WATCH: Leadership, strong process touted as essential building blocks for economic transitions at Rural West Initiative workshop

NOTE: All workshop sessions are available for viewing on WGA’s YouTube channel.

Keynoter Ben Alexander emphasized strong leadership and a good process as important building blocks for western rural communities to successfully diversify their economies at the final workshop of the Reimagining the Rural West Initiative.

Alexander focused on transitions attempted by communities with traditionally energy-focused economies in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. The Senior Program Advisor for Resources Legacy Fund said that research did not turn up one specific approach to achieve success. He noted, however, that communities should first focus on “where to play” economically when trying to diversify their economy before determining “how to win in that space.”

The keynoter also described a “change framework” that communities can use to determine their economic options, while emphasizing the importance of strong local leadership in developing a vision and strategy to achieve success. (Learn more in the report, Understanding Economic Transitions in Energy-Focused Communities.)


WGA Executive Director Jim Ogsbury opened the first day by noting the international crisis that required hosting the final workshop for the Initiative online. Ogsbury also highlighted the extraordinary work being done by Governors, who are battling to confront the enormous health challenge and also aid the recovery of their states.

See other highlights from the workshop below. Click session titles to view recordings of each panel.

Day 1 Recap:

Rural Water Infrastructure: This panel examined the complexities of water and wastewater systems in rural contexts and profiled success stories in financing improvements and solving operational challenges.

“People tend to assume that access to water and sanitation is only a problem in low-income countries, and regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, when in fact, at least 2.2 million Americans face these issues.” -George McGraw

Panelists: Adam Denlinger, General Manager, Seal Rock Water District; David Flesher, Community Programs Specialist, Rural Utilities Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture; George McGraw, CEO, DigDeep; Ari Neumann, Director of Community & Environmental Services, RCAC.

Rural Banking and Access to Credit: This panel investigated the impact of banking changes and explored efforts to increase the flow of capital to rural communities.

“Even with advancements in technology, rural entrepreneurs do value coming together in-person in addition to utilizing online platforms. Connection is important, especially in rural communities.” -Lisa Smith

Panelists: Elsie Meeks, Board of Trustees Chair, Native American Agriculture Fund; Lisa Smith, Executive Director, Washington State Microenterprise Association; Anthony Tarnasky, SVP, Commercial Banking Team Lead, Columbia Bank.

Innovative Solutions for Attainable Housing: This panel looked at pilot projects in Oregon and innovative models from other states to identify replicable solutions to housing challenges across the rural West.

"There is a lot of goodwill and resources out there, but they’re not connected. Bringing together private sector experts and policymakers can help bridge the gap between demand and resources." -Natalie Spencer-Clair

Panelists: Hermina Harold, Executive Director, Trust Montana; Kim Travis, Housing Integrator, Oregon Housing & Community Services; Miles Nowlin, Housing Co-op Development Specialist, Northwest Cooperative Development Center; Natalie Spencer-Clair, Founder, APX1.

Day 2 Recap:

Broadband Collaboration: Panelists explored how communities are assembling broad coalitions to work toward the shared goal of broadband access.

"We need to stop funding programs at the state and federal levels that don’t build scalable infrastructure. We need networks that can capably handle the uses that we can’t even imagine today." -Russ Elliott

Panelists: Russ Elliott, Director, Washington State Broadband Office; Carrie Pipinich, Senior Project Manager, Mid-Columbia Economic Development District.

Trends in Western Agriculture: This panel highlighted how young farmers and ranchers, women, veterans and minorities are changing agriculture in the West.

"Over the last three to four years, net income for farms has decreased by about 50%. What would it look like in your household if you took your income and chopped it in half?" -Dave Dillon

Panelists: Dave Dillon, Executive Vice President, Oregon Farm Bureau; Willie Hines, Chief Operating Officer, Farmer Veteran Coalition; Christopher Mertz, Regional Director, National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Alan Sams, Reub Long Dean and Director, College of Agricultural Sciences, Oregon State University.

Managing Wildfire Risk in Rural Communities: This panel examined of how communities can mitigate risks of wildfire and prepare residents and businesses for post-wildfire scenarios.

"Community well-being and natural resource management are closely related. The actions we take to prepare for wildfire help us address other community issues." -Cassandra Moseley

Panelists: John Giller, Director of Fire, Fuels & Aviation, Region 6, U.S. Forest Service; Cassandra Moseley, Research Professor, Institute for a Sustainable Environment, University of Oregon; Will Smith, Senior Planner, Wasco County.

Reimagining the Rural West Initiative is the Chairman's Initiative of WGA Chair and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. The work of the Initiative includes examining challenges and opportunities in western rural economic development, infrastructure and quality of life. Watch previous Initiative workshops held in North Dakota, New Mexico and Idaho.

For more information on the WGA Chairman’s Initiative, please contact WGA Policy Advisor Lauren DeNinno at (720) 897-4536 or [email protected]. To support the Initiative, please contact WGA Director of Development, Sarah Olsen at (720) 897-4540 or [email protected]. 

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