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Released April 7, 2004

By David Tisdale

HATTIESBURG -- A variety of challenges facing rural America will require a commitment to adapt to change in order for people living in these areas to enjoy a productive, stable life, both socially and economically.

That message was the focus of a presentation titled "21st-Century Trends and Rural America" made Wednesday by Dr. David Freshwater, director of graduate studies for agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky, during the 2004 Mississippi Rural Development Conference at the Hattiesburg Lake Terrace Convention Center.

Freshwater was among many expert presenters at the conference, which was co-sponsored by The University of Southern Mississippi's Center for International and Continuing Education and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Social, political and economic issues that challenge rural America demand that new ways of thinking be embraced by rural economic and political leaders. "The rural respect for (values of) the past makes change hard to embrace," Freshwater said, citing a tradition of independence in rural culture.

Widening gaps between rich and poor, a growing immigrant population and increasing challenges posed by illegal drugs in rural communities are just some of the issues that are changing the pastoral view of rural America, held by both its residents and outsiders. In addition, the increasing loss of manufacturing jobs in rural communities, along with the declining role of agriculture, are forcing government and economic development leaders to seek new ways to produce jobs.

What a community can produce and a market to whom the product can be sold are the two primary questions that should be answered in an economic development strategy in rural communities.

Making rural areas attractive to industry with updated, quality infrastructure is also a key to improving an area's economic health, said Dr. Clifton Dixon, chair of the Southern Miss Department of Geography.

"Transportation and infrastructure are critical to the economic success of rural areas," Dixon said. "If your county or rural region is not being professionally maintained or developed with updated transportation systems and infrastructure, then you are at a disadvantage. Companies won't consider you as an ideal location (for business)."

To make an economic development strategy work, partnerships are necessary, and maximizing the resources of local governments through such partnerships can help produce positive results, Freshwater said.

"At the end of the day, community development and economic development are two sides of the same coin," Freshwater said. "You have to look forward. You have to look to the future."


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM