SALT LAKE CITY—"The future of America is in rural communities."

That's the message more than 600 electric co-op employees heard from community planner Zach Mannheimer at the CONNECT 2018 conference. "We have to prepare our communities for 30 years from now."

Mannheimer, with Clive, Iowa-based MEC Placemaking, told the audience of co-op member services, communications and marketing professionals that even in the digital age, rural areas can transform into destinations for new and younger residents.

People still want places to gather to eat, socialize and shop, he told the crowd, but they also want good quality and good value. "Ask the community what they need."

His comments echoed a revitalization theme heard throughout the conference.

In one segment, NRECA unveiled new research that found some of the language electric co-ops use to describe their philosophy and services may not be well understood by their changing membership.

Dubbed the Lexicon Project, NRECA conducted focus groups and a national survey of co-op consumer-members to gauge their reaction to common industry terminology.

The data revealed, among other things, that the concept of electric co-ops as community-focused entities resonates well with members, but common themes like the unique history and not-for-profit status of cooperatives got a surprisingly low response.

"These results are truly actionable for our co-op communicators. In some ways, they're a major validation of what we've always known about our place in the community," said Scott Peterson, NRECA senior vice president for communications. "But in other ways, we see that we're a little out of step with how our members perceive us. We recommend that co-ops look at how they can take advantage of this research, yet also recognize the things that make them unique."

The Lexicon Project aims to build common ways to discuss key issues like the co-op advantage, renewable energy and electricity rates using tested terms that are readily understood and accentuate the value of co-op membership.

"Try to find a consistent language," said Michael Maslansky, CEO of Maslansky and Partners, the project's principal researcher. "If you want people to come with you, you talk about the future, not the past."

(Read the July 2018 issue of RE Magazine for more details on the Lexicon Project.)

Another major initiative introduced at CONNECT is a young adult member engagement strategy, which NRECA and Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives are collaborating on. The multi-year campaign provides resources that will help co-ops engage with and show their value to young adult members. The campaign will promote a co-op culture that embraces the opportunity to evolve with the industry and member expectations and provide strategies and tools to boost engagement among members age 25 to 45, especially young families.

"Today's consumer members care about what we're doing for them now and how we're preparing for the future," said Holly Wetzel, NRECA's director of marketing and member communications. "This project aims to deliver internal and external communications strategies to help cooperatives meet these members where they are and best leverage the communications channels that most connect with them."

Several presentations during the week focused on transforming once-thriving rural communities that have fallen on tough times.

"You have to provide a story that appeals to a younger generation," said Jim Rasberry, owner/chairman of Laurel Mercantile Company. "There are people in your town who haven't been downtown in 15 or 20 years."

Rasberry, his wife, Mallorie, and business partner Josh Nowell have spearheaded several redevelopment projects in Laurel, Mississippi, the headquarters community of Dixie Electric Power Association.

The trio also co-hosts the HGTV program "Home Town," which chronicles efforts to revitalize Laurel's central business district.

"Create an inviting space for people to come together," said Rasberry. "It's about finding the people in your community that are willing to make that happen."

Their presentation was sponsored by Touchstone Energy, which debuted its new initiative promoting brighter futures for co-op-served communities at the conference.

"What matters is that people see themselves living in our communities," said Lynn Moore, Touchstone Energy's executive director. She noted that having affordable housing and local services available encourages young families to grow roots and become permanent residents in smaller communities.

This year marks Touchstone Energy's 20th anniversary.