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USDA, Federal Partners, and Foundations Collaborating to Promote Strategic Regional Economic Opportunities

Memphis is emerging as a metro region where rural and urban economic opportunities suggest the need for meaningful collaborative activities. Recently, USDA staff participated in a gathering of community development workshop in Memphis where rural leaders gathered to share challenges and successes with urban counterparts. The event was sponsored by the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO), the Delta Regional Authority, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities.

Beginning in 2010, HUD began providing three-year Regional Planning grants to groups that were interested in developing long-range community plans that would help guide future federal investments in a more strategic manner. A number of those grants have been provided to communities in the Mississippi Delta region, and last week’s meeting gave the Delta Region grantees a chance to share successes and challenges of their efforts.

One of the panels paired the East Arkansas Planning and Development District with the Shelby County Government effort providing them with an opportunity to explain the progress they are making with their Regional Planning grant.  One of the ongoing challenges will be for these rural and urban communities to determine how their future prosperity hinges on strategies that link rural and urban citizens.

Another purpose of the meeting was aimed at bringing philanthropic foundations to the table so they could learn more about federal grantees work and explore ways in which they could complement these planning efforts. In addition to Delta Region community foundations, staff from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation attended, demonstrating their foundation’s enduring interest in the Mississippi Delta region.

A topic of particular interest to rural foundations was a discussion of capacity building opportunities associated with the inter-generational wealth transfer in rural areas.  Mary Hinde of the Community Foundation of Northwest Missouri shared with the audience that since Secretary of Agriculture keynoted at the foundation’s inaugural meeting in January 2011 the foundation has established endowment funds of nearly $15 million, providing growing capacity to serve an18 county rural area of Missouri.

Also participating was staff from the White House’s Stronger Cities Stronger Communities (SC2) multi-agency initiative aimed at providing targeted federal technical assistance to some of the nation’s most economically challenged cities.  USDA is working with SC2 via our Strike Force Initiative to collaborate with partners such as Heifer International to support efforts that will support rural farmers in providing locally grown and healthy food to urban populations in the Memphis region.

Finally, we heard about another USDA initiative—Stronger Economies Together (SET) — from Bo Beaulieu of Purdue University’s Center for Regional Economic Development.  SET enables rural places to work together in developing and implementing economic development blueprints for multi-county regions. This exciting initiative was launched in 2010 and will have served 60-plus regions in 28 states by the end of 2013.

Regional strategic planning is essential for USDA’s community development and public infrastructure programs to be implemented effectively.  Hopefully, meetings like this one will give participants a few more tools to ensure success at developing modern economic strategies and in creating rural places where the future generations want to live and work.

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