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Rural economic development in the spotlight

By David Monkman

Last month, the White House Rural Council published Jobs and Economic Security for Rural America (download the PDF here). In that report, the Obama administration committed to streamline and improve the effectiveness of federal programs serving rural America, engage stakeholders on issues and solutions in rural communities, and promote and coordinate private-sector partnerships. On Aug. 16, President Barack Obama announced a new jobs initiative focused on three areas: increasing access to capital in rural areas, expanding rural job training and services, and increasing rural access to health-care workers and technology. This initiative had been recommended by the rural council.

If you work in rural economic development, this is your chance to capture the spotlight and shape federal support to meet your unique and specific needs. Building communities means building linkages, and linkages combined with money, education, infrastructure and human capacity create the backbone of economic development. Best practice incubators epitomize this concept. They provide fundamental and advanced business advisory services; space and equipment; and networks of investors, banks and customers for their entrepreneur clients.

The current administration is emphasizing the power of public-private partnerships to promote economic prosperity and revitalize the rural economy. If such partnerships are the preferred vehicle for economic development, incubators should leverage public and private investment by engaging regional organizations, local and national governments, and businesses to support entrepreneurs and create jobs and sustainable community development.

We all know that rural people are innovators. Ask any rural resident if they’ve ever needed to build a fix for their tractor, redesign a flood berm, or engineer a new part for their industrial machinery, and they’ll grin and say, “Of course, doesn’t everyone?” In many cases, those fixes are no simple endeavor; rather, they are planned and properly executed engineering innovations. The trick is harnessing that innovation and developing the networks necessary to take an innovative idea all the way to market. 

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, chairman of the rural council, noted that “[T]he Obama Administration is working to ensure that rural Americans have access to basic services and businesses have the tools they need to compete, expand and create jobs, and while the government can provide crucial assistance, more can be done if the government more effectively partners with the philanthropic community and the private sector.” These effective mechanisms already exist; they are called incubation programs. Business incubation is a proven, successful economic development model that needs greater support and recognition.

The Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton, N.J., NBIA’s 2007 Incubator of the Year in the manufacturing and services category, provides a great example of how an incubation program can work closely with the USDA or other agencies to facilitate entrepreneurial support. Because the team at Rutgers works closely with clients, they understand their seasonal schedules. Many grant deadlines occur when farmers are busy in the fields, so incubator staff worked with clients to complete grant applications in January, far in advance of the due date. Rutgers staff also coached clients through the grant application process and improved the success of applications across the state. Through this partnership, USDA and Rutgers Food Innovation Center improved client access to federal assistance and facilitated greater entrepreneurial support for the region.

Some may criticize the White House report as little more than a campaign prop. I suggest we focus on the initiative’s potential to bolster investment and infrastructure development in a currently underserved – yet vitally important – population of the United States. Rural regions are home to not only agriculture, but also manufacturing and industry. If we are to rebuild a dynamic and robust economy, strengthening these sectors is paramount.

The National Business Incubation Association (NBIA) is the world’s leading organization advancing business incubation and entrepreneurship. Each year, it provides thousands of professionals with information, education, advocacy and networking resources to bring excellence to the process of assisting early-stage companies. An elected, voting board of directors representing the world's leading incubators governs the association.

The New Jersey Business Incubation Network (NJBIN) is a collaborative statewide community of business experts, resources and facilities dedicated to enhancing the commercial success of early-stage entrepreneurial companies, growing higher paying jobs in New Jersey and supporting the Economic Growth Strategy for the State.

Copyright 2011 NBIA