The COVID-19 pandemic has taught many lessons. The lesson for rural areas in Oregon is that they can compete in a digital world – if they can connect to it.
Ciara Williams, a member of AmeriCorps team assigned to assist rural Oregon economies cope with COVID challenges, wrote in The Oregon Way, “The pandemic caused rural communities to face immense challenges when attempting to participate in e-commerce, telelearning and telehealth.”
The rural-urban divide, she says, proved to be a digital divide. Without robust broadband access, rural areas were at a severe disadvantage compared to Oregonians in Portland and the Willamette Valley.
“While initially the pandemic threatened to sink the economic participation of rural communities,” Williams said, “we can now see a pathway that could revive stronger economies and communities than pre-pandemic.”
That pathway is a digital table that is level. Distance is negated. Access to information and markets is equalized. Affordable housing and proximity to recreation are draws for talented people who have thrived through remote work.
The pandemic succeeded in showcasing rural digital deficits, prompting officials from Washington, DC to Salem to respond by prioritizing rural broadband investments. Williams believes that can result in economic growth and diversification that was unimaginable prior to the pandemic.
Broadband can level economic, educational and informational playing fields, but rural leaders must take steps to ensure rural communities have the resiliency to handle growth, diversity and future adversity.
“The more talent and technology investments rural economies can attract,” Williams says, “the more they can move toward the economic diversification that will help them withstand future disasters and shocks.”
However, just installing broadband infrastructure to attract investment and talented people won’t be enough, argues Williams. “Will rural Oregon have the capacity to capitalize on the investment?” she asks. “Will it have childcare to support a growing workforce? Can it produce the housing stock to support population growth?”
She and her fellow AmeriCorps cohorts who assisted five Oregon rural economic development districts from Northeast Oregon to the South Coast are bullish on the opportunity to “elevate rural economies and build the necessary economic resiliency.”
While the pandemic threatened to sink the economic participation of rural communities, we can now see a pathway that could revive stronger economies and communities than pre-pandemic.
Key resiliency recommendations included expanding access to health services, ensuring affordable housing, closing the urban-rural skills gap, investing in functioning care infrastructure and improving access and delivery of government services to rural businesses that are too often an afterthought.
Williams, who graduated from George Washington University with a degree in international affairs and a minor in Spanish, works full-time for the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council in Bend.
The needs assessment reports generated by the AmeriCorps team contain a series of to-dos for rural communities that include addressing structural inequities and service gaps that mirror those faced by indigenous people and people of color. The team encourages a ‘leave-no-one-behind’ mentality and advises rural regions to coordinate and collaborate, leveraging their collective strength, learning from each other and focusing on specific high-target opportunities.
AmeriCorps members work in association with the University of Oregon’s Institute for Policy Research & Engagement and UO’s School of Planning, Public Policy and Management. The team itself worked under a unique program called Resource Assistance for Rural Environments (RARE). Program goals are to “strengthen communities, economies, food systems and the natural environment.”
RARE members live in rural communities and connect with cities, counties and non-governmental organizations. The Oregon team conducted more than 200 interviews with rural leaders and residents in a “Listen to Learn” framework. They took findings from their interviews to assess community needs, built environment and land-use assets, underserved communities and preparedness and resilience. Here is the report for Central Oregon.