Rural leaders say planning, support key to growth
By Henry C. Jackson
WASHINGTON (AP) — Rural communities need to sell what they are, not what they are not, to thrive economically, witnesses told a Senate panel Wednesday.
Witnesses also told members of a subcommittee of the Senate Agriculture Committee that government support is important for the growth and long term potential of small cities and that towns and municipalities should band together to maximize their potential.
"If the mother hen is healthy and vibrant, all the baby chicks will grow up and be good as well," said Gary Person, city manager of Sidney, Nebraska, the home of Cabela's, a hunting and outdoor supply company.
Person spoke on a panel that also included business and community leaders from North Dakota and South Dakota. The hearing was focused on how to boost rural economies and included discussion both of rural success stories, such as Cabela's and Native American Natural Foods, based in Kyle, S.D., and ways the government can improve rural development and take rural businesses to greater heights.
North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who led the hearing, said the witnesses showed the importance of expanding what is considered rural business.
"We know that if we're going to continue to grow and use every available land resource, we need to diversify rural America," she said.
Mark Tilsen, CEO of Native American Natural Foods, told the panel his company had studied how other rural businesses grew to plan for success, learning from companies such as Cabela's and ice cream company Ben & Jerry's.
Tilsen's business, which is based on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, produces Tanka Bars, a buffalo-meat-and-cranberry snack that has grown in popularity in recent years.
Tanka Bars are sold on 375 of the more than 550 American Indian reservations and other locations in the U.S. But Tilsen said that for his business to hit the next level, the government has to follow through on programs that promise support.
"We've proven the model works," he said of building his business on a reservation. "We haven't gotten it to scale yet. That's where we need the help."
Local communities also need to be on the same page, said Dawn Keeley, executive director at the Red River Regional Council, based in Grafton, North Dakota. She said that rural successes are usually a function of small towns working together and focusing on collective goals.
Senators said they shared a goal of making sure that all rural communities — not just the largest towns — benefited from government support.
"It would be terribly unfortunate that if we saw this regional concept resulted in the region developing a situation where 90 percent of the economic benefits of this program went to the biggest town in the region and the other 10 percent was sprinkled around the town," said Nebraska Republican Sen. Mike Johanns.