June 11, 2017

Tom Keith: Want to encourage rural economic development? Start by trying

Tom Keith, president of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina, penned the following opinion piece about economic and community-development challenges in the rural areas of South Carolina. The piece was published in The State. The foundation is a ministry of the Sisters of Charity Health System.

The full text of his piece is posted here:

Want to encourage rural economic development? Start by trying

By Tom Keith, president, Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina

Parts of South Carolina, particularly Greenville, Columbia and Charleston, are experiencing a tremendous economic boom. You can see how these cities and their surrounding areas are thriving, as they are filled with new buildings, businesses, roadways and developments that in turn give growth to a robust workforce, social scene and cultural life.

However, if you travel into many rural areas, it’s hard to see that anything has changed over the years. Many towns are still reeling from the loss of manufacturing centers that once brought them prosperity and stability.

These once-thriving towns remain weakened because the workforce has not been retrained and the jobs that left have never been replaced. Many workers remain unemployed or underemployed or are traveling great distances to find any opportunity for work.

Decision makers who control economic and community-development dollars are acutely aware of this conundrum but are either unwilling or unable to make meaningful changes in these rural communities. But we need all communities in our state to thrive.

In order to give them that opportunity, we must have a concerted effort by local, state and federal government officials to assess the problem and help develop a strategy that addresses the problems, both broadly and tailored to the unique needs of each community.

Voices from the private sector and those in philanthropy will be vital in these discussions as well. And we must include the communities themselves. Church members, neighborhood associations and residents have a vested interest in their community. Positive change can only occur if it is driven by the community members and not happening separately from them.

Together, we must take a look at at the assets in these communities and be willing to get creative in our thinking about development and resources. An old school could become a center for aging, after-school program location or job-training facility. An empty grocery store could become a food haven for fresh vegetables and fruits grown in the community that also employs individuals from the surrounding neighborhoods.

We must develop a long-range plan that phases in development and growth over time, and we must remain patient, since funding and advancement do not happen overnight. We also must be careful how we measure success. Not every community is going to attract an international manufacturer, but positive growth is still possible. Whether it is an affordable housing development, a community garden, a refurbished city park or an abandoned church turned into a learning or arts center, it all matters.

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