Rural communities see growth: Collaboration yields $8 million in grants

University of Illinois Extension Services

Over six months, local leaders worked with USDA’s Rural Economic Development Innovation (REDI) Initiative and Extension teams to create a strategic, comprehensive plan for bringing resources into the local economy. (Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Extension)

Rural communities throughout Illinois and across the nation struggle to maintain population, jobs, and schools. The COVID-19 pandemic created even more challenges; however, a collaborative group of community leaders in north central Illinois was already at work addressing the challenges, positioning their communities for growth through the challenges.

That advance work helped Fulton County, population 34,000, obtain state and federal funding support, including some aimed at pandemic relief.

A well-documented plan is a valuable tool that can be leveraged for growth and development in a community or region, says Kathie Brown, Extension educator serving Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell counties. The collaboration used proven methods to help leaders gather information, analyze data, assess options, and develop action plans. In the end, Fulton County communities, with Extension’s guidance, garnered more than $8 million in grants to support local projects.

Not all funds are tied to the pandemic, but having a plan puts businesses and communities in position to take advantage of opportunities such as federal pandemic-related funding, Brown says.

Securing such a sizable investment for local growth and development required hard work and a network of partners. Over six months, local leaders worked with USDA’s Rural Economic Development Innovation (REDI) Initiative and Extension teams to create a strategic, comprehensive plan for bringing resources into the local economy. This multifaceted effort was supported by a rich data gathering process, a network of committed local and state partners, and a two-day planning process made possible by REDI.

“The REDI initiative provided intensive technical assistance, data support, and facilitation,” says Brown. “Working with Extension connects communities to a nationwide network of land grant university expertise, included state extension specialists from Purdue University and the University of Kentucky. In addition, this work linked Illinois communities with USDA Rural Development’s national network of expertise.”

Fulton County Extension Director Earl Allen (far right) participated in the collaboration meetings. (Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Extension)

Working with Illinois Extension and others, leaders there helped secure grants topping $8.5 million, with some funding extending into neighboring counties. Funding will address several key priorities for the area, including:

Addressing the lack of broadband connectivity: A $3.1 million Connect Illinois grant, awarded to Century Enterprises, Inc., will expand broadband accessibility to 581 households, businesses, farms and anchor institutions in Fulton, Peoria, and Knox Counties.

Providing a safety net for small businesses: The Spoon River Partnership for Economic Development received a $90,000 grant from USDA Rural Business Development to establish a revolving loan fund to support businesses in the Canton area.

Enhancing access to workforce training programs: Spoon River College secured a $4 million U.S. Economic Development Administration grant to enhance career and technical programs for local workforce development.

Improving educational facilities: The U.S. Commerce Department also awarded Spoon River College a $1.5 million grant through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The funds will support investment in modern training equipment and a renovation of the college’s Vocational & Technical Education Center. The CARES grant is expected to create 275 jobs, retain 125 jobs, and generate $500,000 in private investment.

“Our local communities and educational institutions have been hit hard by this pandemic,” says Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth. “Federal investments like these help create opportunities that spur economic development and support colleges as we recover from the impacts of COVID-19.”

Extension’s work engaging a wide range of partners in planning helps community leaders focus on success. But the leaders and residents in the communities do the heavy lifting.

“Locally grown strategies will guide county economic development and improve outcomes and overall quality of life,” Brown says. “These Fulton County projects show how, working together, stakeholders can create the environment needed to achieve local and regional economic prosperity.”