This column appeared in the Springfield News-Leader on July 26, 2016. You can read it on their website here.
“Where is the grass greenest?”
“Where it’s watered.”
This spin on an old adage is something Hrishue Mahalaha, Senior Partner for JumpStart Inc., likes to say when helping groups focus on the most important priorities. It was particularly apt last week, when Mahalaha and Josh Borstein presented a slew of data and research in Sarcoxie, Salem and Marshfield, the three communities participating in the CFO’s inaugural Growth in the Rural Ozarks program.
JumpStart received more than 500 community surveys (nearly 300 from Salem alone) and conducted one-on-one interviews with scores of local stakeholders across the three cities. The purpose was to identify the challenges facing these towns through the eyes of residents and business owners.
Across the board, a lack of well-paying jobs, weak community support for existing businesses, quality housing and quality-of-life issues (particularly for younger residents) were cited as concerns. These are themes that are likely familiar to anyone living in a small to mid-size city. But the research allowed strengths to emerge as well, including the fact that rural places are predisposed to have, and support, local businesses, which was a primary objective among many survey respondents.
As Mahalaha pointed out, 80 to 90 percent of all “master plans” wind up gathering dust on a shelf soon after completion. That’s because a full-community perspective is rarely gathered. GRO — funded by the CFO, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development and the participating cities — seeks to harness that collaborative power to bring jobs and sustainable economic growth.
Solving the puzzle requires conversation and elbow grease; it’s not a simple equation. In coming months JumpStart staff and the steering committees in each town will prioritize goals. For example, local internship programs for students and those returning to the workforce, as well as support for an effort to build a second I-44 overpass in Marshfield, already have been discussed with an eye on instituting pilot programs to begin this fall.
Expect to see more green grass in Marshfield, Salem and Sarcoxie very soon.
Matt Lemmon is Media Director for the Community Foundation of the Ozarks.