Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

More Than Green Acres

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

More Than Green Acres

Article excerpt

Future rural economic health may rely more on amenities rooted in culture and history than on products measured in bushels and pecks.

Tourism, retirement, and recreation are among the most rapidly growing economic sectors in the United States. All three require intangible amenities such as scenery, atmosphere, and space for their fullest development. Nowhere are these amenities more abundant than in rural regions. Fostering leisure activities in rural regions therefore can promote major economic development opportunities for the United States and other countries around the world.

Pastoral Pleasures

Consider France, for instance, the world's number-one foreign tourist destination. France markets the unique cultural ambience of not only Paris but also its rural countryside to more than 60 million foreign visitors every year. Annual visitation, in fact, exceeds the total population of the country.

In bolstering their income from tourism, the French have demonstrated a knack for promoting some of their traditionally poor regions - including arid areas of Haute Provence and the rough and hilly Dordogne - as tourist and retirement destinations. They've achieved this primarily by building on history, local culture, cuisine, and atmosphere. Indeed, the French have learned to parley the intangibles that many French rural areas possess into new development strategies.

But the French have also proven savvy at promoting the more tangible products that emerge from their country's rural communities. Roquefort cheese, Strasbourg pate, cognac, and champagne, burgundy, and bordeaux wines are only a few famous examples of how a region's ambience can be built into tangible export products.

France is not the only nation that has learned to capitalize on the unique cultural features of its regions. Closer to home, Nebraska follows essentially the same strategy through tourism campaigns designed to attract European visitors to rural areas having a strong American Indian heritage. The state also exports Indian paraphernalia associated with various tribes and historic sites.

Other examples abound. Dodge City, Kansas, and Natchez, Mississippi, are small towns whose present economies depend heavily on history and the tourists it attracts. And entrepreneurs in Poland Spring, Maine, export the ambience of the pine trees and the mountain stream shown on the label of Poland Spring drinking water bottles. Consumers who could drink water from their taps for less than a penny a gallon pay more for Poland Spring water than they pay for the same quantity of gasoline.

Consumer appetite for luxury goods and services, including the tangibles and intangibles offered by some rural areas, is likely to continue to grow in America. While the real income of families in the lower income levels has stagnated or even declined over the past few decades, the income of families in the upper-middle and upper levels has risen dramatically. Demand for regional rural amenities is strong and likely to grow fastest among the consumers in these middle- and upper-class families.

A similar appetite for quality-of-life and aesthetic amenities - including human and cultural factors, as well as environmental quality and recreational potential - often prompts business owners, managers, and workers to relocate, particularly to rural areas in the Southeast and Southwest. This trend may prove critical for long-term rural economic development, even if, in the short run, it seems to threaten traditional industries, particularly those such as mining and timber that rely on resource extraction.

Not long ago, voters and public officials in Oregon were concerned about the economic consequences of restricting timber harvesting to protect an endangered species, the spotted owl. Today, they are picking and choosing among high-tech firms anxious to open big new plants in the state for, among other reasons, the quality of Oregon's environment. …

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