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Pilot program grant to strengthen Illinois 'Southern Five' rural economies

URBANA, Ill. –  University of Illinois Extension announces the selection of a multi-county region in Illinois for participation in CREATE BRIDGES, a program designed to build up rural economies. CREATE BRIDGES was recently launched in Illinois, New Mexico, and North Carolina with the help of a $2,041,330 grant from Walmart to the Southern Rural Development Center

As part of this innovative initiative, Illinois Extension will receive a subaward from the Southern Rural Development Center to pilot a process to help rural communities build capacity for strengthening the retail, tourism, hospitality, and entertainment sectors, which provide jobs and business opportunities that frequently boost rural economies and have been notably impacted by COVID-19. CREATE BRIDGES provides opportunities to customize implementation according to community needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The grant's efforts will be in the five most southern counties in Illinois: Alexander, Johnson, Massac, Pulaski, and Union.

“CREATE BRIDGES offers an exciting opportunity to build upon our work with Stronger Economies Together to assist a rural region in identifying and implementing strategies to support retail and hospitality, which are often key drivers of the region’s economy” says Susan Odum, Illinois Extension community and economic development specialist.   

“The Southern Five region was chosen for its clear desire to grow their tourism and retail industries as well as their demonstrated commitment to CREATE businesses,” Odum says. “The region is known for its scenic beauty, outdoor recreation, historic sites, state parks, orchards, wineries, restaurants and unique lodging facilities.”

A diverse group of regional partners and industry stakeholders representing education, local government, non-profit, banking, business development, retail, accommodations, tourism and entertainment will work together to strengthen the retail and hospitality industry, which is vital to the region’s economic well-being, Odum says.

Generally, the retail sector in rural communities often fills local needs and serves as an entry point for new workers. However, entry level workers do not always understand the career paths available that would allow them to move up or train for supervisory and management roles. 

Odum will work with state and regional partners to: facilitate a CREATE academy for regional leaders; develop a business retention and expansion program; coordinate with regional workforce investment boards to identify opportunities for workforce training focused on incumbent and new workers; and identify workforce solutions to retain workers and promote from within

CREATE BRIDGES team includes Alison Davis, University of Kentucky’s Community Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky; Stacey McCullough, University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service’s Community, Professional and Economic Development; Sara Siems, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service; Becky Bowen, North Carolina State Extension; Michael Patrick, New Mexico State Cooperative Extension; Susan Odum, Illinois Extension; and Rachel Welborn and Grace Langford, Southern Rural Development Center.

CREATE BRIDGES builds upon Stronger Economies Together, a collaborative effort across 32 states, led by the Southern Rural Development Center that helps rural counties work together to develop and implement an economic development plan for their multi-county region.

For more information, visit CREATE BRIDGES Illinois or contact Odum at

SOURCE: Susan Odum is an Illinois Extension specialist in Community and Economic Development, specializing in community development and planning. She graduated summa cum laude from Southern Illinois University Carbondale with a master of business administration. She received nationally recognized certification as a professional community and economic developer from the Community Development Council. Her office is in Marion.

ABOUT ILLINOIS EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.