A national survey about rural economic development challenges is in line with Idaho’s, according to rural economic development specialists in the state.
The 2021 Survey of Rural Challenges report is produced by the organizations Small Biz Survival and Save Your Town. The organizations conduct a survey and create a report every other year. In Q4 2020, the organizations surveyed 289 rural residents, 276 of whom were from the United States. Since 2015, more than 1,400 people have been surveyed, organizers said.
Notably, challenges stemming from the pandemic and economic crisis were ranked as less important than long-existing rural challenges, the report stated. These include losses in housing, business and population as the highest rural community challenges, with the ongoing lack of workers, stiff competition from online businesses and marketing ranked as the highest challenges to rural small businesses.
What Idaho rural economic developers said
Idaho rural economic developers agreed.
“I find this report applicable to many of our rural towns in southern Idaho,” said Ervina Covcic, rural specialist for Southern Idaho Economic Development, in an email message. She works with rural cities and businesses around southern Idaho with populations of fewer than 10,000. “The top five rural community challenges and the other challenge options mentioned are on par with what I have been hearing, especially the issue of housing, losing younger blood and a lack of volunteers for community projects.”
“Housing and youth outmigration are challenges we face and are affecting business expansion,” said Chris St. Germaine, Clearwater County economic development director, in an email message.
“We are seeing the same thing — an influx of new people moving in, a lack of housing, a lack of skilled workforce, a lack of money for infrastructure,” said Christy Acord, manager of the Elmore County Rural Development Organization, in an email message.
“This survey is quite accurate,” said Kit Kamo, executive director of the Snake River Economic Development Alliance, in an email message. “I grew up in a small rural area and I’ve worked in many rural and remote communities. So I understand the responses to the survey well.”
“Since the survey does not include the size of rural communities, it is hard to show a direct correlation,” said Jan Rogers, a Twin Falls-based economic development consultant, in an email message. “However, at least in the southern Idaho region, many of their answers do sync up with what I have observed over the last year with the pandemic.”
Marketing for small businesses, especially in the age of the internet, is an issue, the report noted, pointing out that “online competition” rose to the second-highest ranking challenge. That was true in Idaho as well.
“Small business owners struggle with the marketing of their products or services,” Covcic said. “Some may list inaccurate hours or may not have robust social media platforms to display activity, which may deter local consumers from spending dollars within the community.” Her organization works with business owners through providing trainings, sharing open positions online and connecting them with other helpful groups, she said.
Brick-and-mortar businesses that have updated to the e-commerce era are more successful, St. Germaine said. “Our mom-and-pops that have adopted and adapted to utilizing (the internet) and social media are doing well,” she said. “Our downtowns are rebounding.”
Federal aid associated with the pandemic and economic disruption was a factor in this year’s survey, according to the report. “Crisis relief loan packages may have played a role in supporting small businesses,” the report noted. “On previous surveys, inability to find a business loan scored from the middle to low: ranging from sixth to ninth of the 11 listed challenges, before dropping to 11th this time.”
“Small businesses weathered the pandemic fairly well during the last year, most likely spurred by the multiple federal relief packages allowing most to survive,” Rogers agreed.
And St. Germaine also agreed with the report that usable buildings are as hard or harder to find than loans. “We definitely need more ‘micro’ business buildings, where we can incubate manufacturers,” she added.
But the leading challenge for rural small businesses was not being able to find good employees, as it also was in 2019, according to the report, and Idaho is no exception.
“Talent is still a big issue for rural areas, but it is also an issue for metropolitan areas as well,” Rogers said.
“Many positions are open, leaving employers in a bind of how to fill those spots with the workforce available,” Covcic agreed.
The state could help, St. Germaine said. “Long-term impacts of poverty include substance abuse, mental health issues and an unskilled workforce,” she said. “We certainly could use more behavioral/mental health counseling businesses. We would be very interested in bringing back to rural communities the Health and Welfare (department) resources offices, Department of Labor offices and Lewis-Clark State College Community Development program offices. Having these resource providers leave rural places is a much bigger impact than in areas with better connectivity and technology adoption. As we drive folks to services that are all online, we are in a big way driving those without access/skills deeper into a dive.”
It’s no surprise to Idaho rural economic development professionals that “not enough good housing” ranked first in the challenges of rural communities, according to the report.
“Housing was before, and certainly during this past year, continues to be a big issue in all our communities,” Rogers said. “Many communities like Twin (Falls), Burley and Rupert have seen historic growth in new housing construction over the last year and haven’t seen a slowdown even with construction costs skyrocketing.”
“COVID brought new people to our communities and is driving the cost of housing up above the local person’s reach,” St. Germaine said, though she wonders whether it will last. “We are curious if a good Idaho winter will result in an exodus.”
Response to disasters
Largely, rural Idaho has been spared from recent disasters that have plagued other rural communities, such as wildfires, earthquakes and floods.
“The resilience to any disaster, pandemic or other large-scale interruption in the economy is very different between rural and metropolitan areas,” Kamo said.
But while the report didn’t categorize the pandemic and its economic disruption as one of those disasters — it didn’t even rank in the top 10 — that could change, Idaho rural economic development professionals said.
“Overall, I think most of rural Idaho, as well as the metro areas, are faring well, under the circumstances,” Rogers said. “How long that continues depends on what happens next with the pandemic.”
Idaho rural economic development representatives said they hadn’t heard of the organization or the survey before, but said they’d keep an eye out for it in the future. “Hopefully, at the next round, I can help spread the survey to some of the folks in our area as well,” Covcic said. “I certainly think it’s beneficial to have and share this kind of information so we can all be informed.”