Building Assets for the Rural Future
Why Asset Building?
For decades, the primary approach taken with distressed communities focused on a community’s needs and deficiencies. Policy-makers examined distressed communities, identified problems, and then proceeded to apply policy fixes to address what was broken (for example, identify a crime problem and then spend more money on government crime-fighting efforts). While there is certainly value in understanding the root causes of community problems and addressing those problems directly, there are also several negative consequences to that approach. A focus on needs and deficiencies tends to reward leaders who identify and focus on problems rather than opportunities. Resources tend to be diverted to service providers rather than to residents with the capacity to use those resources for community improvement. And residents tend to be treated as consumers of government services, dependent upon external intervention, rather than as participants in opportunistic community development.
Asset-building takes a positive approach. It looks inward at a community’s strengths and seeks organic resources upon which a community can draw to develop itself. Outside expertise plays a limited role, serving to advise community actors on how they can take full advantage of their inherent assets, rather than substituting for the actions of local residents. This positive approach makes sense in rural North Carolina, because our rural communities possess a bounty of assets that can be developed and transformed into local advantage. To that end, this publication illustrates how communities across the United States have developed and leveraged the most common rural assets.
There are four over-arching categories of rural assets at the core of this publication’s asset-based approach. First, there are rural financial assets. These assets may consist of the rural financial institutions that are willing partners in efforts to make loans to local business and social ventures that otherwise would not be capitalized. Rural financial assets may reside in the entrepreneurs themselves who will generate revenue and jobs for rural areas when properly capitalized. Other financial assets may be found in the earning power and savings of ordinary local residents—even residents, as research has shown, on the economic margin—who are capable of saving and investing in their own economic productivity, in local ventures, or in philanthropic activities.
Then there are natural assets. In many rural areas, these are the lands and waters that support the agricultural uses that define our rural areas, such as farming, forestry, and fishing. Relying on these assets are the small farmers and entrepreneurs who use natural resources without depleting them, because their very livelihoods depend on sustaining those natural assets. And most recently, rural natural assets have increased in market value as they are increasingly seen as a key component of efforts to address global environmental and energy concerns, making the preservation of rural natural assets more economically viable.
The right built assets, or rural infrastructure, provide the necessary foundation for community development. For example, some rural areas have used broadband connectivity not only to serve local residents, but to connect local farmers and other entrepreneurs to larger markets. Rural towns, which were largely untouched by the urban redevelopment wave that decimated historic neighborhoods across the nation in the prior century, are home to a treasure trove of historic buildings and downtown areas that offer those towns a competitive advantage. On an individual level, even affordable housing for those on the economic margin can be a source for asset building, serving as an important long-term investment in the individual’s and the community’s future.
Finally, the very people who reside in rural areas—their skills, their culture, their optimism, and their close ties to their communities—are assets upon which the future success of a rural community can be built.
Rural leaders will not be surprised by the assets listed here, but they might be surprised by how other communities have made those assets the centerpiece of their community development efforts. Perhaps the traditional deficiency and needs-based approach has masked or diminished the importance and transformative power of rural assets. That is where this publication comes in. The following pages illustrate how rural areas have developed, protected, and transformed their assets into advantage.
1 For more elaboration on these points, seeJohn P. Kretzmann & John L. McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets 1-11 (Institute for Policy Research) (1993) (comparing the needs-based approach with the asset-building approach).