If you're from small-town America, you've probably heard a few "back in the day" stories from parents or grandparents about the glory days of Main Street, when it was the pulse of the community, and shoppers and traffic clogged the streets.

Take Jefferson in Greene County, Iowa: population 4,150.

"In the years following World War II … Saturday night was the night to head into town," says Norm Fandel, vice president of business development and member services at Midland Power Cooperative in Jefferson. "Stores stayed open until 10 p.m. It was social night, and the community gathered downtown to greet friends and chat about the events of the week."

But as people became more mobile and shopping patterns changed, Jefferson's economy faded. People were willing to drive to bigger towns to shop, and aging store owners ceased reinvesting in their businesses. Children went off to college and didn't return home to run the shops.

"Attrition hit hard, and as business owners retired, they closed the stores," Fandel, who is also a member of Touchstone Energy® Cooperative's board of directors, says. "The number and variety of business establishments in town started tapering downward, leaving questions about the future of Jefferson's business district."

Today, Midland Power Co-op is part of a team of county leaders, residents, and businesses working to reclaim their rural downtown using an economic development approach that goes far beyond the common strategy of courting large companies. Vision 2020, as the project is called, is a "grassroots action plan" aimed at promoting key community improvements like upgrading Jefferson's school facilities, refurbishing local housing, and building family-friendly amenities.

At the heart of the plan is a career academy next to a new high school and a plan to convert an old middle school into apartments. The project has already paid some dividends—a software development company signed a letter of intent to open an office in downtown Jefferson.

Midland Power Co-op's contributions to Vision 2020 include funding, connections, and other assistance.

"Our emphasis is on broad community development rather than strictly economic development," Fandel says. "We're taking a deeper look at what the community thinks it needs, not the traditional, 'Let's chase smokestacks.'

"Vision 2020 has a bigger focus on what can we do to keep the people in our community and how can we improve our community to attract younger families. We need kids in our schools, and we need the labor force."

'Engaging people'

Blueprints like Vision 2020 follow a development model known as placemaking, part of an evolving movement to emphasize holistic, community-focused approaches to reversing the fortunes of struggling towns.

"There are a whole lot of ways to look at sustainable economic development," says Linda Salmonson, economic development manager at East River Electric Power Cooperative in Madison, South Dakota. The co-op oversees the Rural Electric Economic Development Fund, a nonprofit that offers financing for businesses and projects.

"There's creative placemaking. There's resilient communities. There's value chains," Salmonson says. "They're all very similar. It's just one way—and a very good way—of doing the same thing, and that's engaging people."

While it makes headlines when an agribusiness, large retailer, or manufacturer relocates near an economically depressed area, the challenges can sometimes outweigh the benefits, says Lynn Moore, executive director of Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives.

"People need affordable housing, health care, and a school system that can support that population," Moore says. "When you bring in a 'big box' organization, you may have hundreds of employees, and you have to meet their needs. Otherwise you're outsourcing those amenities to other communities, and employees are commuting to work. You want them in your community. And that one big box that came in with thousands of employees can leave in a minute and take those jobs with them."

Placemaking proponents say efforts and resources are better focused on making these communities appealing places to live, places where people will want to stay and raise families.

"And in rural America, the list of must-haves isn't much different from what you would find in a city," Moore says. "The millennial generation, Gen Xers, and multigenerational families with children want a lifestyle like the kind they grew up in, where they knew their neighbors, and they felt safe. But they also want all the conveniences of a modern city. It's about having a community that offers more than just jobs. It's about lifestyle and promoting the advantages of a co-op lifestyle is the driving force behind an innovative community engagement opportunity that will be open to Touchstone Energy members in the upcoming year."

In May, community planner Zachary Mannheimer spoke at NRECA's CONNECT conference during Touchstone Energy's general session about "creative placemaking," an approach that seeks to improve towns through more cultural opportunities and entrepreneurship.

Instead of tax incentives, companies want vibrant downtowns and a talented, creative workforce, Mannheimer said. And those workers are looking for several specific components in prospective hometowns.

"Jobs are still important, but they're no longer the first, second, or third driver for the next generation of workforce when they're thinking about where they want to live. Young people want a cultural community, smart transportation, great parks and recreation … and entrepreneurial opportunities. If your community can do these five things, you're going to grow."

