LINCOLN — Rural communities are economic dead zones, so say leading economists, bankers and accountants. Chuck Schroeder of the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln calls those people “doom-ographers,” and claims they underestimate the potential of rural Nebraskans to control their own destinies.
Schroeder was a keynote speaker in an annual, three-day conference this week sponsored by the Heartland Center for Leadership Development. This year’s program theme was “Helping Small Towns Succeed: Clues, Capitals and Community Resilience.”
As the founding executive director of the Rural Futures Institute, Schroeder said that the RFI’s primary goal is to make the state of Nebraska “high touch and high tech” by 2040.
“A full embrace of technology” is how he described a thriving, high-tech future for rural communities in the state. He offered the case of Wilder, Idaho, a small town with a failing school that was able to reach a partnership with tech giant Apple to secure iPads, computers and other teaching resources for its students.
Though technological engagement is part of the prescription, Schroeder emphasized the uselessness of technology without effective human resources–the “high touch” part of RFI’s goal.
It wasn’t just access to gadgets that helped test scores in Wilder’s school drastically improve, Schroeder said; Wilder simultaneously restructured its teacher training to tailor to the individual needs and learning styles of students.
According to Schroeder, older leaders in rural communities are not engaging enough with their potential successors. He said they either don’t have faith in the younger generation or they buy into the prevailing narrative and assume all the talent is departing for larger markets.
Schroeder stressed that the phenomena of rural sectors being thrust into economic identity crises is experienced in every country on the planet. “I do really believe the work we do [at the Rural Futures Institute] is important enough to say we are helping all of humankind,” he said.
Nebraska towns like Auburn and Bridgeport made Schroeder’s list of “mythbusters,” communities that defied rural trends of decline. So too did Neligh, where 24 new businesses opened since 2013 and 11 others transitioned to new owners. Ord was also given credit for having received $125 million in investment and 350 new jobs since 2000.
Fearlessness is key, said Schroeder, who offered the example of a Nebraska community that faced pessimistic backlash in its effort to remodel the downtown district. The remodeling was accomplished successfully, but only through a series hard-fought council votes of 5-4.
“Leaders show up, they engage technology, they engage people, and they take action,” Schroeder said. “Sometimes, if you have the vision, you just have to go.”
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