Thursday, October 8, 2009

Jump Start Jacksboro!

Several months ago, I participated in a conference call with a handful of community leaders from a small Texas town called Jacksboro. During the call, the president of the Economic Development Board and his colleagues asked a lot of great questions. How can they help their community diversify its economic base? What’s the best way to approach redevelopment of their downtown? Can they take advantage of their local state park? As a 4B community, what rules do they need to be familiar with?

Jacksboro’s Economic Development Board had already demonstrated significant economic development savvy, especially when you consider the town has a population of about 4,700 people, and roughly 1,000 of those souls actually live in the prison that employs 200 or so of Jacksboro’s citizens. This is a small town. They told me they were new to economic development and needed help to get up to speed and then to get serious about moving their town forward.

I love working with rural communities. The people are genuine, passionate and straightforward. They expect a good value, and if you say you’re going to do something, you’d better be prepared to do it. They are my kind of people. But economic development is a long-term game, wherever you play it. In rural places, it is likely to take even longer– to engage key players and develop your overall strategy, dig into necessary sub-plans, identify funding, grow entrepreneurs and, eventually, start to see the physical signs of progress. I’d say the folks in Jacksboro were working on economic development for a good 10-15 years before they ever established their board, and well before that, they were thinking like economic developers. They just weren’t calling it that.

Jacksboro was building up their public works infrastructure. When a big business came to call but walked away at the first sight of aging schools, Jacksboro set out to build all new Jacksboro schools. Their Twin Lakes and ballpark are beautiful and overflowing with families enjoying the cool breeze and tree-covered rolling hillsides. Lost Creek Reservoir State Trailway is a 10-mile hike, bike and equestrian trail that goes from Fort Richardson State Park all the way to Twin Lakes and is peppered with interpretive displays that shed light on the rich history of this town that is just over an hour outside of Dallas/Fort Worth.

Jacksboro’s been busy laying the groundwork for economic development. They just wanted to be better informed about the strategies, resources and opportunities available to them as a rural Texas town seeking to better itself. After some brainstorming, we decided that rather than limiting ourselves to our typical TEEX Community Economic Development Strategy process, we’d also develop a training course. We’d been thinking about creating a course entitled Economic Development for Local Leaders, and Jacksboro agreed to be our guinea pig. We also decided that we needed to help Jacksboro tell their story to the people in Austin who might be able to help Jacksboro execute their newly minted plan. So, we committed to introduce them to our friends at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and Tourism, Texas Department of Agriculture, Texas Historical Commission, their local workforce board, and others.

The inaugural delivery of the Economic Development for Local Leaders course in Jacksboro was well-received. The members of the Economic Development Board participated in all the modules and came away with lots of ideas. It was great that Lynda Pack, their new (and first-ever) Economic Development Director, was able to join us for the course. And the following day, some 25 citizens came together for a vision and strategy session. What a day! You’ll never learn as much about the spirit of a place as you will when you get people together to share their dreams and talk about the home they love. You uncover secrets that I like to call points of pride – it’s these unique qualities and assets that make the locals stand a little taller. In Jacksboro, one example is Kathy Warnell’s gourmet catering. She catered our meals for both the training and the planning workshop. There was a beautiful display of fresh foods prepared with incredible attention to detail, which we consumed with absolutely no regard for gluttony…we just couldn’t help ourselves. Another point of pride is the town’s incredible generosity. They get behind a cause with their personal pocketbooks. Plus, their work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit is vibrant. All of these and many other assets were uncovered that day and will serve the community well as it moves forward.

Jacksboro’s local leaders now have a deeper understanding of the elements of a sound economic development program. We’ve finalized and celebrated the adoption of the first Jacksboro economic development strategy. Their presentation is coming together, and we’ll all be meeting in Austin later this month to tell their story and seek support for specific projects. Jacksboro Economic Development is up and running. And that’s going to be great for Jacksboro. I’m honored to have worked with them to create their plan. Even more, I’m grateful that they’ve helped TEEX to create a new suite of tools called Rural Jump Start that will enable other rural communities to “jump start” their economies with their own plan, built on unique assets and personal dreams, and the will and resources to execute it.

