People filling out paperwork on a desk

Rural communities throughout Illinois and across the nation struggle to maintain population, jobs, and schools. The COVID-19 pandemic created even more challenges; however, a collaborative group of community leaders in Fulton County was already at work addressing the challenges, positioning their communities for growth through the challenges. That advance work helped obtain state and federal funding support, that yielded four grants worth more than $8 million.

A well-documented plan is a valuable tool that can be leveraged for growth and development in a community or region, says Kathie Brown, Extension educator serving Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell counties. The collaboration used proven methods to help leaders gather information, analyze data, assess options, and develop action plans. In the end, Fulton County communities, with Extension's guidance, garnered more than $8 million in grants to support local projects. 

Securing such a sizable investment for local growth and development required hard work and a network of partners. Over six months, local leaders worked with USDA’s Rural Economic Development Innovation (REDI) Initiative and Extension teams to create a strategic, comprehensive plan for bringing resources into the local economy. This multifaceted effort was supported by a rich data gathering process, a network of committed local and state partners, and a two-day planning process made possible by REDI. 

“The REDI initiative provided intensive technical assistance, data support, and facilitation,” says Brown. “Working with Extension connects communities to a nationwide network of land grant university expertise, in this case state extension specialists from Purdue University, University of Kentucky, in addition to University of Illinois. The work also linked Illinois communities with USDA Rural Development’s national network of expertise.” 

Broadband connectivity: A $3.1 million Connect Illinois grant, awarded to Century Enterprises, Inc., will expand broadband accessibility to 581 households, businesses, farms and anchor institutions in Fulton, Peoria, and Knox Counties.  

Safety net for small businesses: The Spoon River Partnership for Economic Development received a $90,000 grant from USDA Rural Business Development to establish a revolving loan fund to support businesses in the Canton area. 

Workforce training programs: Spoon River College secured a $4 million U.S. Economic Development Administration grant to enhance career and technical programs for local workforce development. 

Educational facilities: The U.S. Commerce Department also awarded Spoon River College a $1.5 million grant through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The funds will support investment in modern training equipment and a renovation of the college’s Vocational & Technical Education Center. The CARES grant is expected to create 275 jobs, retain 125 jobs, and generate $500,000 in private investment.  

Extension's work engaging a wide range of partners in planning helps community leaders focus on success. But the leaders and residents in the communities do the heavy lifting. 

“Locally grown strategies will guide county economic development and improve outcomes and overall quality of life,” Brown says. “These Fulton County projects show how, working together, stakeholders can create the environment needed to achieve local and regional economic prosperity.” 

 

Snapshot Hard Copy

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kathie Brown, University of Illinois Extension Community and Economic Development educator {retired June 2021} As a community and economic development educator, Kathie Brown works with community leaders, government officials, volunteer groups, small business owners, and others to help communities become stronger and more economically viable. She focuses on leadership and organizational development; local government education and relations; economic development strategies; participatory community planning/visioning processes; group process facilitation; collaboration and partnership building; public issue education; and understanding, using, and developing data.

Brown works with organizations and local governments to help them: (1) analyze and understand their needs, (2) identify alternative courses of action, (3) make informed decisions, (4) plan for the future, and (5) evaluate their development efforts.

Kathie has worked for Extension for almost 40 years, contributing to programs related to community health, digital literacy, STEAM education, and more.

This position focuses on the core skill areas of strategic planning, community leadership skills, data for decision making, needs assessment, and collaboration. Programmatic areas are leadership development, education for economic development, public policy education, and data/information and referral services.

ABOUT EXTENSION SNAPSHOTS

Extension Snapshots are monthly impact reports that share the stories of our programs in Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell counties. To have them delivered to you directly sign up using our E-blast registration.