Virtual Conference Touches on Rural Opportunities, Challenges During Pandemic | WGLT

Virtual Conference Touches on Rural Opportunities, Challenges During Pandemic

Mar 1, 2021

Norm Walzer moderated a program on rural policy at the 32nd annual Rural Affairs Conference last Thursday by the Illinois Institute of Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University.

That’s only natural—Walzer started the event over three decades ago. The institute’s director emeritus said the program is designed to help rural communities across Illinois.

“We wanted to get the best minds from across the country to help Illinois deal with rural challenges. We have continued that approach all 32 years,” he said.

This year the conference, was held virtually—due to the pandemic--with speakers Zooming in from different parts of the country.

There are programs originating in Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Arizona—even Manchester, England.

“This year we have eight or nine states represented among the speakers but the main focus is rural Illinois,” said Walzer.

The first conferences focused on the impact of the farm crisis of the 1980s, he said. Now it’s technology.

“Larger centers are growing because of technology. If you have access to the internet, you can do better than if you don’t,” said Walzer.

“Intermediate-sized communities like Dixon, Illinois (population 15,000) are developing as hubs for regional activity. We’ve seen small communities in Illinois looking at building or adopting systems to attract remote workers,” he said.

Among other issues facing rural Illinois are transitioning from an aging population, the issue of loneliness and maintaining rural medical care, said Walzer.

The population exodus from rural America to cities, a trend that’s continued for years, is dependent on location, he said. “In southern Illinois, you’ll probably see population declines more than in the northern part of the state where rural areas are closer to population centers,” said Walzer.

But, after 32 years, Walzer’s still optimistic. “Every crisis offers opportunity,” he said, pointing to concepts like the Minnesota small-town grocery store with no employees, one of the programs at this year’s conference.

“You use a key card to access a small store for goods much like the Amazon store model used at airports,” said Walzer.

As for the speaker from England, he’ll be talking about efforts to save rural pubs that have been closing as proprietors retire.

This year’s conference, while slimmed down and online, will draw more than last year’s that was held face to face in February 2020, said institute director Chris Merrett.

At $25, the cost allows for more involvement, he said. “We’re selling ideas,” said Merrett.

The pandemic has hit the United States hard but no one knows that better than those living in rural America.

That was just one of the points made at the recent Rural Community and Economic Development Conference held annually by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University.

“You didn’t need a pandemic to underscore the problem of broadband in rural America,” said Arthur Scott of the National Association of Counties based in Washington, D.C.

In a Zoom presentation made Thursday at the conference, held virtually for the first time in 32 years, Scott said the digital divide, the term used to describe the imbalance between urban and rural communities regarding internet speeds and options, was highlighted in 2020 as the country struggled to contend with the coronavirus.

Telehealth, emergency response, education, working from home, ecommerce, obtaining general information and collecting data for the census all involve online access, he said.

“If you don’t have access to the internet, you’re basically left in the dark,” said Scott, adding that 77 percent of counties across the country fail to meet minimum standards for internet use established by the Federal Communications Commission.

In an effort to correct the disparity the association developed a report in 2020 to establish connectivity speeds and costs across the nation, he said.

“Better data was needed. Companies were overstating coverage so the federal government was underfunding the need,” said Scott.

The report showed how “significantly underserved all America really is,” he said.

An educational program is also important to raise interest in internet use in some rural areas, said Scott, noting that high-school students served as mentors for seniors in one outreach effort.

Thursday’s conference also featured a suggestion by Tony Pipa of the Bookings Institute that a separate rural affairs department be developed in Washington rather than maintaining exclusively through the Department of Agriculture.

“President Biden has talked about rebuilding the rural middle class,” said Pipa.

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