October 2021

New Ways to Boost Rural Areas

Electric cooperatives as engines of rural economic development

There is hope for rural America’s future. But it’ll take strong working relationships, a dose of imagination and a lot of elbow grease to achieve it.

That’s the view of experts and electric cooperative leaders who have been on the frontlines of the effort to revitalize rural communities in the mid-Atlantic and across the country.

“There are opportunities to reduce household energy burdens and put those dollars to work in ways that improve the quality of life. There are opportunities to improve the quality of the housing stock and to help businesses that are struggling,” says John Hewa, president and CEO of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, based in Fredericksburg, Va.

“But it takes a lot of different partnerships at the table to make these things happen,” he adds.

Hewa and Curtis Wynn, former president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, spoke at a forum on community investment during the NRECA Regions 1&4 meeting in September at National Harbor, Md. The Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives, which publishes Cooperative Living, hosted the meeting of co-op leaders from 15 states.

Wynn, president and CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative in North Carolina, says his region has benefitted from the co-op’s efforts in creating a collaborative of residents, businesses and organizations that addresses community needs beyond electricity.

“You’ll find two community organizations just a few miles apart going after some of the same ideas. But getting everybody in the same room has really meant a lot in terms of getting these ideas together,” Wynn says.

Hewa says REC has been reaching out to its members in three ways. It has engaged them in support of traditional community support; he said more than 29,000 members participate in REC’s giving programs, from small donations to meal deliveries during the pandemic.

The cooperative also has hired a full-time economic development director to help businesses grow and retain employees. Finally, REC surveyed its members on the need for broadband across its sprawling territory, which spans all or parts of 22 counties.

“They expect us to be at the table. They expect us to help make this happen,” he says. To that end, REC has been working as a facilitator with internet service providers, county governments and other stakeholders to bridge its members’ digital divide.

Becky McCray, co-founder of SaveYour.Town, a group that conducts surveys of rural residents, says those are the kinds of initiatives that will pay dividends in small towns.

“The most important thing to remember is that local people remain focused on the long-term challenges in their community,” she says. “They outweigh the impact of the pandemic and the economic impacts around it.”