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Will the pandemic save or sink rural Oregon?
How a handful of committed AmeriCorps members set out to discover the economic recovery needs, barriers and opportunities of Rural Oregon.
With the disorienting and frantic arrival of the COVID-19 virus, the Oregon Economic Development Districts (EDDs) assembled to address the collateral economic damage and prepare for the recovery of their respective regions. They somehow managed to center their focus in a world that turned on its head seemingly overnight.
They wrestled with one question in particular: How do you recover and save an economy while in the midst of an ever-changing pandemic with new information and restrictions turning up any given day? They were both building a plane while flying it and plugging the holes of a sinking ship. There was no roadmap for how to maintain economic functions in a pandemic and there were simultaneous pressures to address the immediate need of keeping businesses afloat and a competing pressure to prepare for the coming government funding to aid recovery. In these circumstances, it seemed impossible to provide immediate relief and long-term planning.
At this point, the RARE Rural Resiliency Cohort entered the scene. Six of the eleven EDDs were expecting the arrival of a Resource Assistance for Rural Environments (RARE) AmeriCorps member in September 2020. In the true resource-strapped fashion of rural communities, the six districts schemed up a way to empower the RARE AmeriCorps members to address the recovery planning while simultaneously focusing on keeping their economies afloat. They placed their faith in the six to build a needs assessment that would guide resource allocation and funding decisions when the time came to transition from survival to recovery.
Soon, the six were assisting with important work in every corner of the state. The RARE AmeriCorps members were affiliated with the University of Oregon’s Institute for Policy Research and Engagement and were in the Columbia River Gorge, Central Oregon, Eastern Oregon, Northeast Oregon, South Central Oregon, and the South Coast. Together, they developed interview questions that would help them unveil the unique needs, barriers, and opportunities associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. They connected with community members, public officials, non-profits, and government entities across their regions and interviewed a total of 198 individuals.
While listening and learning, it quickly became evident that the pandemic had a particularly unique impact on Rural Oregon. This impact was initially seen as the principal barrier to surviving the pandemic, but now it is positioned to be leveraged as their principal asset in economic resilience.
So, what is it?
One of the most obvious barriers to participating in the new remote society was technology: broadband, access to technology, and technology literacy. There has been a long-standing digital divide associated with the urban-rural divide. This divide had been silently hindering rural economies until the pandemic distinctly revealed the immense inequalities associated with broadband access and affordability.
The pandemic caused rural communities to face immense challenges when attempting to participate in e-commerce, telelearning, and telehealth. However, they have a new opportunity to ensure their needs are prioritized and met through a newfound presence at important tables; rural leaders and citizens now have access to virtual “tables” that were previously tailored toward Salem and Portland participants.
So, what is the significance of this revelation and how does it interplay with the pandemic? As a consequence of remote work opportunities, workers are gravitating toward rural communities for access to outdoor amenities and for the lower cost of living. If rural communities can capitalize on broadband infrastructure investments, then they can compete for a talented remote and subsequent in-person workforce. With broadband and a talented workforce, rural economies will also be better equipped to compete for new business.
While initially the pandemic threatened to sink the economic participation of rural communities, we can now see a pathway that could revive stronger economies and communities than pre-pandemic. Rural America has received unprecedented attention and the inequities and shortfalls of their systems and infrastructure have been revealed; they now have a seat at the table and a place in the spotlight. The more talent and technology investments rural economies can attract, the more they can move toward the economic diversification that will help them withstand future disasters and shocks. With all of the potential ahead, several questions remain:
Will Rural Oregon have the capacity to capitalize on the coming investments?
Will they have childcare to support a growing workforce?
Can they produce the housing stock to support the population growth?
I mention these questions to acknowledge that although broadband can lead the economic growth and diversification, there are parallel processes that must dovetail with the investments. Despite the parallel challenges, the RARE Rural Resiliency Cohort sees and believes in the potential that lies ahead. However, they do not want the lessons of the pandemic to be wasted and hope that communities will leverage broadband investments as a way to elevate rural economies and build the needed economic resiliency; the return on investment for resiliency work is invaluable and it is the most important lesson the cohort wishes to convey.
If you would like to learn more about the recovery needs for a particular region, please click on the assessments below:
RARE AmeriCorps Member, year 27 and 28 Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council B.A. International Affairs from GWU, 2019