The mission of the Transition Centre/RRH project is to:
Promote revitalization of distressed communities across the country to achieve a resilient economy, strong community and high quality of life. RRH provides an integral framework for developing local strategies, workforce, business enterprises, education and governance.
Our vision: Self-reliant and sustainable local economies and strong communities – places where our children will want to stay and make their home.
Over half of the counties in the US, most of them rural, are economically distressed, left behind by the national economy. This has resulted in loss of jobs and population, decreasing incomes, shuttered storefronts, and vacant residential lots, aging population, reduction in public revenues, rising crime, with reduced health and longevity. It has become a daunting and persistent problem.
Small towns and surrounding farming country were once the foundation of American life and values. They were settled by pioneering people, and that same pioneering attitude is needed now to restore them. And yes, given the resolve, they can be restored to prosperity and prime livability.
This decline of rural America, and many inner cities for that matter, has been going on for decades. Youth were attracted to the cities by the promise of jobs. Shopping malls consumed the local economy. Closure of industries marked the turning point to steady decline. Unfortunately, the rising economic tide of the post-2008 Great Recession decade did not raise all boats.
Government programs have had little impact. Some towns recover; many others do not. Another model is urgently needed.
It will not be an easy job. It will require a can-do attitude, and it has to be a local initiative which will draw on the human and material resources of each community. While concentrating on foundational, achievable objectives, it will be about foreseeing the bigger picture: the vision of restoring and maintaining a great place to live, the type of community that will draw and hold new and vigorous talent.
The RRH approach is about resiliency; that is, the capacity not just to fix what goes wrong but to innovate and thrive given the inevitable challenges of the coming decades. The RRH approach is localized because your town is your home. It is more than an address on your driver’s license. It is people and place--a community. A town has the scale you can get your mind around and where it is possible to start small to change things; to create a safe, secure and vibrant community. The RRH method is integral:
• It embraces all parts of the community: government, business, education, nonprofits, faiths and citizens.
• It provides a systematic foundation for revitalizing the community economy and quality of life.
• It creates the capacity to constantly innovate and adapt to the challenges of this century.
A plan is a living document that addresses the problem to be solved. There is a lot to be learned, progress will be by trial and error, and determination and persistence are mandated. Accomplishments will be celebrated, and momentum built to continue towards the vision of a healthy, safe and secure hometown.
Many communities are struggling to maintain and restore a livable environment. There are best practices to draw on. RRH proposes a core group of programs to restore local economic viability once the initial organization is formed, including:
1. A community center or innovation hub, which provides a place to work, to meet, a maker space with tools, and a program for sharing workforce knowledge and skills development.
2. Broadband connectivity is vital. Broadband empowers local enterprises including business, government, education, and civic groups. It is also needed to attract the population of skilled workers and small businesses that are seeking to move from city to country, to work remotely and live a quieter, more bucolic and communal life.
3. Local agriculture is a vital wedge. Where there are land and water and people willing to work out of doors with their hands, the food system can be increasingly localized. Capturing a share of the local food market both increases food security and creates a significant revenue stream that stays in the community.
4. Restoring the already-built environment and energy efficiency, particularly on main street, is a priority. Livability is enhanced by walkable spaces with access to basic needs, food and recreation, and to public spaces. Restoration and renovation creates hands-on jobs for local workers.
5. Community utilities are gaining traction. These utilities are community owned and managed, including electricity, water and waste management. Again, they capture revenue.
6. The watershed requires attention. Water is a critical resource dependent on the quality of the local natural environment. A watershed plan is an integral part of a comprehensive local plan.
7. Local financial institutions, including small banks and credit unions, again, owned and operated by community members, provide a foundation for local financial health increasingly independent from unstable global markets.
8. Veterans and retirees will be an important asset. These vital workers have a great deal of education, training, and experience work with discipline, have a sense of mission and duty, and who enjoy the comradery of working collaboratively for something worthwhile.
The problem of rural decline is endemic. It is in large part a decline in the economy, but it is also a problem of decline in communities and their institutions. Revitalization is a community-focused endeavor.
There was a significant decline in the well-being of rural communities between the 2010 and 2020 censuses. This is a long-standing trend going back to globalization of the economy, at least back to the 1980s, when, as jobs moved offshore, the factories went to rust and ruin. Such communities have been labelled forgotten, distressed and shrinking-- all three terms iconic of continuing decline. An MIT/PolicyLink report found ten conditions resulting from economic distress:
There is a systemic shock in such communities; a sense of despair and hopelessness emerges. As populations decline, there is a loss in capacity to recover. Qualities that define distressed communities, according to the Economic Innovation Group’s Distressed Communities Index, include:
The recovery following the Great Recession of 2008, the Group noted, “failed to benefit the country’s most vulnerable communities.” The communities in “Distressed” and “At Risk” categories fell further behind. Even in more prosperous communities, there is a wide range of income disparity. Overall real wages were slightly lower between 2000 and 2020 across the board. Then the Covid pandemic further aggravated the problem and supply chain issues and inflation added to the burden.
There is clearly a problem of institutional decay in distressed communities within government, education, faith, family and communal association in general. Reduction in revenues depleted local government budgets. There was a loss of talent as the best and brightest left town, resulting in aging and increasingly inbred administrative structures. Health and longevity declined. Violent crime, substance abuse and suicide rates increased. Racial tension and persistent poverty became drivers of conflict.
There is a painful psychological shock that results from these problems. It is called alienation-- a loss of meaningfulness, purpose and self-worth; a loss of norms and values that define a community. These conditions have also driven political divisiveness at state and national levels.
In short, the conditions in many of these communities are discouraging. It is thus not merely an economic problem, not merely a matter of rebuilding downtowns and attracting businesses, but of revitalizing communities and restoring essential institutions and services. It takes a dedicated group to begin that recovery and moral determination to continue. It takes engagement of all sectors of the community.
As noted, public programs are of limited significance with a problem of this scale. There is simply not enough money to go around. The alternative is local initiative. Distressed communities are not lacking in awareness or human capital, but it requires a catalyst to spark the change.
Transition Centre/RRH does not claim it will fix all of your problems; indeed, it does not offer to do so. Our objective is to encourage each locality to gain the capacity to solve their own problem. We will work to facilitate a startup. We will help channel knowledge and skills and best practices to achieve that capacity. Coming from out of town, we bring a degree of objectivity. We are non-partisan.
We realize there are few communities that will make the necessary reach to start with. Our objective is for these to achieve the capacity to serve as resource hubs within their own regions. Success will breed success. We seek to establish a network of these RRHs across the country to build synergy and overcome a sense of isolation.