Downtowns: The Center of Rural Economies


The Center of Rural Economies

by Jenn Gregory

Before COVID-19, rural areas started to discover a new formula for revitalizing their communities. Since 2010, small towns have invested approximately $20 billion into their downtowns, helping to create around 28,000 new businesses.

And it paid off. Non-metro counties in America, in which tourism was a dominant industry, saw significant rates of personal-income growth between 2010 and 2017.

The recipe for this kind of growth varied, but generally, it involved public-private investments in existing assets, such as historic Main Street buildings, giving way to a resurgence of the small business ecosystem in rural communities. Creating an environment where shoppers want to be allowed entrepreneurs to confidently set-up shop in the midst of community activity, foot traffic, and vitality.

The pandemic has, and continues to, pose a huge threat to locally-owned businesses and the very local governments that were responsible for spearheading investment that catalyzed new growth and development.

While most rural communities have seen surges in sales tax revenue, offering a glimmer of hope and a feeling of protection, small business revenue has sharply declined.

Revenue is down approximately 30% compared to pre-pandemic figures.

This figure holds true even for pandemic-resistant states that withstood minimal shutdowns and restrictions. Online shopping is at an all-time high, and consumers are more familiar than ever with buy-online-pick-up-in-store, app-based ordering systems, and contactless payment.

Now, more than ever, city leaders should prioritize the revitalization of their downtowns – their own rural economies.

American Rescue Plan funds have been allocated to every town, village, city, and county in America, and can be deployed to support small businesses and build back tourism and hospitality economies that have been affected.

As Kelly Asche, a researcher with the Center for Rural Policy and Development in New London, Minnesota, points out, “non-metro areas, many of which have been losing population for decades, have become more attractive to urbanites looking for open space during the pandemic, especially those who no longer need to commute to big-city offices.”

In addition to open spaces, the workforce is more available to work from home and is seeking co-working and shared space office environments near locally-owned coffee shops, restaurants, and other businesses that can offer a wholesome, enjoyable live-work experience.

There’s no better sector than rural downtowns to be able to offer these amenities in an authentic way.  

How small businesses respond to the COVID-19 pandemic will shape the future of Main Streets across the United States, and cities must lead the way in providing support, technical assistance, and strategic vision to reimagine their downtowns as small business ecosystems and invest dollars and incentives into these areas.

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