HOUSTON—Electric cooperatives have long been the engines of economic growth for the communities they serve, and they have a new chance to play key roles in breathing new life into struggling downtown areas.

“Co-ops have an opportunity to revitalize their communities and energize their membership,” said Lynn Moore, executive director of Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives.

Speaking at NRECA’s recent CONNECT conference, Moore shared details of Touchstone Energy’s Main Street Initiative and Makeover Contest and the upcoming Best in Class & Main Street Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, Aug. 6-8.

“We encourage you to bring your team of experts from your cooperative and your community to attend this great event,” Moore said.

The summit and the makeover contest will focus on planning and executing projects designed to help co-ops stimulate interest in rural business district development. Presenters will look at several redevelopment aspects, including facilities use, marketing, promotion and finance.

Several speakers involved in the August summit also spoke at CONNECT about business retention and expansion, attracting new enterprises and ongoing engagement of long-term residents.

“A community is either growing or it’s not,” said Lorie Vincent, an economic development consultant and founder and president of Acceleration by Design Inc. “That’s why it’s so important to have an economic development plan as part of a community’s overall vision.”

The Austin, Texas-based firm advises clients on strategies for stabilizing and revitalizing business districts, primarily in rural and exurban areas.

“Communities need to have gathering places,” said Vincent, who is a member of Pedernales Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Johnson City, Texas. “We’ve got to have vibrant business districts.”

In addition to jobs, Vincent said, it’s important to ensure that the professional services and basic needs that appeal to young families are locally available.

“Housing, education, broadband and medical services are critical to stabilizing and growing sustainable communities,” said Vincent. “Retail follows rooftops and rooftops follow jobs.”

“You can be a town of 50 people or 50,000, but it takes the right leadership for you to grow,” said creative placemaking advocate Zach Mannheimer of McClure Engineering in Des Moines, who’s hosting the August summit at the Des Moines Social Club.

Summit attendees will be encouraged to identify specific goals to inspire community participation.

“People are going to come to rural areas if you give them reasons to be there,” Josh Nowell, co-owner and CEO of Laurel Mercantile Co. in Laurel, Mississippi, told the CONNECT audience.

“Our first project was bringing pride back to our local folks,” said Laurel Mercantile Co. co-owner Mallorie Rasberry, who used branding on social media, signage and an organized series of community events to stimulate interest in downtown revitalization.

Rasberry, who appears on the HGTV series “Home Town” with her husband, Jim, and Josh and Emily Nowell, has worked with the “Home Town” team to purchase and redevelop several buildings in Laurel’s central business district. Much of the work the couples have done is in the service territory of Dixie Electric Power Association, headquartered in Laurel.

“From 2007 through 2016, we had approximately 12 buildings change hands. From 2016 to 2018, we had over 15 buildings change hands,” said Jim Rasberry, noting the stepped-up real estate market activity. “The curve gets pretty drastic, the longer you stay with it.”

For more information on Touchstone Energy’s Main Street Initiative and the Best in Class & Main Street Summit, email Josh McGhee or Lynn Moore or call Touchstone Energy at 703-907-5500.