­ties, that op-

pose change, growth and risk-tak­ing, mo­ti­vated in part by a de­sire to hold onto a past iden­tity that isn’t de­liv­er­ing.

Although the state can help with is­sues such as ed­u­ca­tion, trans­porta­tion and bet­ter broad­band ac­cess, in the end, those liv­ing in a com­mu­nity must de­cide how they will rein­vent them­selves and cope with a chang­ing econ­omy.

“The state is never go­ing to have as good of a vi­sion as in­di­vid­ual com­mu­ni­ties will have of their fu­ture,” Hick­en­looper said.

That is where lo­cal lead­er­ship comes in, he said. Where the state can help is em­pow­er­ing lo­cal lead­ers and shar­ing with them what has worked in other com­mu­ni­ties.

“At the core of all of these suc­cesses is hard work and per­sis­tence. You just don’t quit,” Hicken- looper said.

In­ter­est­ing in­no­va­tions are tak­ing place across ru­ral Colorado, but some com­mu­ni­ties find them­selves in a catch-22, Le­wandowski said. They strug­gle to keep their young adults, leav­ing the com­mu­ni­ties with­out the work­ers that em­ploy­ers who might be will­ing to in­vest in them want to see.

Le­wandowski said it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that ru­ral Colorado is in much bet­ter shape than ru­ral Amer­ica as a whole. More than half of the state’s ru­ral coun­ties rank in the top quar­tile of ru­ral coun­ties na­tion­ally for job and pop­u­la­tion growth.

But the com­par­isons aren’t made with those ar­eas, but rather the north­ern Front Range, con­tribut­ing to a sense of be­ing left be­hind in large swaths of Colorado.

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