KEENE — In its second year, “Radically Rural,” a conference with a focus on entrepreneurship in small towns, drew over 550 people from 24 states. The two-day event held Sept. 19-20 took place along six “tracks” at several locations in downtown Keene and was organized by the Keene Sentinel and the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, along with a large number of sponsors.
The organizers would seem to be either on or ahead of a national curve that is trending toward redevelopment of rural areas. Two days before the conference began, the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Sarah Smarsh called “Something Special is Happening in the Rural America.” According to Smarsh, “there is an exodus afoot that suggests a national homecoming, across generations, to less bustling spaces. Last year, Gallup found that while roughly 80 percent of us live in urban areas, rural life was the most wished for.”
Opening keynote speaker Wendy Guillies, president and CEO of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, told her audience the future of the country did not depend on a few tech geniuses. Rather, “middle qualities” are the key to successful entrepreneurship. In rural America people organizing start-ups are not rebelling; they are just looking for something that works.
Guillies was concerned that entrepreneurship has been “flat for two decades” and said that there were barriers to starting businesses. “The current prosperity,” she said, “is riding on innovations of the past.” She was also concerned that too much public conversation about small towns was about their problems and the fading of their institutions. Communities, Guillies said, have to reinvent themselves, go from “what happened?” to “what’s next?”
The CEO had four suggestions for rural entrepreneurs: (1) see problems as opportunities; (2) make new use of existing assets, citing farmers who chose to go organic; (3) blue-sky non-obvious opportunities; and (4) leverage your assets, for example, by partnering with colleges and universities.
Guillies also put in a plug for new immigrants, whom she noted start new businesses at twice the rate of native-born Americans and are under-represented in rural America. Indeed, in the Colonial Theatre audience that she addressed, which numbered in the hundreds, nearly all the faces were white.
Each themed track consisted of two two-hour sessions on Thursday and a third on Friday morning. The “Working Lands” session was held at the Cheshire County Historical Society. Session 1, “An Acre at a Time: Managing Land for Climate Resiliency,” was hosted by landscape architect Karen Fitzgerald and featured a panel that included David Patrick, director of conservation programs for The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire; Joshua Faulkner, the farming and climate change program coordinator for the UVM Extension; and Steven Whitman founder of Resilience Planning & Design.
Given that the natural landscape is valued by denizens of rural towns, Patrick provided strategies for preserving the health of working land — acreage used for forestry and agriculture. In order to increase carbon sequestration, reduce run-off, and maintain robust, mobile populations of plants and animals, Patrick urged residents to recognize habitat specialists, maintain large continuous tracts, and to preserve landscapes with diverse conditions.
Faulkner’s position was created after Tropical Storm Irene caused $20 million worth of damage to agricultural land in Vermont. He provided much data to show that Vermont climate has changed significantly in the last 30 years with, for example, the Northeast Kingdom now receiving 7 more inches of rain per year, with the pattern around the state shifting to rain arriving as extremely heavy downpours separated by periods of drought.
Faulkner is working with farmers to build “sponge-like” soils that can cope with these conditions. Conservation tillage and use of cover crops have become common practices in the Green Mountain State. The former rebuilds carbon reservoirs in the soil and the latter keeps them from declining further.
Whitman’s firm works with small towns to bring elements of the natural world into designed landscapes to create “multi-functional open space networks.” He said that regional planning in the past has been focused on transportation — creating corridors to move traffic — while the new approach emphasizes building “green infrastructure,” interconnected networks of ecosystems. He projected several designs from small towns around New Hampshire, which he frequently noted had been designed by Fitzgerald.
The “Community Journalism” track met in the Keene Public Library. It’s afternoon session on Thursday examined “Solutions Journalism: Helping Communities Take Next Steps.” Reporters who undertake enterprise journalism focus on one topic over several articles, exploring it from a variety of perspectives. Solutions journalism is a specialized brand of this that identifies a topic that is a significant social problem in a small community and examines who is doing what about that problem.
Leah Todd from the Lebanon office of the Solutions Journalism Network hosted the session. Amy Maestas, presently at the Salt Lake Tribune, but formerly at the Durango Enterprise, described her former newspapers efforts to publish a series of stories about the high suicide rate in a small southwestern Colorado city. One reporter spent 85-90% of her time on the issue for several months and produced a nine-part series. It emerged that there was no central place to get information about suicide prevention and the newspaper decided to create one online. The Enterprise got pushback from the state public health officials, Maestas said, but local government and non-profits responded more positively.
Shawne Wickham, a reporter for the Union Leader, focused on a series of issues, including the effects of childhood trauma on children’s behavior. Wickham spoke with representatives of several care agencies, including therapeutic (horseback) riding instructors and Big Brother, Big Sister. “They found that if you put one caring adult in their lives,” she said, “that is all it takes.” Wickham found out that the Manchester police were approaching families exposed to trauma and helping them connect with social services.
Arts & culture
On Friday morning the “Arts & Culture” track heard from Emma Weisman, the agency relations manager for the Burning Man event on Black Rock Playa in Nevada. Weisman talked about the challenges and benefits of holding a large public arts event in a very rural district. Burning Man, an annual gathering that attracts 80,000 people to the high desert, must work with the federal Bureau of Land Management, which is the custodian of the national conservation area, the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, and several other federal, state, and local agencies.
Weisman described the philosophy of Burning Man as originally anarchic, but now more libertarian. Attendees are expected to bring everything they need with them to live in the high desert from three days and then carry it all out, leaving no trace behind. In addition to there being infractions against this policy, the sheer volume of traffic has an impact on the region. However, that part of Nevada has also seen many benefits. The nearest Walmart does more business during the event than it does at Christmas. The tech industry — many Silicon Valley folks attend Burning Man — has begun to local facilities in the thinly-populated and impoverished area, and there are plans to set up a regional arts trail.
Ryan Owens, executive director of the Monadnock Conservancy, explored ways that the Burning Man philosophy could be deployed in rural New England. He was firm that nothing that large was suitable, but he liked the idea of doing art installations in natural settings.
The concluding session was held on Friday afternoon at the Colonial Theatre. The keynote speaker was Art Markman, a psychology and marketing professor from IC2 (Innovation, Creativity & Capital Institute) at University of Texas, Austin. His talk, “Bridgeable Gaps: The Fuel for Rural Change,” began with a description of army ants using their bodies to build a bridge across a gap. “You are either part of the bridge,” he said, “or you’re crossing it.” The ants repeatedly perform this act. “Sometimes you’re the one crossing,” Markman said, “and sometimes someone’s stepping on your head.”
One of the challenges of pushing economic development in small communities is that a few individuals can have an outside effect on a project. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on the person’s constructive or obstructive qualities, but an organizer needs more social skills to cope than they would in a big city.
Small-town groups, Markman said, also must arrive at a consensus that reflects a sense of the real qualities of their community; agreement about something abstract — “this is a nice place to live” — will cause an effort to fail because the consensus is meaningless.
He also urged regional cooperation because a single small town will often not be able to accommodate all the needs of a large development project. He described a small town in Sweden that sent a battery plant to the next town, but then benefited by providing some of the housing for the workforce.
Markman urged local economic development organizers to communicate with college students in their first or second years at school, before they have formed a narrative of their own future. He described a program that provided internships for these students sent them back to their hometown to find out why people liked living there.
He also urged people to use local suppliers when they were building businesses. Fifty-two cents of every dollar spent leaves a community when non-local corporate suppliers are used. Local companies may be more expensive up front, Markman said, but they money will stay in your community and later return to your business.
Other tracks at “Radically Rural” were called “Entrepreneurship,” “Main Street,” and “Renewable Energy.” There were also many smaller sessions that combined socializing and networking. The entire conference took place in downtown Keene and participants could walk to all sessions and to their accommodations and evening events.