Rural America: think regionally; act locally

Communities of Excellence 2026 is pleased to share a six part blog series by our National Learning Collaborative pilot cohort communities.  Today we begin with a post from Max Summers and Steve Wenger, representing the Northwest Missouri Regional Vitaltiy Initiative.  This initiative is part of the broader, regional focus to two of our communities:  Brookfield/Marceline and Maryville, Missouri who are part of this vision to think regionally; and act locally.

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Like many rural areas, Northwest Missouri (NWMO) is a special place where the people are connected with their neighbors in a way that translates into “respect for” and “concern about” each other.  Children grow up with the freedom to be children, to explore and learn about the world around them. Many who left NWMO after high school look back on their childhood memories with great fondness and asked, “Can I give my children a similar experience”.

Research shows that about 40% of those who leave rural communities actually explore the possibility of returning for the sake of their children. When they look at NWMO they see quality schools, a workforce that is both talented and hardworking, a great quality of life for those that value the outdoors lifestyle, but they have difficulty to finding the needed support and networks to translate their skill and talent into economic viability. Brookfield, Missouri even set up a formal program tracking those who moved away so they could communicate and encourage them to come back home, which has been relatively successful.

Unfortunately, the economic opportunities do not always allow them to make the desired decisions. Rural NWMO is a way of life worth saving and protecting, but to do that the economics of the area must be rethought and transformed to the 21st century economy. Some argue natural economics should be allowed to take its course, however, that is not a thoughtful response as rural communities can compete, but in order to do that the region must reorganize around leadership that uses system thinking to help communities connect and plan together. This effort is bigger than NWMO or preserving rural America’s way of life, as is really about preserving the middle class.

As indicated above, our local-regional leadership has been handicapped by the lack of an appropriate structure to support regional decision-making processes cross sectorially. As a result, NWMO has unintentionally pushed away our local risk takers and innovators because of limited resources available to start, grow and develop their good customer-citizen problem solving ideas, services and businesses. Today’s innovation-based economic ecosystem is made up of quality workforce, recruitment, innovation networks and support for growing business through entrepreneurship and clustering, (clustering defined as: “similar and related firms in a defined geographic area that share common markets, technologies, work skill needs, and are often linked by buyer-seller relationship”).

Middle class has always been the backbone of rural American, but it is shrinking.  Rural communities need to move toward leadership that uses system thinking in order for communities within the region to identify their commonalities, key drivers and strategies. This will enable the region to focus and work together to amass the needed resources, talent, and networks to create shared value. Aligning decisions, engaging the right people and empowering them to work for the benefit of the region has the potential to transform the region economically, while preserving both the middle class and the quality of life.

We believe there is a way, so the Northwest Missouri Regional Vitality Initiative has stepped up to support area leaders in ensuring the region’s economic competitiveness. The initiative will use a performance excellence approach called “Communities of Excellence 2026”, which is based on leadership and management principles developed by the National Quality Award Program, aka Baldrige Performance Excellence Framework. These principles guide the initiative in aligning sectors, like businesses, schools, and government, so communities can begin to effect change.

The result will be a focus on the right things, so overtime NWMO can work toward success. It is clear there is not a silver bullet or project that will fully address rural issues, but the “Communities of Excellence 2026” process will bring focus on those issues most important to drive the enhanced competitiveness of the region and ultimately preserve the middle class quality of life so treasured by its people.

By Max Summers and Steve Wenger

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