When “Economic Developers” Clash With “Economic Development”

Posted on August 19, 2016

Dakota Resources
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Dakota Resources, “Your Town”, And The Tremors Of Indifference

Take a moment to think about your family. If you had to try, what is the economic value of your family in relation to your community? While we think of the quantifiable — money spent, money earned — what about the social value of their presence and involvement? How do we quantify cohesion in communities, the mere act of wanting to be there – of choosing to participate, live, and invest in a sense of “place”?

This week I had the good fortune to participate in two catalytic events in the formation and ongoing crafting of South Dakota economic and community development. The first, a 2-day event titled “RuralX” in Aberdeen – led by Dakota Resources, a rural community development agency working in South Dakota. The second, a court date at one of our county capitals witnessing the second-to-last step of a two-year battle over corporate agribusiness and a rural town. The first, a development entity with the full support of dozens of state agencies. The second, a private business guided by state policy and economic mandate, driving towards a common goal of prosperity for all – except finding conflict in the process.

Both “wave the banner” for economic development in the state, driving forward a “development service” to the state and region – but both inevitably claw each other back from reaching that elusive mountaintop. From sitting in a courtroom somberly watching a wounded and tired community concerned for the future, to being extolled by community development professionals to pursue a vision of community cohesion and immutability – two visions collided.

Through these two experiences, questions arise. How can we develop a path forward when our leadership entities carry forward such counter-weighing narratives? Who dictates sound community and economic development strategy in the state? And, the question in weighing any good case:

Qui Bono?

Who Benefits?


The first event was RuralX – a conference put on by Dakota Resources, a “nonprofit community development organization that stimulates rural communities in South Dakota by strategically supporting rural.” RuralX stands for “rural experience” – defined as a “come as you are convergence of thinkers and doers with a desire to share creative energy, positive motivation, and compelling new ways to ‘ruralize their potential’ in the places they call home.”

Now, my academic training is in the creative economy and the cultural sector. Being a fairly uncommon line of training, I’m always intrigued by spaces where I see the arts and culture meeting people, places where creativity and creatives blur with “everyday life” to the point where one can’t tell anymore where the lines were drawn.

RuralX represented this “fusion” in spades. From Emily Pilloton, a designer who presented on how architecture and design inspired low-income youth in North Carolina, to Becky McCray and Deb Brown from “Saveyour.town” sharing ideas around community innovation and downtown revitalization, to a dynamic Open X discussion format on the second day (the attendees created the breakout sessions), the “creative” mindset flowed through the 2-day event.

The rhythm and hum of the arts and culture integrating with people and community development in places not blessed with strategic resources and advantages was reinforced through this striking event. I was reminded of Jamie Bennett, Executive Director of ArtPlace, a ten-year creative placemaking organization sponsored by a number of foundations, agencies and financial institutions, and his thoughts on the subject:

“Arts and culture are assets that are present in every community. Not every community is on a waterfront, not every community has strong public transportation, and not every community has a hospital or university to anchor it. But every community has people who sing and dance and tell stories.”

Because what are rural communities but the places that certain decisions or natural resource allocations passed over? Successful cities that thrive today often held little tactical advantage over several similar towns in the early 1900’s, but boomed past other communities with the strategic rail decisions made by outside entities. Towns along Highway 81 could’ve had a 4-lane highway running through them, guiding tourists and commuters along a different path, but state policy decisions steered development otherwise. I think it fair to say that the rise and fall of certain communities is not divine providence, but rather the collection of decisions and resources available to a given population.

“Insert Your Town Here”

The situation at RuralX was a stark change from the courtroom I had participated-in earlier in the week in a rural community on the other side of South Dakota. There, a community was seeing a very different conversation around “economic development” coming to its climax and their future determined before their eyes.

Unfortunately, we’re a couple of years off virtual reality so I can’t transport you there, but let’s picture this as your town, and if you live in an urban center, your neighborhood.

