Rural Economic Development Strategies to Support Strong Communities
A large portion of Canada’s population lives in small towns and rural communities. These rural communities, while currently dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic like the rest of the country, are nonetheless vibrant places, rich with culture, history, and resilient citizens. Many have struggled in recent years to retain businesses, workforce, and residents. This challenge will be compounded by the reality of a post-pandemic economy but these rural communities can pursue a number of initiatives to emerge stronger and more resilient despite changing economic circumstances around the globe.
Rural economic development strategies can help make rural communities sustainable, and connect them to the rest of the world without losing residents to larger urban centres.
Nationwide strategies exist to connect rural communities. The Canadian government has a mandate to extend high-speed internet and cell phone service to all of Canada’s rural communities, even in the far north, by 2030. Communication services like these will help to bring many new opportunities to rural Canadians. In the meantime, communities can focus on local economic growth initiatives that will be enhanced by better connectivity when it is delivered.
Six Rural Economic Development Strategies
How can you capitalize on your rural community’s existing features, and diversify your local economy? Here are a few suggestions.
- Get creative. You can get creative about economic development in more than one way. There are innovative and creative development initiatives, as in Clinton, Ontario, with their downtown business revitalization plan to provide retail business space for 6 local entrepreneurs to expand their businesses. But there’s more to creativity than that. Rural communities are full of creative people. That includes, but isn’t limited to, artists. Developing your creative economy, and developing your economy creatively, builds strong community connections and a rich arts and culture base, and makes your community attractive for tourism when travel and social mobility restrictions are eased.
- Encourage leadership in the community. Rural communities are full of people with innovative ideas, knowledge, and experience. The "A Guide to Rural Community Economic Development" report from the University of Guelph illustrates how encouraging leadership in your community members can bring big ideas to the table. Strong community leaders can drive change from a grassroots level, and build stronger community connections and resilience. Municipal guidance can help to foster connections between organizations, and define priorities for both recovery efforts and longer term strategies.
- Capitalize on your assets. Some of the most desirable features of rural towns are often tied to the location, the landscape, and the friendliness of a community. Assets like agritourism and ecotourism support your existing local industries while also building new income streams. And, following the collective experience of a global pandemic, it’s entirely likely that rural amenities will be more appealing than ever before - fresh air, open spaces and a rural lifestyle are assets we can anticipate being important considerations for remote workers, entrepreneurs, and residents.
- Make small changes. Economic growth in rural areas can happen incrementally. For example, Eabametoong First Nation was awarded a Rural Ontario Leaders Award in 2018 for the growth of its community gardening initiative. Eabametoong First Nation expanded a small community garden into a seven-acre farm that provides fresh produce to the community, ensures that traditional horticultural knowledge is passed on through generations, and creates jobs.
- Remember, it's a long game. Huron County, Ontario, has been planning for the long game for over 25 years. As a result of their work every year for over 2 decades, they’ve seen exponential increases in funding, and they’ve recently partnered with the provincial and federal governments. While short-term strategies and “quick wins” will remain an important part of the mix, the long-term picture is still vital.
- Find out what other communities are doing. Rural communities across the country are making economic development a priority. In 2019, Simcoe County won a 2019 Excellence in Economic Development Awards bronze award for its “Made in Simcoe County” initiative that promoted local producers across a range of industries. Not only did Simcoe County promote available local products, but it told stories about the diversity of industries in the region - industries that created jobs for locals or newcomers. Economic recovery efforts across Canada will be strengthened by sharing ideas, adopting successful initiatives from other jurisdictions, and watching for collaborative opportunities that offer collective benefits and efficiencies.
Small changes make big ripples. It’s important to remember the fundamentals and integrate proven practices into post-pandemic recovery planning.