How regional organizations can become the most powerful economic revitalizers

Regional entities have much untapped potential to revitalize economies, renew cultures and restore natural resources. Just as downtowns can seldom be revitalized by focusing solely on the downtown, so too can communities seldom be regenerated by focusing solely on the community.

A regional focus—when intelligently defined—can cut across state lines, often taking a bioregional approach, such as a mountain range or a river.

Regional strategies and ongoing programs are the key to success, but are rare. But most regional entities are content to merely redistribute state or federal funding to communities. If the project types are well-targeted and have a cohesive theme, even this more-limited approach can be quite effective.

For instance, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) is a regional economic development agency that represents a partnership of federal, state, and local government. Established by an act of Congress in 1965, ARC is composed of the governors of the 13 Appalachian states and a federal co-chair, who is appointed by the president. Local participation is provided through multi-county local development districts.

ARC invests in activities that address the five goals identified in the Commission’s strategic plan:

  • Goal 1: Economic Opportunities
    Invest in entrepreneurial and business development strategies that strengthen Appalachia’s economy.
  • Goal 2: Ready Workforce
    Increase the education, knowledge, skills, and health of residents to work and succeed in Appalachia.
  • Goal 3: Critical Infrastructure
    Invest in critical infrastructure—especially broadband; transportation, including the Appalachian Development Highway System; and water/wastewater systems.
  • Goal 4: Natural and Cultural Assets
    Strengthen Appalachia’s community and economic development potential by leveraging the Region’s natural and cultural heritage assets.
  • Goal 5: Leadership and Community Capacity
    Build the capacity and skills of current and next-generation leaders and organizations to innovate, collaborate, and advance community and economic development.

One of ARC’s key investment themes these days is revitalizing former coal-mining communities whose mines have shut down due to the global shift to clean, renewable energy sources.

Each year ARC provides funding for several hundred investments in the Appalachian Region, in areas such as business development, education and job training, telecommunications, infrastructure, community development, housing, and transportation.

These projects create thousands of new jobs; improve local water and sewer systems; increase school readiness; expand access to health care; assist local communities with strategic planning; and provide technical and managerial assistance to emerging businesses.

Another example is the Delta Regional Authority (DRA), a federal-state partnership created by Congress in 2000 to help create jobs, build communities, and improve lives through strategic investments in economic development in 252 counties and parishes across eight states roughly clustered around the Mississippi River Delta.

To date, the DRA’s SEDAP investments, together with its state and local partners, have leveraged more than $3.7 billion in public and private investment into local small business owners, entrepreneurs, workers, and infrastructure development projects. These investments have helped create or retain more than 37,000 jobs, trained more than 7,300 workers for 21st Century jobs and provided water and sewer service to more than 66,000 residents since DRA was established.

For instance, in late 2017, the DRA, in partnership with leading national arts and government organizations, invested $309,000 in the Delta’s arts and cultural sectors to stimulate economic and community development efforts across the Mississippi River Delta region and Alabama Black Belt. These investments are designed to enhance the quality of place of Delta communities and improve the quality of life for the 10 million people residing in the eight-state region.

This “Creative Placemaking” program provided seed investments for 16 projects, alongside public and private sector partners bringing nearly $1.6 million in total investment to the eight states. They partnered with leading national arts and government organizations to ensure the success and long-term sustainability of its creative placemaking initiative by providing Delta communities with access to subject matter experts and additional resources.

Those partners include: The Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI), Art of the Rural, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Association of Counties (NACo), the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO), McClure Engineering Company, Springboard for the Arts, ArtPlace America, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, and the Smithsonian Institution, among others.

RUPRI and Art of the Rural are honored to partner with DRA in this groundbreaking initiative,” said Charles Fluharty, President and CEO of RUPRI when that funding was announced. “Our nation’s leading rural economic and community development visionaries are recognizing that quality of life is becoming one of the most critical sources of rural wealth, and DRA is leading the way.

NACo is thrilled to be a partner on this initiative, which highlights and advances the assets and creative placemaking of the counties and cities located through the Delta region,” added Linda Langston, Director of Strategic Relations for NACo. “Through these efforts communities are strengthened, relationships are built and place is celebrated. The more we work together on these efforts, the greater our impact. Thanks to DRA for embracing these partnerships and innovative efforts.

To give you a better idea of how targeted those October 2017 Creative Placemaking investments were, here’s the complete list:

  • City of Atmore, AL: DRA Investment: $15,000. Total Investment: $35,000. In partnership with the Pride of Atmore, the city will develop and implement a master plan for The Strand revitalization project to achieve financial stability, develop new programming and encourage community engagement.
  • City of Eufaula, AL: DRA Investment: $15,000. Total Investment: $52,000. In partnership with the Eufaula Heritage Association, the city will rehabilitate the Martin Theatre in downtown Eufaula to construct an open-air, multi-purpose venue to host arts and cultural events.
  • City of Cherokee Village, AR: DRA Investment: $20,000. Total Investment: $57,000. In partnership with the Cherokee Village Historical Society, the city will construct a business incubator and community space for the Spring River Innovation Hub to support the arts, entrepreneurialism and community development.
  • City of Marvell, AR: DRA Investment: $20,000. Total Investment: $80,000. In partnership with the Marvell Civic Club, the city will restore the childhood home of Levon Helm, an American musician and actor who achieved fame as the drummer and one of the vocalists for The Band. Once the home is restored, it will be open to the public to celebrate the rich musical legacy of Marvell and the surrounding region.
  • City of Metropolis, IL: DRA Investment: $22,000. Total Investment: $60,000. In partnership with Save the Massac, the city will renovate the Massac Theatre to become a multi-use facility for the community, giving it new purpose while preserving its historical and cultural significance to the area.
  • Village of Equality, IL: DRA Investment: $20,000. Total Investment: $105,000. In partnership with the Equality Federated Tuesday Club, the city will rehabilitate a vacant building located on main street to establish a regional cultural arts center that promotes tourism and business development opportunities for entrepreneurs, small business owners, and local artists.
  • City of Paducah, KY: DRA Investment: $20,000. Total Investment: $268,943. In partnership with the Market House Theatre, the city will renovate the unoccupied Arcade Theatre building in historic downtown Paducah to use it as a scene shop for building sets and props for the Market House Theatre performances.
  • City of Henderson, KY: DRA Investment: $15,000. Total Investment: $30,000. In partnership with the Green River Area Development District, the city will engage the four-county region to conduct asset mapping of cultural entrepreneurs and identify development opportunities in each county to generate population growth and stimulate community development efforts.
  • Acadia Parish Police Jury, LA: DRA Investment: $15,000. Total Investment: $52,990. In partnership with the Acadia Arts Council, the parish will conduct an assessment of current economic and cultural activity in the area and develop a plan to support new ways to grow the area’s population and expand economic opportunities for the region’s residents.
  • City of Winnsboro, LA: DRA Investment: $20,000. Total Investment: $111,090. In partnership with The Delta Initiative, the city will redevelop three acres of land adjacent to the parish high school and neighboring houses to construct a community greenhouse and garden, engaging local youth in the art of food production and preparation, soft skills and mentoring, and job training.
  • City of West Monroe, LA: DRA Investment: $20,000. Total Investment: $69,000. In partnership with the Downtown Arts Alliance, the city will focus on a public art project to reinvigorate the arts and cultural sectors within the community, while also implementing programs to encourage long-term sustainability and community engagement.
  • City of Greenwood, MS: DRA Investment: $20,000. Total Investment: $50,000. In partnership with Main Street Greenwood, the city will leverage local resources to combat blight by redefining concepts of waste and empowering underserved residents through job training, apprenticeships and entrepreneurial development.
  • City of Duck Hill, MS: DRA Investment: $25,000. Total Investment: $55,000. In partnership with the Action Communication and Education Reform, the city will establish cultural opportunities for the long-term growth of the community and work to preserve downtown historic properties.
  • City of Caruthersville, MO: DRA Investment: $25,000. Total Investment: $53,440. In partnership with the Caruthersville Area Arts Council, the city will renovate the Exchange Building in the downtown corridor to establish a cultural arts center and business incubator for Caruthersville and the surrounding region.
  • City of Brownsville, TN: DRA Investment: $15,000. Total Investment: $35,000. In partnership with the Brownsville Arts Council, the city will highlight its most popular tourism attraction called “The Mindfield” through the design of wayfinding signage created by local artists and welding students.
  • City of Martin, TN: DRA Investment: $22,000. Total Investment: $482,000. In partnership with the Northwest Tennessee Entrepreneur Center, the city will partner with artists to install a soundscape recreational area and complementary playground, design an “outdoor classroom,” cultivate landscape design, and light the path that features an artistic entrance into the Brian Brown Gateway.

The Delta Regional Authority is setting a national standard with its all-hands-on-deck approach to community development,” says Jamie Bennett, Executive Director of ArtPlace America. “Through the Delta Creative Placemaking Initiative, public funding, private investment, local government, the arts and cultural sectors, business owners, entrepreneurs and other civic leaders are coming together to develop and enact their shared visions for equitable and prosperous futures across the Mississippi Delta Region and Alabama Black Belt. We are eager to learn from these projects and share their successes as part of the national conversation.

But DRA knows it takes more than just funding to build local capacity, so in the summer of 2017, they—along with their partners—held six technical assistance workshops across the region to help community leaders better align the arts and cultural sectors with their existing economic and community development strategies, and support revitalization of downtowns and main streets.

In addition to the seed investment, awardees receive up to 50 hours of technical assistance, mentoring, and coaching to advance creative revitalization efforts in their communities. This is crucially important, because—as stated in the new Resilience Success Guide—“It’s common for communities to receive funding for revitalization. It’s rare for them to know what to do with it.

Everyone knows that nothing on Earth is reliably produced without a process, yet communities (and regions!) seldom apply an actual process to revitalization: they just fund a bunch of projects and hope that revitalization will magically appear. A reliable process does exist, as described here, and the sooner regional entities put it to use, the sooner their investments will pay off with the resilient prosperity they are intended to produce.

Photo of the Mississippi River waterfront in New Orleans via Adobe Stock.

See Appalachian Regional Commission website.

See Delta Regional Authority website.

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