HOLBROOK, NEB. (Sept. 10, 2007) ̶ Communities in rural America share many similarities, though each has its own distinct “flavor”. But what exactly is “flavor” and how can it be marketed to attract visitors?
That was one of many challenges posed to Sara Stevens-Stehl of GROW Nebraska and Karen Kollars with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development’s Travel and Tourism Division who attended a four-day gathering in Athens, Ohio, focusing on “Regional Flavors”̶ unique aspects of a community or region that can be an important avenue for economic development.
The ‘Regional Flavor’ concept is a framework for rural development that combines an area’s unique attributes in such a way as to provide an accessible experience for local residents and visitors. Through a Regional Flavor strategy, the work of rural development is tied together across sectors, geographic boundaries and other divisions, accelerating growth of new economic opportunities. ‘Flavor’ refers to a variety of homegrown ingredients (or attributes) all contributing to a single ‘recipe’ (or experience), where each ingredient makes a unique contribution, and ultimately branding an area as a place where people can enjoy authentic and varied experiences.
Sponsored by the Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO), the leadership organization for the microenterprise development field, the gathering was part of AEO’s Regional Flavor Learning Cluster, a national initiative centered on rural economic and microenterprise development. A microenterprise is defined as a business with five or fewer employees needing $35,000 or less to start up or expand.
GROW Nebraska heads one of six regional Networks participating in the program whose goal is to help members work toward tying together geographic, cultural, historic, agricultural and human assets of its own region, while defining and building a regional brand or identity. Throughout this peer learning opportunity, participants discussed unique aspects of their own communities, and how they can be enhanced and developed through collaboration and network building of important strategies for success.
“My visit to Athens County was a valuable learning opportunity,” said Stevens-Stehl. “There is nothing like sharing ideas and experiences – the challenges and success stories. Much of what I heard and saw firsthand can be transferred right here to Nebraska where many unique, authentic experiences have yet to be promoted. GROW Nebraska wants to help shine the light on such experiences and help communities benefit economically from opening their doors to visitors.”
“I left Athens keenly aware that many of the challenges we face in promoting our region are not unlike those faced by the folks in that former coal mining region of Appalachia in southeast Ohio [where the event was held],” said Kollars.
The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet), an AEO member, hosted the meeting, which included a series of onsite visits and discussions with community leaders involved in the development of the micro region of Athens County. ACEnet aids existing small businesses or those starting up by providing low cost business training and technical assistance, access to capital, incubation facilities and equipment as well as collaboration and networking initiatives to residents of Appalachian Ohio, many of whom are low income.
The group observed owners of small food businesses at work in ACEnet’s commercial kitchen and thermal processing facility, a kitchen incubator that supports local area entrepreneurs from the early stages of an idea to the packaging and sale of their products.
Outside of Athens, participants walked through history experiencing the regional micro brand now called the Little Cities of the Black Diamond, former coal mining communities in various stages of economic rebirth. Artists and other microentrepreneurs are at the core of the area’s revitalization effort. Participants also experienced the food and flavors of many locally-owned and thriving restaurants.
“Throughout the visit, I heard about the importance of collaboration and saw what can result,” said Stevens-Stehl. “As one person said, ‘Collaboration doesn’t need to be an unnatural act.’ Here in Nebraska we will continue to try to collaborate and build the bridges that are so important to the health, vitality and growth of our community and our region. Our partnership with the Nebraska Travel and Tourism Division is key to establishing stronger collaboration throughout the state.”
In addition to Nebraska and Ohio, four other Networks in rural Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota, and New York comprise AEO’s Regional Flavor Learning Cluster.
AEO’s Regional Flavor Learning Cluster is funded through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich. The Foundation’s mission is to help people help themselves through the practical application of knowledge and resources to improve their quality of life and that of future generations.
The Association for Enterprise Opportunity serves as the voice for the U.S microenterprise movement. AEO’s members include hundreds of organizations that assist thousands of entrepreneurs each year in realizing their dreams of small business ownership. To learn more about AEO, visit www.microenterpriseworks.org. GROW Nebraska’s purpose is to implement sustainable economic solutions for Nebraska’s product, service and retail entrepreneurs. To learn more about GROW Nebraska or Nebraska’s entrepreneurs, visit www.grownebraska.com.
Farms, ranches, and small towns have become popular destinations for travelers seeking a variety of experiences. Tourists are searching for the natural, historical, and cultural heart of a region and their defining principle is authenticity. Agri-tourism and eco-tourism are focused on the promotion of rural experiences and tapping into niche markets. To learn more about the agri-tourism opportunities in Nebraska, visit DED’s Travel and Tourism Division’s Web site at www.VisitNebraska.org.
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