A national study published recently, led by a now University of Maine assistant professor and small business specialist, identifies critical investments needed to build community capacity and improve quality of life in rural America. Results showed a need to increase collaboration, inform decision making through research, involve local underrepresented groups and build climate and economic resilience.
The study was conducted by the nation’s four Regional Rural Development Centers, which link the research and capacity of regional land grant universities with local decision makers to address a wide range of rural development issues. It was led by Jason Entsminger, assistant professor of entrepreneurship and innovation and state Extension specialist for small business at the Maine Business School and University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
The report, “Investing in Rural Capacity: Comprehensive Summary of National Rural Development Stakeholder Listening Sessions,” summarizes results from the initiative’s eight virtual listening sessions, which convened stakeholders to identify rural development investments they viewed as the highest priorities for U.S. rural communities. Entsminger led the RRDC team’s efforts in his previous role as associate director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development, and continued to provide leadership for drafting the final report after joining the University of Maine in September 2022.
“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, rural communities found themselves at a critical juncture, right as new resources for recovery are becoming available via Federal and state programs,” says Entsminger. “As a community of practice, we needed to rapidly identify where investments might be made to leverage rural communities’ assets, while strengthening their capacity to take advantage of emerging opportunities.”
Four of the listening sessions were conducted nationally, each focusing on an issue of widespread importance: broadband and the digital divide; rural innovation and entrepreneurship; workforce development, training and education; and community planning, leadership and governance. The other four listening sessions were conducted regionally, focusing on issues of regional importance. The dialogues were facilitated by Cooperative Extension professionals from 20 land grant universities.
Participants represented a wide range of stakeholders, including land grant universities, nonprofits and government agencies. In the sessions, they identified the need to support and increase collaborative efforts across disciplinary, organizational, and geographic boundaries; inform decision making through place-based and community-engaged research and best practices; involve underserved groups and pursue greater equity; and build climate and related economic resilience into local, regional, and national planning.
“The incredible work done by Dr. Entsminger and his colleagues highlight the importance of understanding context in identifying and actualizing entrepreneurial opportunities. Rural communities are often overlooked and have unique needs for workforce development and entrepreneurship support. Leveraging the insights from this report, universities and business schools can develop new educational opportunities that connect students with communities to make an impact,” says Jason Harkins, interim executive dean of the Maine Business School.
The report provides eight overview summaries — one for each of the national topics explored during the listening sessions, and one for each of the four geographic regions. It also integrates additional qualitative data from a national survey conducted in fall 2021, building on the survey’s quantitative findings published in October 2021. The entire report, as well as topic-specific and region-specific sections of the report, are available for download on the RRDC website.
“Thanks to Jason [Entsminger]’s dedicated efforts, we were able to organize listening sessions and gather and analyze an enormous amount of stakeholder input in a record amount of time,” says Stephan Goetz, director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development at Penn State University. “The information is now readily available to community and other leaders in the form of easy-to-navigate dashboards.”
The report will be used by practitioners, decision makers and government agencies to inform where programmatic efforts and resources may be most effective in tackling key issues facing rural communities.
“The rapid assessment we completed as part of this initiative gives decision makers at all levels — from federal and state agencies to universities to local communities — a starting point for action,” says Entsminger. “Our findings are driving continuing conversations about where we can take action now to maintain vibrant rural life, and make rural communities resilient spaces to live and work.”