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Rural Affairs confab to do more than spell out small town problems

Chris Merritt knows about the challenges facing rural Illinois and small towns across the nation.

“Rural depopulation, aging of that population—that has implications for a lot other sectors,” said Merritt, citing business succession, healthcare and workforce development as some of the issues involved.

In an effort to meet some of the challenge that small communities face, Merritt, executive director of the Illinois Institute of Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, said the institute is holding its 33rd annual conference next month.

For the second year in a row, the conference will be held online. The day of the program is Feb. 23.

While logistics have been easier to set up a virtual program that involves speakers and panel members from across the Midwest, there’s also a downside, he said.

“The networking and meeting side of the conference is diminished when people can’t get together,” said Merritt, adding that whether held online or in person, the conference’s purpose doesn’t change.

“What we’re trying to do with the conference is get together broad trends in rural Illinois and the Midwest, to identify good things that are going on plus explore challenging situations. We want to try to provide solutions, to showcase programs that are working,” he said.

“We’ll be talking how we can extend broadband into rural communities. We also have a program on bringing arts and humanities to rural areas including grant opportunities that are available. We’ll also highlight rural teachers and schools and how they can be part of a rural economic strategy,” said Merritt.

Solving the digital divide, that is, improving broadband access in rural areas, is important if smaller communities are to draw remote workers from the city, he said.

Robbie McBeath of the Wilmette-based Benton Institute for Broadband and Society will provide a presentation on connected communities at the conference, said Merritt.

Two topics to be explored for the first at the conference are land banking and sustainability, he said.

Land banking has long been used by urban governments that seek to deal with derelict buildings but rural communities can also benefit from programs to put abandoned properties back into use, said Merritt.

Sustainability issues include combatting climate change and using green energy, he said.

Visit www.iira.org for more information on the conference.

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Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.