'What your community has'

The most tangible contribution of electric cooperatives to this model is access to capital, including federal pass-through loans, revolving loan funds, or cash donations. Midland Power's contributions to Vision 2020 included a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant program to upgrade a 1900s-era building to accommodate the new software company. It also helped finance Mannheimer's expertise to help develop the blueprint.

But while subsidies and tax incentives are critical for building vibrant downtowns, the essential ingredient is something co-ops excel at: knowing their community.

"It's about figuring out what your community has and how you can capitalize on that," Salmonson says. "From that, you get a core of people who pull themselves together and look at the opportunities in a community, and how can we make those happen?"

In Greene County, Iowa, home of Vision 2020, "the best approach we had was not the local development group going through the process," says Fandel, a member of Touchstone Energy's board of directors. "It was 50 to 100 people getting involved, giving their input, desires, and direction where we need to go. We had a few younger families return to our community, and we picked their brains on how we can improve to get more families to move back."

With Mannheimer as a facilitator, the co-op, Iowa Area Development Group, residents, and other stakeholders developed a project priority matrix, ranking 11 projects in order of importance. At the top of the list is housing, followed by more daycare facilities and a new school and regional career academy.

Fandel says Midland Power is providing leadership and networking for the "Three Block Project," which includes a plan for housing renovation and a broader revitalization effort.

"We have outside connections, funding sources, and experienced people we can call on," says Fandel, who's also president of Midwest Partnership, a four-county economic development group in Iowa. "We have experts in our field who can come into a community and put on a program, free of charge, and make sure stakeholders, especially the city council and county supervisors, understand all the programs available to them."

Innovation Pointe

At Innovation Pointe, a 650-acre custom-built business park in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the focus is technology. The intent? Attract companies and people that want a culture of innovation amid a skilled workforce able to meet the demands of a digital economy.

The microgrid-powered facility offers high-speed broadband, a 3D printing shop, leasable electric vehicles, and access to drones, among other cutting-edge amenities.

Stillwater-based Central Electric Cooperative helped to establish the Innovation Pointe Limited Cooperative Association that is enabling further investment and partnerships under a cooperative model. One of the partnerships is with AECOM, a master development company, which is spearheading the development and is working with universities and high-tech vendors to build it out. They're in negotiations with several prospective tenants from a variety of industries, including a bank and a health-care facility.

That interest "provides strong indication that businesses are looking for a location that provides access and enablers for using innovation and tapping into an ecosystem of like-minded business leaders," Central Electric CEO David Swank says.

Much like they brought electricity to rural America some 80 years ago, co-ops can help businesses capitalize on the newest technologies, he says.

"I think the lead role that we as cooperatives can truly play is helping businesses not only connect to the latest technologies and innovations, but do it in a way that represents the lowest capital cost and the most efficient operational cost."

'Recreating their destinies'

Vision 2020 and Innovation Pointe are unfolding on co-op lines. But community development proponents say that even if a new and improved Main Street doesn't buy power directly from a co-op, the ripple effect of such projects reaches in all directions.

"If you look at a community as ending at the city limits, you might be missing some of the folks who can be strong advocates in the future," says Ken Schlimgen, general manager of Central Electric Cooperative in Mitchell, South Dakota, and board chairman of the Rural Electric Economic Development REED Fund, a community development financial institution governed by 25 South Dakota co-ops. "The co-op is part of the community whether they sell power or not."

Over the past 20 years, REED has made 320 loans and invested more than $83 million in rural areas. About 60 percent of those projects fall outside co-op lines but provide value to members.

Several years ago, Central Electric helped fund the start of a manufactured home development in Mount Vernon, South Dakota, population 437. Today, profits from that first project have led to five more, which aren't on co-op lines. Many of those homeowners are young couples in their 30s who commute to Mitchell.

"Our donation helped them purchase their first lot and get them started," Schlimgen says. "Without the group's leadership and spark, the project would not have happened. And I think that type of thing is exciting to see."

It's all part of communities "recreating their destinies," as Midland Power Co-op's Fandel puts it.

"We have a lot going for us," he says. "But we need to continue to push and be creative to keep our community moving forward and thriving."


Listen to the Along Those Lines podcast episode on community development and the role co-ops can play in revitalizing small towns:

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