From Competition to Cooperation: Insights on Rural Wealth Creation

Modern economic development efforts have been dominated by one primary focus: attracting businesses from outside the region. This has induced competition within regions and business-attraction packages that nationally total around $80 billion a year — incentives whose zero-sum net effect is to starve many communities of the resources they need to finance essential services for their people and places. These “traditional” economic development approaches with a singular focus on growth and jobs as the primary measures of success have proven insufficient — and sometimes ineffective — at improving rural economic and social outcomes over the long run. 

So what does it take to actually advance equitable prosperity and economic development in a way that embraces and strengthens the unique assets of rural regions? How are some rural places and Native nations doing economic development differently? 

These questions grew from Aspen CSG’s work on both WealthWorks and the Thrive Rural Framework. To explore some answers, Bonita Robertson-Hardy, Aspen CSG’s Co-Executive Director, recently facilitated a virtual discussion of 50+ rural leaders with all levels of experience. The ideas and most of the resources shared in this blog arose from this wide-ranging conversation that included a networking bulletin board. Aspen CSG does not necessarily endorse these resources, but we look forward to exploring them with you.

What is wealth creation?

Wealth-creation methods like WealthWorks focus on generating and retaining multiple capitals within the community, reinvesting that wealth for future productivity, and improving the quality of life for community residents, rather than viewing only growth and jobs as the primary measures of success. We call this asset-based, wealth-building, and more encompassing approach “Doing Development Differently.”

The redesigned WealthWorks website shows how it has been applied in many different economic sectors, from food to manufacturing to energy. Moreover, investments in local people, institutions, resources, partnerships, and systems are just as significant as investments in infrastructure and firms. If you want to learn more about WealthWorks, check out this blog from the Aspen CSG team. 

Getting started on wealth creation

During the recent event, two practitioners of the WealthWorks method shared their perspectives and offered lessons on how to get started. Aaron Dawson shared how the work of the Industrial Commons in North Carolina is helping to rebuild a diverse working class based on locally rooted wealth. Decades ago, their area of North Carolina was a powerhouse of textile manufacturing, but the offshoring trend of the 1990s sent those businesses overseas. In the wake of this massive economic change, the founders of the Industrial Commons began growing a cooperative textile business centered on local ownership, local control, and locally rooted wealth – rather than giving a bunch of subsidies for companies to come in from the outside. Since 2015, Industrial Commons has grown seven new cooperatively owned businesses that provide services and products and high-paying jobs for local residents, all based on a community investment versus extraction model.

When asked how other rural communities could get started on something similar, Aaron suggested that Industrial Commons started really small, with one sewing machine and a lot of volunteer labor. But they built momentum by creating one project they could build off of for new enterprises. His advice was also to have an entrepreneur on the team who enjoys solving problems and can design a profitable business that fulfills a market need. Want to learn more about Industrial Commons and how they work? Take a look at their Success Story on the WealthWorks website.

Develop a regional strategy

Martha Claire Bullen from Communities Unlimited shared how the region of East Texas is overcoming a tendency for community competition by developing value chains around manufacturing, trucking, and workforce housing. Over two years, a regional, community-driven effort identified the market opportunity to open a training school to educate truck drivers to fill the hauling needs of local manufacturers and has even built new workforce housing for drivers and students. By identifying a market need, this region in East Texas was able to invest in a locally owned solution that has grown industry and employment across a large geography – one that also has helped the region’s varied communities recognize that cooperation can lead to greater economic results.

Martha Claire emphasized that developing a regional effort takes time and careful attention to the diverse needs of different communities. She suggested that intentional conversations among regional leaders can help everyone be frank about the best areas for regionalization – and what community assets should remain squarely local. Having a trusted partner to facilitate a conversation among people representing different parts of the region can help grow wealth-creation efforts that meet all stakeholder needs.

Recognize power and dismantle discrimination

In many small communities, historical inequities, racism, and entrenched power dynamics prevent progress on asset-based economic development. Local elected officials often have control and influence over planning and investment decisions, and one event participant shared how, in their community, the mayor was unwilling to support efforts from the Black community to jumpstart small business development. During the Open Field conversation, that participant connected with a local technical assistance provider working in a nearby town who offered help to develop market-based support for Black-owned farms. Growing wealth locally, rooted in community assets, can be an important part of dismantling systemic discrimination as it provides marginalized communities new opportunities to build power and additional resources to support workers and families.

Shared Resources on Wealth Creation 

Participants shared these ideas and resources during the event; we have curated them below in hopes they will be useful in your endeavors to organize an action infrastructure in your region. 

  • Some participants wanted to network and included their contact information on this virtual whiteboard
  • Coaching can be important for success in developing your region’s asset-based economic development strategy. Event participants shared that connecting with the WealthWorks hubs and trainers can be a great way to get started.
  • Other national rural-serving organizations, including Rural LISC, were mentioned as great places to seek coaching and technical assistance for your development effort.
  • The new WealthWorks website has 13 “success story” case studies that provide concrete examples of how communities developed value chains from the ground up, focused on value chains like energy efficiency, local foods, and tourism (just to name a few).
  • Participants shared a success story from the Four County Community Foundation’s Return to Earn internship program that helped connect college students with local businesses and government agencies.

Devin Deaton, Action Learning Manager with the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, curated this learning reflection. Open Field sessions inform and are informed by Aspen CSG’s Thrive Rural Framework, a tool that aims to help communities and Native nations across the rural United States become healthy places where each and every person belongs, lives with dignity, and thrives. To join the next Open Field session, register for our mailing list.

Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group