4 Rural Reflections from Phoenix and Tampa

February 26, 2024

Recently, I attended two national engagements: the Economic Leadership Conference in Phoenix, AZ; and the NTCA Rural Telecom Industry Meeting & EXPO (RTIME) in Tampa, FL. Both engagements revealed new insights into the nexus between rural broadband and rural economic development. Basically, in what ways can technology (broadband included) improve our rural economies and in what ways can communities utilize broadband, technology, etc. for development?

But more, both meetings emphasized the critical role of community institutions. From how we educate and skill our kids, to how we can make an economy out of leisure, to how we farm, to making the right laws so that society is conducive to economic growth, and how we can innovate – reimagining bold possibilities in everything we do.

While deploying broadband, as Nex-Tech does, is important, we also need other factors and economic activities to be in place for it to be an effective driver. As I spent time reflecting in Phoenix and Tampa, I reasoned 4 themes that if we get right, could uplift our region, and position us for investments and the growth we seek. I divided them into elements that we could control, and elements we may not be able to control.

What We Could Control

1. Education
Education in its traditional sense has changed. As Mark Perna, one of the keynote speakers at the IEDC Conference, said, we have to move education from its traditional sense to a system that produces people with a competitive advantage: robust academic knowledge, technical competencies, and professional skills. In other words, are we producing young professionals who have exactly what the market is looking for? When we assess our K-12 system and our higher institutions of learning, are they designed to produce the kinds of professionals relevant to the economy we want to see in western Kansas? People are the most important factor in creating any change in a society and we ought to pay attention to the kinds of people our system is producing.

2. Reimagining Western Kansas

Western Kansas can be, and indeed is, more than just agriculture, food processing, and energy. We have rolling hills, lush prairies, and lakes with potential for expanding tourism. We have good universities, technical colleges, and community colleges. We have comparatively safe communities and are welcoming to families. We can become a place where people come to for peace of mind or a retreat. We are in the middle of the country and could become a hub for transportation. We have ethical and hardworking people, who can be great managers of investments and businesses. All these are ingredients the experts can further distill and finetune, and we can define our place in the global economy.

What We May Not Be Able to Control

3. The Future
One thing is certain, there is going to be a future whether we are prepared for it or not. The question of meeting the demands of the future or envisioning what the future might look like is perhaps one of the most difficult questions to answer. But we can identify starting points like:

  • What is the future of agriculture in our region?
  • What is the future of both renewable and legacy energy industries?
  • What is the future of the beef industry?
  • How will artificial intelligence change how people and businesses operate?
  • Are there bold ways to attract investments to our communities?
  • How can our community survive as we go into the 21st century?

To innovate, we must ask ourselves both tough and easy questions like:

  • Is our region sustainable economically?
  • What can we do differently from the rest of the country?
  • What can we join the rest of the country in doing?
  • What ‘crazy’ ideas do young people have that we can experiment with?
  • What will Hays, Hill City, or Norton look like in the next 20 years?
  • What will Oberlin or Philipsburg be like in 20 years?
  • How can we make our communities more united and more inclusive so that new ideas can thrive?
  • How does our region’s economics fit into the broader economic picture of America and the world?

Frankly, I do not have any answers to these points or questions, these are simple reflections. These questions are not an exhaustive list, there are more. But I think these would force us to reconcile how we are currently doing things vs how we should be doing things. It makes us think, think, and think. In the words of Mark Perna: “If the WANT TO is strong enough, the HOW TO will come”. Perhaps if we focus on the outcomes we want, then we can begin to figure out what it will take to produce the outcomes we seek.

Friday Otuya

Connect with Friday

Friday Otuya
Community Engagement Specialist

Friday Otuya /əoTU:ya:/ drives our multifaceted community economic development efforts and is the Nex-Tech contact for all our loan and grant programs. His vision is to position Nex-Tech as the community economic development partner of choice in Kansas for federal, state, and local stakeholders.  He lives with his wife and son in Hays, KS.

Weekdays: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.