A Citizen-Led Program for Rural Community Economic Development: Two Case Studies

Article excerpt

Rural economic development has rarely represented the interests of people with disabilities, nor have people with disabilities typically been involved in development activities. This disregard is problematic because people with disabilities have a vested interest in economic growth and outcomes. Their rate of employment is 49% lower than that of people without disabilities (National Organization on Disability, 2001), and they have limited job opportunities in their rural communities (Arnold, Seekins, & Nelson, 1997). If people with disabilities and the agencies that serve them want to enhance local employment opportunities, they must take an active role in developing and implementing the agenda of rural economic development.

This paper reports on two implementations of the Citizen-Led Economic Development Project, which uses a "self-development" framework to engage people with disabilities and service agencies in economic development activities. The project is designed to create a short-term role for people with disabilities and service agencies that allows for enhanced community understanding of the goals and resources that this constituency brings to the economic development table.

Rural Self-Development Strategies

Self-development strategies encourage broad based community "buy-in" to develop home-grown businesses supported with local resources (Sharp & Flora, 1999; Sharp, Agnitsch, Ryan, & Flora, 2002). Unlike industrial recruitment, self-development strategies rely on broad representation from citizen groups and community constituencies such as farmers, retirees, and business organizations (Sharp & Flora, 1999).

Critics say self-development is a more cumbersome approach to development because it is difficult to generate sufficient representation; multiple stakeholder interests result in disjointed agenda setting (Schafft & Greenwood, 2003); and development strategies are biased "towards service or specialty firms that may not be viable if the local trade area is too sparsely populated" (Sharp et al., 2002, p. 406).

Community development researchers have shown, however, that rural communities with broad, diverse leadership and participation tend to have more successful outcomes than communities with a narrower constituency (Reed & Paulsen, 1990; Wall & Luther, 1989; Wall & Luther, 1992; Sharp & Flora, 1999: Perkins, Hughey, & Speer, 2002). Self-development under diversified leadership has many strengths. First, a wide constituency ensures that development projects consider the unique needs of represented groups, such as individuals with disabilities, minorities, retirees, local associations, small business owners, farmers, or individuals who value local amenities (such as proximity to outdoor recreation). When community development involves a wide spectrum of community stakeholders, it's likely to address the needs of the whole community. Incorporating community concerns into the initial decision-making process may minimize opposition to future development efforts (Sharp & Flora, 1999; Schafft & Greenwood, 2003).

Diversified leadership enhances opportunities to secure local funding streams that might be combined to support economic-development projects such as downtown revitalization, business incubators, and business retention or expansion programs (Sharp & Flora, 1999). Local endeavors that align with the desires of the broader community have a stronger chance of success. Studies show that home-grown businesses (rather than businesses that have relocated to the community) are more likely to hire community members (Sharp & Flora, 1999) and remain in the community over time (Dewees, Lobao, & Swanson, 2003), contributing to the economic stability of development efforts.

Of particular relevance to people with disabilities, self-development imparts "solidarity" and "agency" within the community. …