by Barry Hart | firstname.lastname@example.org
One of my favorite roles during my career in rural electrification has been working to bring new jobs to my community as an economic development professional. Electric cooperatives realized early on there was no point in building power lines if the people they were built for didn’t have jobs.
There’s a second reason why electric cooperatives work hard on economic development. Providing service to a major commercial or industrial member helps offset the low density common to rural areas. Commercial and industrial accounts add to the tax base, allowing rural communities to improve the quality of life for residents, with better schools, roads and essential services such as emergency responders and law enforcement.
That’s why I was so happy to see our power supplier, Associated Electric Cooperative, launch a new program this year called “Power4Progress.” This innovative program is designed to reinvigorate the economic development program among Associated’s member systems in Missouri, Iowa and Oklahoma.
Associated’s board showed its commitment to the program by funding it for five years. It sent a strong message to those in the trenches of job creation that Associated is serious about helping them help their communities.
The need for such a program comes in the wake of dire news for many rural counties. Recently Mark Woodson, who is in charge of the economic development program at Associated, sent me a map that showed 52 out of Missouri’s 114 counties lost jobs and population since 2007. Another 25 counties gained population — but not jobs.
It’s not surprising those two statistics follow each other. As jobs leave rural areas, so too will rural residents. Some may choose to make long commutes to find work, but for others that is not an option. It’s a downward spiral that electric cooperatives want to stop.
The Power4Progress program is designed to offer economic development professionals the tools they need to help their communities right now. Specialized training is already underway. It includes “Basics of Site Selection,” “Principles of Community Development,” “Key Accounts Management” and “Building a Key Account Culture.”
Lessons learned in these classes will show those attending how to make their electric cooperative a valuable business partner in the effort to attract new employers or to help existing businesses expand.
The program includes access to the Location One Information System that can be used to list sites and buildings available to prospective businesses. Associated staff can consult with member systems that are reaching out to new prospects and can also offer research for business recruitment.
There’s also help with one of the most valuable tools cooperatives have in their community assistance toolbox: the Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program, commonly called REDLGs. This USDA program funnels loans up to $1 million and grants up to $300,000 into rural projects through cooperatives.
Over the years, REDLGs has been used for a number of vital projects in rural Missouri. Helping member cooperatives with the daunting application process will ensure it continues to put federal dollars where they can do the most good.
I am excited to see this new emphasis on job creation from our power supplier. I can’t wait to see the results as this program works to create jobs, retain rural residents and improve the quality of life for all electric cooperative members.
Hart is executive vice president of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives.