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Vying for Funding, Rural Counties Often Lose to Big Cities

But a new contest, where the competition is limited to rural areas, offers a chance for smaller municipalities to realize their economic development plans.

Conesus, New York, a town of 2,473 in Livingston County.
Wikimedia Commons/ DanielPenfield
In Nevada, rural communities like those in Carson Valley are at a disadvantage when it comes to winning cash for new development projects. It’s hard to get noticed beyond the glare of cities like Reno and Las Vegas.

So the chance to win at least $35,000 in a contest where their competition would be similar-sized rural communities was an opportunity to create a detailed plan for how the three neighboring counties could start new projects to improve their economies, said Bill Chernock, the executive director of Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“In our state, the Las Vegas Valley and the Reno area certainly have needs, and they have the population to warrant it, so by the time counties like Douglas start looking for dollars, specifically for planning, that account tends to be pretty sparse,” Chernock said. “This is an opportunity to demonstrate some real needs in a universe of like communities.”

The contest provided a purpose for Carson Valley’s counties, two of which lie in Nevada and the other in California, to create a more detailed plan for development.

“When you do something like this, it brings planning to the fore,” he said. “We are ultimately in the same county and subject to the same financial pressures, so it has been really valuable for some of our community leaders.”

The counties are focusing on creating more public parking and safer amenities for pedestrians, which could help preserve historic downtown areas, Chernock said.

The America’s Best Communities contest is a chance for rural counties, which often fail to beat out larger, urban areas for federal development funding, to win up to $3 million to realize economic development plans. Frontier Communications, the Dish Network and CoBank fund the contest.

Rural areas, which tend to have a higher percentage of people living in poverty than metropolitan ares (18 percent to 15 percent, respectively, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture) can’t always count on the federal government to help them realize many of their development goals.

“Many rural communities, they’ve been left behind in terms of attracting businesses and staying vibrant,” Maggie Wilderotter, CEO of Frontier Communications, said during a January conference call with reporters. “So we wanted to create an environment where you change the business model and change the community from the ground up.”

As more people flock to the cities and their surrounding suburbs, population in rural areas has decreased. The United States Department of Agriculture reported that non-metro populations in the U.S. continued to shrink in 2013, but slowed between July 2012 and 2013, according to the most recent data available.

Unemployment is slowing in these areas, but they aren’t seeing the same employment gains as urban areas, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And economic development is more difficult in these areas because of a lack of investment, Dee Davis, founder of the Center for Rural Strategies said.

Still, as telecommuting becomes more common, people will have more freedom to choose where in the country they live. That could cause migration to cities to slow down, Davis said.

“The future is going to be people living where they want to live, working from where they want to work, and when you print up your sneakers for your kids on your 3D printer, then it changes how close you have to be to the mall,” he said.

Maureen Wheeler, an economic development specialist in upstate New York’s Livingston County, said the county is creating a plan to attract more young families to the region.

Downtown revitalization, like turning the upper floors of downtown buildings into residences and adding wireless Internet access in the downtown areas, could help attract a younger demographic to the area, she said.

“All of our initiatives really speak to that goal,” she said. “We’re looking to create a county-wide community center -- something to highlight arts and culture -- specifically for youth and for families.”

Livingston County in upstate New York saw its population shrink by 1.1 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Julie Marshall, the executive director of the county’s Industrial Development Agency, said the aging population was the biggest challenge to keeping the population stable.

About 50 percent of the region’s workers travel outside of the county for work, she said, which means the county has to increase their efforts to encourage shopping locally at small businesses.

The county is leaning on its reputation as one of the state’s healthiest counties and vibrant tourism market to try and convince families to stay after visiting the area. Nearby colleges such as the Rochester Institute of Technology, draw young people to the area, and the county is working with representatives from local colleges to prepare their contest application.

“I think that’s a challenge that all communities face,” Marshall said. “The communities that have colleges look to keep the college population here. The other communities say we want to make sure that our student population comes back.”

Liz Farmer contributed reporting.

Mary Ellen McIntire is a Governing intern.
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