Joan Quintana is the economic development and market intelligence program director for TEEX's Technology and Economic Development Division (TED). She welcomes your comments.


Gary said...

How do we keep the brain drain from affecting our rural communities? what is there to keep our young talent?

Texas Engineering Extension Service said...

Joan Quintana said-

Thank you for your question.

Well, I could write a whole blog (or two or three) on this topic but I’ll try to be brief (for now). Rural communities struggle to keep their young people or bring them back after college because of perceived (and often actual) lack of employment opportunities, and the typical youthful desire to get out of town and live the suburban dream - complete with ready access to movie theaters, skate parks, live music, etc. Like most kids, rural youth are often convinced that life is better anywhere else. I believe rural communities are missing out on a huge opportunity if they buy into that notion.

Rural communities offer an abundance of opportunity – it just doesn’t always look the same as you find in urban areas – or on TV (though I believe that’s changing). Outdoor recreation, “green” industries, heritage tourism, natural and organic products, and even manufacturing to support all of these are very real opportunities for rural places. Add to that the opportunity to create telecommuter friendly work and living spaces in historic downtowns and mix in substantive programs to develop and support entrepreneurs and you’ve really got something.

With the next generation of workers seeking a work-life balance, healthy lifestyles and wholesome communities to raise their kids, rural communities may actually have an edge on their urban counterparts. I do not mean to minimize the challenges – not every community will have the vision and find the will to make the transition from focusing on what they don’t have to building on and celebrating what they do. But I’ve witnessed first-hand the often deeply independent, self-reliant, determined and industrious nature of rural leaders. They persevere through hardships and value honesty and the promise of a handshake. Call me sentimental, but I believe these qualities - the same ones that built up our nation - are the ones that have the power to rebuild our rural places, create jobs and keep and bring rural kids home.


Sam White said...

Joan & Gary,

One coming change in the way we do business that will help keep, or bring the kids back home, is telecommuting. Joan mentioned it in her comment.

I have clients all over the world, and sometimes I can’t tell whether they are in Austin, Central Mexico or Kabul. It doesn’t matter anymore because of google, skype, GoToMeeting and several other Internet tools that allow complete collaboration on a project, anywhere there is broadband Internet.

I think an employer with an open mind can save money in several ways, as well as recruit better employees who, generally, are happier. Why? Because they get to live where they wish, and they don’t have to endanger their lives and spend hours commuting to an expensive (for the employer) office.

Wouldn’t it be great if our kids started moving home, bringing their families and white-collar salaries with them?

Of course the rural community must still address quality of life by making sure the schools are great and there is plenty to do, both commercially (restaurants & movies) as well as recreationally. The local Internet infrastructure must also be excellent.

This isn’t a utopia. Telecommuting will only work for white-collar jobs, and many worry about monitoring the employee, which provides another opportunity to improve the work environment. Maybe more firms will evaluate employees by what they produce, rather than their attendance, style or office politics.


Texas Engineering Extension Service said...

Gary Sera says...

Good points. As someone who has managed people for close to 30 years, there is one thing about tele-commuting and distance project management that I have always wondered about. That is the person to person connection we get from speaking with someone who is sitting 5 feet from you, looking into their eyes and reading their body language.

What is the impact of no office politics? Many social scientist will tell you that politics occur regardless of the environment. How are personal problems solved? Just because someone is working out of their home doesn't mean they have no problems. What will be the unintended consequence of this reduction of face to face interaction.

I am a bit concerned that we will become a very impersonal workforce that doesn't care about each other because we really don't know each other. I think this is something that current and future leaders need to think about.

Thanks for your comments,