An Interview with Robin Fahle Ohlgren
Whitman County Director of Southeast Washington Economic Development Association (SEWEDA)
What do you think are the three biggest challenges for smaller communities in rural areas?
In years past, as small communities started to lose their traditional industries and heritage resulting in mass exodus for lack of opportunities, the challenges were loss of services, fear of change, insular thinking and identity crises. Today. the challenges are the eroding strain on leaderships’ ability to implement ideas as “volunteer fatigue” sets in, decaying infrastructure, and re-enlivening or creating identities that can inspire residents. Most communities have plenty of ideas — it’s a matter of organizing those ideas into achievable portions and timelines.
Facilitated “community conversations” are an effective way to refocus a community’s vision and distribute tasks. I model these dialogues loosely on “world or knowledge cafés”, and incorporate many design thinking principles. When the town of LaCrosse (population 313) asked me to lead an evening community conversation, no one expected 65 residents to show up. They now have six active committees that are addressing the town’s needs, have engaged residents to participate, and are making things happen.
Can businesses and mentors of urban areas help smaller rural communities?
Absolutely. Urban entrepreneurs do not have a patent on startup businesses. Recent surveys in Washington and nationally indicate that businesses are more likely to succeed if they have a mentor. And mentorship shows up as being more important than access to capital to rural entrepreneurs. Outside help is most welcomed if they come to listen first before pronouncing or delivering assistance. And while urbanites can get caught up in the notion that smaller communities always benefit from a neighboring vibrant urban area, the reverse—small towns reciprocating with their own cultural gifts — is equally true. The Department of Commerce is working on a program as part of their Startup 365 Washington that includes urban mentors working with rural entrepreneurs and students.
Does regional economic development thinking generate more durable outcomes than more conventional narrowly focused activities?
A resounding yes. It makes no sense to do it any other way. Regional collaboration is essential and far more satisfying than competitive efforts locked in agency silos. Together we can leverage each other’s strengths, partner on initiatives, and share increasingly diminishing resources for mutual gains. Be the Entrepreneur Bootcamp, an intensive, five-day training for startup and early-stage companies, would not be possible without the cooperative effort by the regional Palouse Knowledge Corridor. This impressive collaboration involves dedicated commitments from individuals at two universities in two states, along with the chambers, cities, economic development agencies, counties, and businesses on both sides of the Washington-Idaho border. Launched in June 2014, the impact of the first boot camp has resulted in strong, early corporate and agency support for next year’s event.
Do you sense the providing of education and technical support for entrepreneurs is making a difference for people and for improving economic change?
Small enterprises have the best chance for success in our rural towns and can make significant contributions to the business environment, citizenry, and schools within the local economy. Smaller communities of our state have a rich entrepreneurial legacy and anything we can do to encourage that spirit of innovation and develop it into operating companies will make a difference. The Avista Center for Entrepreneurship at Walla Walla Community College Clarkston offers a comprehensive program that can be completed in just six months. Their hands-on curriculum is designed specifically for emerging entrepreneurs — providing the knowledge, skills, tools, mentoring, and resource network to greatly enhance the viability of your startup business. A few months ago they graduated almost 20 entrepreneurs from the region many of whom have already started their businesses and are making money. Once again, the Department of Commerce’s Startup 365 Washington strategy is focused on education and technical support for rural and underserved areas to assist entrepreneurs. . Avista and the Department of Commerce understand that entrepreneurship is as important to job creation as business recruitment and should be funded accordingly.
How would you describe the role of leadership in economic development work?
lways show up, listen, then ask questions. Be authentic and curious, network, get to know the hard working people in the region and partner with them. Repeat. One of the most effective tools I have for discovering the real concerns of our small towns, is the quarterly Mayors Roundtable. Communities take turns hosting the catered dinner meeting, and the roundtable discussions create partnerships among key leaders who don’t get enough opportunity to hear how neighboring towns are solving problems.
Is using psychology, as different from technical assistance, a useful part of economic development work?
Building relationships that lead to increasing the capacity of everyone grows more reason for hope. That is as important, if not more so, than the subsequent delivery of valuable technical assistance. This doesn’t have to be complicated if we can build on established values and traditions. The small town of Palouse has cultivated a vibrant art community, and one of its downtown cafés host a regular “open mic” music night. What a perfect place to launch an Open Mic Ideation Event during GEW later this month. As a nod to the town’s emphasis on art, we are bringing in a graphic recorder to “draw” the conversation.