Over the past two years, the residents of your town have been engaged in a significant discussion with an agribusiness corporation wanting to develop in close proximity to your town. This agribusiness corporation is “locally-based” in a neighboring town, but was founded in a neighboring state and does a very large majority of its business out-of-state. A proposal has been brought forward by the company for a multi-million chicken, $50+ million proposed plant located outside of your town, and a couple stone’s throw from your local golf course.

The conversation has been extremely contentious, largely driven by the perceived negative byproducts of such a facility, such as insects, smell, and road-use concerns. This has infuriated neighbors with businesses on both sides of the issue and corroded your social circles. The operation and the zoning board decisions have been challenged in-court on your neighbor’s dime, and numerous petitions have been signed and submitted by local residents against the development.

For one South Dakota community, this very scenario came to a head mere hours before the kickoff of the Dakota Resources RuralX event, with a 2.5 million-chicken, $100 million facility being approved unanimously for permit by the zoning board, 2.5 miles outside of a town. Following a process stretching nearly two years beginning in January of 2015, multiple families have opted to move rather than raise their families in the environment, and hundreds have publicly spoken out against the development in emotionally-trying testimony before their community at public court appearances.

Not only did the permit application pass over the objections of neighbors, but the board decision allowed the operation to bypass the required waivers from nearby property owners. This action was allowable since the business had proven “new technology would lessen the impact on them”, allowing the group to bypass state-established setback standards. This new technology was untested by the producer prior to the decision.

The Tremors of Indifference

While the merits of corporate agriculture and economic development can be litigated by others, the social context of these messages should invite discussion. A healthy rural environment in South Dakota thrives on the vitality of its agricultural community. At the same time, the agricultural population relies on thriving and ambitious communities to provide social cohesion and economic focus.

However, in situations like these, the perception of indifference can be as corrosive as the reality. Can we truly expect such an alienating experience for the community not to discourage and hamper community member’s enthusiasm to engage? Who would open a pop-up restaurant on Main Street corner knowing that they could have their event canceled for smell and flies? Who would organize monthly street events under such auspices? Why put the time into renovating a main street historic building when the smell and flies drives people away and erodes downtown commerce? And, even if those negative outcomes do not come to fruition, has the mere thought and fear of the thing, and the pain of the situation, discouraged that effort?

Small-town development is lonely, hard-driving work for the perseverant. Entrepreneurism, while seemingly an emerging “trendy” aspiration, is one of the most emotionally-draining and challenging endeavors I have witnessed. If indeed downtown revitalization can be catalyzed by the ideas Saveyour.town and the speakers at RuralX presented, how do we rationalize this as community builders and leaders? If in fact one has compromised the community, the passion of its residents, the drive to think creatively, to take risks, to believe in the town’s identity, what is the cost?

This has, of course, been a controversial issue for the past several years, and corporate agriculture has had its opponents and supporters. Every situation is unique. But when a community perceives a threat, it becomes the responsibility of all to take notice. We can’t quantify “passion”. We can’t quantify a community’s sense of “pride” and “ownership”. One person or one person’s energy is tough to put a dollar tag on. But for a rural town dancing along the knife’s edge of rural viability that many rural towns skirt, it is a dangerous game.

You cannot quantify discouragement. You can’t quantify depression. You can’t quantify two years of hardship and stress. You can’t quantify tipping that scale in a rural community towards despair.

One thing is clear. While we feign unity, the toughest discussions amongst our community and economic development professionals are still yet to be had.

And so, 200 miles to the north, a community and economic development entity stands in front of a crowd and steadfastly encourages community leaders to innovate, that their effort is worth the trouble, to bring in voices from the fringes of their community.

Meanwhile, a rural community must repair the scars of a two-year battle and ask themselves if this is all really worth the trouble. And, underneath it all, a quiet chorus murmurs a quiet question:

Qui Bono?

Who Benefits?

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