Build from Current Assets

Local economic development approaches concentrate first on identifying and building on the area’s existing people, place, business, and organizational assets to increase both well-being and equity outcomes.

Over the last half-century, rural economic development approaches have overemphasized the recruitment of business from outside the area as its first order of business – to the detriment of strengthening the local businesses and people and place assets that are the true foundation on which current and future development and prosperity depend. 

In emerging wealth-building approaches to development, communities first identify and understand their natural, social, network, infrastructure, business and organizational, financial, and people assets, and seek to strengthen each asset, especially to benefit those previously left out, through every development effort.

Building Block Evidence

Evidence suggests that providing incentives to businesses to relocate to a community or region, although still attractive to elected leaders as a primary local economic development strategy, are gradually being replaced by asset-building approaches.1-4 Rural regions have a diverse range of assets (individual, organizational, community, and cultural) to leverage in community and economic development,5-7 and reports assert that momentum is building in multiple sectors for asset- and wealth-building focused work.8 

Foundational work of Kretzmann and McKnight’s (1993) framework for asset-based community development (ABCD) emphasizes “building an asset-base in households and communities that is transferable across generations”.9 This means identifying existing assets, building on these or new assets, eliminating structures that inhibit this process, and linking local community or organizational assets to the regional or national economy.9  Research on wealth creation value chains focuses on integrating rural assets into broader economies for community benefit.10 Such value chains are “a business model based on shared economic, social, and environmental values in which buyers, processors, producers, and others work together for mutual benefit to create value in response to demand”.10

Studies to date are inconclusive about the associations between asset-based community development and population health outcomes.11 However, experts suggest that approaches that promote connectedness and build capacity can positively impact health and well-being 11 when community engagement includes “meaningful activity,” such as employment and social clubs.12 Social infrastructure – active community organizations, business support for community projects, and community linkages – can be positively associated with local economic development.13 

Regional differences in rural assets may be important to consider in asset-building approaches, according to recent analysis by the NORC Walsh Center for Rural Health of community forums and State Offices of Rural Health across the US. Potentially unique assets include the cultural richness of border regions; increased resiliency in regions that have experienced historic natural disasters; regions with identities tightly tied to the natural environment and tourism; and regions with deep networks of partners at local, state, and regional levels.8

  1. Jensen 2016
  2. Community Strategies Group 2019
  3. Dabson 2021
  4. Dabson & Chitra 2021
  5. Pender, Marre, & Reeder 2012
  6. Ratner 2019
  7. Topolsky 2021
  8. NORC 2018
  9. Mathie & Cunningham 2003
  10. Ratner 2014
  11. Blickem 2018
  12. Reeves 2014 in Blickem 2018
  13. Sharp, Agnitsch, Ryan, & Flora 2002

Curated REsources

Smiling colleagues sitting together in a meeting room.
Translating Federal Opportunities into Local Resources: Ada Jobs Foundation

This short case study has insights and tips on how rural communities with limited staffing and resources can understand, prepare for, and compete for finite federal funds.

Rural Outdoor Recreation Economies: Challenges and Opportunities

Outdoor recreation is driving new opportunities for local communities in many rural places. See ways to do economic development differently with rural recreation economies.

Hand in Hand: Community Economic Development in Tupelo (1999)

It would be easy, contemplating the riveting story of Tupelo’s growth since 1940, to imagine that it is unique, engendered…

Rural Development: A Scan of Field Practice and Trends

What must happen for economic development to foster a more prosperous, healthier, equitable and environmentally sustainable rural America? This scan…

Field Items

Exploring Strategies to Improve Health and Equity in Rural Communities

The NORC Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis conducted formative research to enhance understanding of strengths and assets in rural places, identify key partners and change agents, and identify opportunities to leverage assets to improve rural health and equity.

Rural Economic Development with a Purpose

This brief from The NADO Research Foundation’s Stronger CEDS, Stronger Regions program focuses on how the policies and practices of rural economic development will now have to be transformed to meet the needs of new post-pandemic realities.

Wealth: The eight capitals

To build a region’s wealth, WealthWorks considers not just financial assets, but includes the stock of all capitals in a region. The eight capitals: intellectual, financial, natural, cultural, built, political, individual and social. This approach takes into account all the features of a city, town, countryside or region that make it a good place to live, work and visit.

Spider Diagram: Assessing Wealth in a Sector

Worksheet and small group discussion questions from WealthWorks.

We see the framework as a living document, which necessarily must evolve over time, and we seek to expand the collective ownership of the Thrive Rural Framework among rural equity, opportunity, health, and prosperity ecosystem actors. Please share your insights with us about things the framework is missing or ways it should change.

Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group