ANCHORAGE, Alaska – A Washington State University Extension rural business development conference received the Leadership and Collaboration Award of Excellence from the University Economic Development Association on Tuesday.
“We are proud of this national recognition for the Rural Pathways to Prosperity conference,” said Rich Koenig, associate dean and director of WSU Extension. “It is a great example of how WSU brings the resources of federal, state and regional partners together to strengthen the vitality of Washington towns.”
The Rural Pathways to Prosperity (P2P) Conference was selected from four finalists at the UEDA Annual Summit in Anchorage, Alaska. There are five categories of awards that highlight the contributions universities make to their regional economies.
WSU Extension’s Debra Hansen and Monica Babine developed P2P as a more easily accessible resource for rural small businesses to continue thriving, growing, and creating jobs. Even though small businesses comprise more of Washington’s rural economies than their urban counterparts, conferences and other learning opportunities are almost always located in urban centers, creating time and money barriers for rural community leaders and business owners.
To overcome those barriers, Hansen and Babine planned P2P with the Distributed Conference Model, originally developed for Women in Ag, another successful WSU Extension conference. Instead of traveling to one location, business owners and community leaders meet at local sites to simultaneously watch a webinar from a nationally recognized entrepreneurial expert. Each site has trained facilitators who then lead the groups in activities that help them apply what they learn to their community.
Bob Stevens, a business owner in Chewelah, Wash., attended the 2015 conference and enjoyed this model over watching a webinar on his own, which was one of the only cost-effective options he had to learn more about owning a business.
“It’s like running a 10k with 100 other people, rather than by yourself,” he said “When you’re together there is so much more enthusiasm, energy, and things to get excited about.”
Eleven sites from Port Angeles to Clarkston participated in the first conference in 2013. In 2015, 18 sites joined in with a total of 301 participants.
“What I love about this model is that more rural business owners and community leaders are able to participate,” said Hansen, Stevens County Extension Director. “We can already see how coming together is helping their bottom line.”
The conference is planned in collaboration with federal, state and local agency and government partners. Several agency staff members and local officials visit the sites, giving small business owners face-to-face interaction with people who can offer resources like loans and support for industry-strengthening initiatives.
After only two conferences, P2P is already proving successful in overcoming barriers to providing business resources for rural communities, and developing local collaboration. All of the site facilitators and nearly 90 percent of participants said they would attend again. Compared to a similar conference held at one site in 2010, the P2P conference reached nearly 100 more people, saved an average of $290 per person, and cut average round trips by 270 miles per person.
One community has started work on a Maker’s Space, and another on a food hub to increase production and profitability for small farmers. Some of the USDA Rural Development staff members who attended have also started collaborating on projects with contacts they made during the conference.
In addition, Hansen and Babine are working with WSU’s Office of Commercialization to copyright the conference program, making it available to help rural communities across the country.
“It’s rewarding to see how P2P leverages several different strengths in Extension, resulting in a major impact that has potential to grow even further” said Babine, who leads WSU’s Program for Digital Initiatives.
Another WSU group, the Team Mentoring Program, was nominated as a UEDA award finalist in the Talent Development category. WSU is a member of UEDA, an organization that represents higher education, private sector and community economic development stakeholders to advance knowledge and practice in economic engagement.