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Example 8: Rural Community Economic Development Project


Lack of employment opportunities for people with disabilities continues to be a significant problem, especially in rural communities. Self-employment and small business development often can be the only viable employment option for people with disabilities in rural areas, but these areas also often lack economic development support. The Rural Community Economic Development Project was developed to address employment issues of people with disabilities through rural economic development while exploring the leadership roles that people with disabilities and rehabilitation professionals might take in the process. Phase 1 of the project involved a community assessment of two rural areas of eastern Utah and northern Vermont.


The Research and Training Center on Disability and Rural Communities developed the Rural Community Economic Project in response to the lack of employment opportunities for people with disabilities living in rural communities. The Project worked with a community in Emery County, Utah to build the capacity of state vocational rehabilitation agencies and also to build skills of people with disabilities to identify business development and employment opportunities. The project took place in two phases: Phase 1, community assessment, and Phase 2, in which the recommendations from the assessment process were put into practice.

During Phase 1, the Utah State Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Program regional office played an active role in the project. The VR contact identified project leaders, organized the Community Advisory Panel, and served as a community liaison. Two local people with disabilities were identified and trained as project leaders, and they, in turn, recruited and trained four additional people to conduct the assessments. These six individuals formed the Study Team that conducted the community assessment.

During the assessment process, the Community Advisory Panel provided knowledge and credibility to the project. The council consisted of elected officials, business owners, agency representatives, and other interested citizens. They interfaced with the community regarding the assessment process to provide validity and provided feedback to the Study Team during and after the assessment process.

Describe the makeup and history of the community to provide a context within which to collect data on its current concerns

Emery County had a population of 10,892 at the time of the assessment and nine principal towns including the county seat. The rural area has diverse landscapes including mountains and desert areas. Historically, the economy was built on ranching, agriculture, and coal mining used for power generation. At the time of the assessment, coal mining, coal transport, power generation, and transmission dominated the local economy, and the unemployment rate was 8% with 3,218 residents in the workforce.

This information was gathered from the county Chamber of Commerce website and census data. Interviews and conversations with community members added more insight. The formal assessment process involved in-person interviews with local business owners. The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research funded the Study Team who completed the assessment process.

Information was collected using an interview process that revealed tremendous strength in the history and heritage of the local people. The assessment also revealed strength in the natural environment, which is not only beautiful, but contributes to the productivity and job base for the people such as mining in the mountains and open farmland for agriculture and ranching. The problems include the up-and-down cycles of the local economy prompted by periods of lay-offs and hiring at local power plants and mines.


To gather information for the community assessment portion of the project, a total of 59 locally owned business owners were interviewed. Because the project purpose is economic development, the focus of the assessment was on business owners. The Study Team asked business owners about community strengths and sources of pride that could contribute to economic development as well as specific concerns and obstacles to economic development.

Using the "Guidebook for Citizen Involvement to Create and Expand Businesses in Rural Communities," the Study Team asked the following questions to determine what mattered to the residents of Emery County:

  • What makes residents proud of Emery County?
  • What are the strengths of Emery County that could contribute to its economic development?
  • What are the strengths of Emery County's physical infrastructure?

Residents and business owners reported being proud of the beautiful natural environment, rich Indian and pioneer heritage, and small town lifestyle. They stated that this rural, small town lifestyle contributes to strong families and high quality of life.

Other strengths related to economic development included:

  • Expansive, beautiful landscape
  • Natural resources, including agriculture, coal, etc.
  • Human resources, namely hard working people
  • Strong infrastructure related to power production
  • Recreation opportunities
  • Nearby interstate and rail lines
  • Low cost of living.

Some expressed concerns included a lack of transportation to this isolated region and the high cost of gas. Concerns relating to economic development involved competition from outside the area. Business owners reported that major businesses are not hiring locally, and many local residents were not shopping locally. The negative attitude of community members was also a major concern. Business owners cited defeatist attitudes, apathy, lack of communication, and resistance to change as barriers to economic development efforts.

Interviewees thought the attitudes of community members could be addressed through education and increased awareness among community members about the benefits of economic development activities. Creating ways to get community members involved in economic development so that they see the benefits was suggested as a possible solution to this concern.


Community stakeholders involved in the project included the Emery County Economic Development agency, Vocational Rehabilitation, Chamber of Commerce, and local businesses. These stakeholders wanted to know the concerns of local businesses related to economic development and their perceived barriers. Though business owners were the focus of the assessment, other stakeholders were informally interviewed and included in the assessment process.

The community stakeholders hoped that economic development would help people with disabilities become self-employed. They wanted to see expanded businesses and economic development that would benefit everyone in the community. Economic stability for the community was a major concern to the stakeholders.


The assessment process identified numerous issues with the most relevant being the economic stability of the community. Numerous anecdotes and perceptions about the lack of jobs resulting from changes in the mining and power production industry also surfaced, as did comments on competition from outside communities and the political environment.

To look at data regarding economic stability, it was necessary to obtain unemployment rates over time and see how these unemployment rates corresponded to events that impacted the economy. [JS1]


Business owners described several barriers to business expansion, many of which relate to the employment difficulties. These barriers included:

  • