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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Innovative programs aim to help small-town kids learn they can consider coming home

The rural Illinois town of Effingham, which might legitimately claim the title of mecca of rural economic development, and the farming-rich region of Skagit County in Washington State are nurturing programs that may help small towns send their best and brightest off for a time with the message that Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again.

 

In fact, a program called Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (CEO) a business person-student mentorship match that was born in Effingham as the creation of retired teacher Craig Lindvahl, is aimed at guiding students to the conviction that they want to go home after college, the military or see-the-world urge.

 

"When you successfully engage your business community, encouraging them to share their expertise with your next generation of business owners, connecting them with young people who want to know what your business people know, incredible things happen," says Lindvahl.

 

"You'll create a community that will make your students want to come back and start businesses, work, and raise families," adds Lindvahl, with the rhetorical question: "what's the most effective and cost efficient way to approach long-term economic development?   Grow your own!"

 

The reach of the CEO message is enhanced by the fact that Lindvahl's partner in an effort that is attracting the interest of a broad range of communities is Jack Schultz, widely recognized by development leaders in smaller communities around the country as the guru of rural economic development.

 

Lindvahl and Schultz, whose book Boomtown USA charted the rules for how small towns can become success stories, have been asked to make presentations about CEO over the past six weeks in communities from Montana to Georgia.

 

Meanwhile, in Washington State's Skagit County, which boasts land that is rated in the top 2 percent in the world for agricultural use, the Viva Farms Incubator Program is proving that young people from rural areas can be lured not just back home, but back to the farm.

 

The four-year-old Viva Farms project, aimed at preserving the region's exceptional farmland in the face of intense development pressure, is one of numerous programs that have sprouted to help train and provide financial assistance to a new wave of farmers.

 

While Viva Farms and similar programs that havw sprouted in

other regions are primarily attracting immigrants and young people with non-farming backgrounds, there is a growing interest for children of old farmers who are returning to the family farm with fresh ideas.

 

Spurred by the designation from the American Farmland Trust for Skagit County as the fifth most threatened agricultural region in the nation, creators of the incubator program set out to provide new farmers affordable access to education that includes land and infrastructure, training and technical assistance, start-up loans and distribution support.

 

Whether next-generation farmers, immigrants or non-farm young people, those involved in the incubator farm program being carried out on 33 acres leased from the Port of Skagit are pursuing farm careers as a means to embody their social, cultural, environmental and economic values, according to creators of the program.

 

With the incubator in its first development phase, including completion of the first bilingual courses on sustainable farming and "agricultural entrepreneurship," there are already thoughtsabout expanding the reach of the program.

 

Ethan Schaffer, executive director of Viva Farms and founder of the now-international Growfood.org, whose mission is to train a new generation of sustainable farmers and to reconnect people with farms, says other communities have reached out to get an assist to launch Viva Farm-like programs in regions across Washington State and beyond.

 

Schaffer notes that the back-to-the-farm segment of the "student" farmers "have different values, goals and motivation in their desire to return to farming."

  

Dramatic expansion is precisely what Lindvahl and Schultz have as the vision for their business person-student CEO program.

 

Both men are classic examples of small-town boys make good. Schultz was born and raised in the small communityof Teutopolis a few miles from 14,000-population Effingham, located in south center Illinois, and Lindvahl, although born about 50 miles from Effingham, spent his teaching career primarily in Schultz' home town.

 

Schultz is CEO of Agracel Inc., a growing firm that specializes in industrial development in small towns, and is chairman of Effingham-based Midland States Bank, a one-time small-town bank that has grown five-fold through expansion and acquisition to $2.5 billion during the past five years of financial turmoil. It is now the third largest bank in Illinois based outside Chicago and is about to go public.

 

His role as CEO of Agracel, which he founded more than a quarter century ago, led him to explore the roots of rural prosperity, commencing in 2000 a three-year quest to learn what made America's hometowns tick.

 

The research gleaned during his travels to small towns across the country led to publication of Boomtown USA: The 7 ½ Keys to Big Success in Small Towns, in which he sought to answer the question of why some towns thrive and some struggle. Publication of Boomtown USA made him probably the nation's most sought-after speaker on rural economic development over the past decade.

 

The book is in its fourth printing and since its publication Schultz has traveled to nearly 400 communities to give presentationsdesigned to help America's hometowns realize their greatest potential.

 

But Schultz is careful, as he discusses the CEO speaking tour, not to upstage Lindvahl, whom he takes pains to credit with having conceived and crafted the CEO mentoring concept, then recruiting him.

 

And Lindvahl passion about CEO is evident as he enthuses about what happens when students have opportunities to learn from and interact with "lots of local business people. you change the way kids perceive their home communities. They go from 'There's nothing here for me' to "I had no idea there were so many cool businesses, so many cool people in this town!'"

 

My relationship with Schultz is one that only could have come about in the Internet era as we "met" almost five years ago when I discovered his then-daily Boomtown Blog. I emailed him a Harp I had done and he asked to be added to the list of recipients

 

Since then he has been a source at various times for Harps on banking or rural economic development and, in fact, it was reaching out to him for the column last week on Global Entrepreneurship and rural economic development that led to this week's Harp.

 

And for this Harp, I asked him if, as his bank grows byacquisitions, he still holds the view he shared with me for a column a couple of years ago about his "continuing and growing concern about the concentration of assets in the hands of a handful of bankers."

 

 "I feel that there is an ever growing need for community banks, even as we continue to see a massive consolidation taking place in the industry that has gone from 14,000 banks in the mid-'80s to less than 6,000 today," he replied. .

 

"The local banks are often the only source of capital for startup businesses and having that local understanding of the community is critical to making the capital allocation decisions to help those new entrepreneurs get started," Schultz added.

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