Getting Creative in Rural Economic Development

The health of rural communities is a crucial aspect of regional economic development. Rural communities tend to provide a lower cost of living, an abundance of space, and a strong sense of place. To complement these strengths and promote economic diversification in these communities, effective economic development in rural areas needs to actively build upon existing assets, strengthen the community, and build long-term value to attract a range of investments.

The natural environment, for example, has been an asset for providing a sense of heritage and a quality of life for rural residents, while also attracting visitors from across the county, who relish the opportunity to experience rolling hills, soaring mountains and fresh-picked produce. While pressure from encroaching development is a force felt throughout communities, there are strategies that rural locations can engage to ensure that communities achieve effective economic development for residents, while at the same time, maintaining their distinctive rural character.

So how can economic development programs work harmoniously in rural settings? The following list highlights a few prominent examples. 


Agritourism and Ecotourism 

Both are examples of tourist activities involving a farm, ranch or conservation areas. This benefits the local community by providing income based on tourism activities while maintaining the rural landscape.

Real world example: The Remsen-Lake Placid Corridor covers approximately 119 miles of rail, winding amongst the forests of the Adirondacks between the Village of Lake Placid and the Town of Remsen. Along the way, the track passes through the villages of Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake, as well as the towns of Santa Clara, Harrietstown, and North Elba. With the goal of developing a new destination for ecotourism, the New York Department of Environment Conservation (NYSDEC) worked with Camoin Associates to assess the tourism market  and potential economic impact of removing the tracks and turning the corridor into a multi-use trail. Using the findings and recommendations from the tourism study, NYSDEC published a plan in May 2017 to turn the rail into an all-season multi-use hiking trail. Once the tracks are removed and landscaping has been put into place, the trail will serve as a destination for hikers, bikers, snowmobilers, and horseback riders to use while appreciating the history and natural beauty of the Adirondack Mountain Region. 




Low Impact Development 

This type of development minimizes environmental damage during the development process by managing stormwater runoff, conserving the natural environment, using small-scale controls, and a customized site design.

Real world example: In 2016, legislators in Tompkins County put forth a concept to develop a new industrial park near the Ithaca-Tompkins Airport in the Town of Lansing, NY. The proposed area was located close to Federal NYSDEC regulated wetlands, which warrant careful attention to detail during both planning and construction in order to mitigate any potential damage to the local environment. The current plan includes strong efforts to buffer the areas between the wetlands and the park, as well as proper storm drainage and runoff controls. The planning and design for the site was completed by the engineering design firm Clark Patterson Lee, based on a targeted industry market analysis by Camoin Associates.

The lawmakers hoped to use the park as an anchor to attract younger, tech-oriented businesses interested in green energy. To support this ideal, a number of sustainable energy concepts were put forth to power the park using one or more alternative energy sources. The park is still being planned, but when it is built the hope is to help promote a new era of clean energy innovation.


Renewable Energy Development 

Development through solar, wind, or biomass production can provide an economic incentive for rural land.

Real world example: The Jericho Rise Wind Farm was envisioned as part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in New York State by 40% by 2030. The 37-turbine farm was built across roughly 5,900 acres of private land in Belmont and Chateaugay, NY, which was leased by local farmers and other land-owners. The project, which was completed last November, will provide nearly 80 megawatts of power across the state while reducing the level of airborne mercury and hydrocarbon emissions across Franklin County. An analysis by Camoin Associates found that the project would result in 10 new engineering and maintenance jobs and $1.3 million in additional earnings to Franklin County annually, not counting the immeasurable potential benefits to public health. 



Ecosystem Services Markets 

This allows for landowners to be compensated for ecosystem services their land provides such as sequestering carbon or filtering and storing a clean water supply.

Real world example: Municipalities around the country have begun to offer stormwater management rebates or other programs to incentivize residential and commercial property owners to improve runoff quality or reduce runoff quantity. In Prince George County, MD both homeowners and businesses are encouraged to participate in their Rain Check Rebate Program, where eligible applicants receive rebates for using approved stormwater management practices. Eligible practices include using a rain barrel, cistern, urban tree canopy, and/or permeable pavement, among other options. The County notes that there is high demand for this rebate and limited funds, which would warrant further investigation into similar projects in the future.


Share Your Success

It is essential for rural communities to plan their economic development in a way that complements and leverages their existing assets. It is equally essential that communities share their economic development successes where and when they happen. Beyond being recognized for the admirable work that these types of programs accomplish, making the public aware of the ongoing efforts can help generate support and momentum to launch future efforts. So don’t forget to….

  • Communicate and coordinate with community and stakeholders. Seeking collaboration among individuals in the community throughout the visioning process is essential to identify challenges and investment opportunities. This also can help reduce duplication of efforts and streamline the planning process. This ensures that limited resources are used efficiently.
  • Measure and celebrate success. In order to sustain support for any economic development initiatives, it is important to track their success and disseminate information showing successes within the community. This will foster continued support for long-term development goals.

More information regarding development in rural communities can be found at EPA's Putting Smart Growth to Work in Rural Communities , EPA's Smart Growth in Small Towns and Rural Communities, and Smart Growth America's Smart Growth Implementation Toolkit.

Stay tuned for next month’s article about planning tactics municipalities can use to balance the desire to preserve open space, while still welcoming job-creating development opportunities. 

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