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Economic development in rural communities boosted by USDA continued funding

Ely is just one of 16 communities researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno have worked with as part of the ASAP project to help strengthen its rural economy.

Researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno, along with researchers at Utah State University and University of Idaho, are assisting rural communities across the West by applying economic, environmental and social factors to community economic development planning.

The University Center for Economic Development located in the College of Business recently led the charge to renew a $500,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture under its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

Tom Harris, university foundation professor in the College of Business, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension specialist and principal investigator on the grant, describes the work as a tool used to better identify compatible intersections of community preferences and asset structures with industry production requirements and targeted community support.

"It's very much like a dating service," Harris said. "We pair what communities want along with information about their asset inventory. Then we interview businesses and discover who has similar goals and priorities to that of rural communities."

The method is called Area Sector Analysis Process, or "ASAP," and with the renewed funding from the USDA, Harris and his team plan to expand the project across western states while focusing on four specific objectives:

  1. Operationalize the existing ASAP model;
  2. Develop procedures to encourage and sustain community comparative advantages;
  3. Expand ASAP implementations; and
  4. Analyze ASAP primary data to better understand the process of sustainable rural development over time and across various rural communities and industries.

"At the end of the day, we come up with industries that are desirable to the community and vice versa," Harris said. "We also show rural communities what assets they can improve upon to make their long-term goals for growth and sustainability attainable. From training a workforce to building highways and infrastructure, ASAP informs communities as to what type of industry they are best matched for."

Harris, who, along with Malieka Landis, research manager in the University Center for Economic Development, first received the grant in 2014. The 2017 grant is the first renewal. To date, the grant has allowed the team, including colleagues in Utah and Idaho, to formalize the implementation procedure for ASAP, formalize data, and seek representation from firms in every state.

Harris and Landis have worked with Nevada communities in White Pine and Lander Counties. They are currently considering the economic impacts to Washington County, Utah, which is part of the Las Vegas "megapolitan."

"Especially in Nevada, rural community focus has been on agriculture, mining and tourism – all industries that have volatile business cycles," Harris said. "We encourage these communities to look for sectors that are more stable with fewer peaks and valleys, as we know this will help even out their economic cycle."

According to Landis, ASAP brings a quantitative analysis to rural communities – helping the people living and working there to think about competitive advantages.

"It's about compatibility," Landis said. "We're trying to help communities with declining populations and services, strengthen rather than struggle over time. With this grant renewal we will look at not just community assets, but also the labor skills and education required to meet industry needs."

Since federal funding was received in March 2014, ASAP has been implemented in 16 communities across Idaho, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. Along with Harris and Landis, Economic Development Specialist Buddy Borden, who works in the Southern Clark County University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office, also plays a key role with the grant.

"From my experience delivering the ASAP program, I found it to be a very effective research and outreach program that enables communities to better understand the many factors that influence community and economic development," Borden said. "More importantly, it provides communities with local data, expertise and resources that are necessary when developing and implementing strategic economic development plans."

The process for rural communities engaged with ASAP takes about six months. Communities first work through an Extension educator, who then gathers a cross section of both business and community leaders.

"We are also developing a post-ASAP follow-up process," Landis said. "The idea behind ASAP is for the community to take leadership in the project. In order for it to be sustainable, it has to be a community-led process. Community groups are working towards solutions and, while it may not be immediate, progress is being made to strengthen their economies."