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This case study describes how a struggling rural region in Illinois overcame years of socioeconomic decline by using collaboration and broadband connectivity to help them compete in the 21st Century global economy. The approach used in this region, called the VE Journey, has been employed successfully in a number of other rural regions throughout the country and the lessons learned here can be used to achieve similar results elsewhere.
With the collapse of the coal mining industry, the 20 largely rural counties comprising Southern Illinois (SI) had experienced decades of declining socioeconomic conditions. The area suffered from a sense of despair and a divisive mindset that prevented it from developing innovative solutions that took advantage of its many unique resources. Silo-vision, limited broadband connectivity, insufficient visionary leadership and youth brain drain all combined to make it difficult to compete in the new global, knowledge-based economy of the 21st Century, where competitors were no longer neighboring counties or states but the world at large. Further, many residents had become cynical and too willing to accept mediocrity after years of failed initiatives.
That mindset began to change in 2004, when ViTAL Economy (VE), an organization that has successfully employed a unique approach to rural economic development in many other regions, began an engagement with Southern Illinois Coal Belt Champion Communities, Inc., which served portions of three counties in SI. With VE’s support, the region recognized how urgent its situation was and began to look at ways to work collaboratively to address critical issues, such as limited broadband coverage and imbalanced healthcare delivery, by leveraging its unique resources and assets.
By 2006, regional leaders created what ultimately became Connect Southern Illinois (Connect SI), an independent convener that fosters collaborative initiatives in the 20 southernmost counties of Illinois. Connect SI is the first regional community economic development (CED) initiative to unify this 20-county region around a consistent, measurable CED strategy with a set of common goals. With a new mindset and structure in place to support collaboration, in five years the region has made great strides. It has met its goals to expand broadband (BB) penetration and usage; improve healthcare access, delivery, jobs and wages; reduce chronic disease; promote youth leadership and retention; and improve tourism and sustainability.
In the first five years, BB coverage in SI increased from 25% to 75% and BB adoption from 12% to 45% of adults, enabled by $175 million private & public sector investments in new broadband infrastructure. Over $100 million in annual healthcare spending lost annually to neighboring states has been recovered, which has dramatically improved access to specialty health services. By working cooperatively, the region also enhanced its ability to attract private investment, grant funding, and entrepreneurs. As a result, it has gone from being an ignored region of the state to a model of regional collaboration for other areas of Illinois and beyond. This case study examines the factors behind this success and the remaining challenges that continue to be faced by Sl.
For more information or to learn how VE’s unique community economic development approach can work for your region, contact VE or call 410-321-1484.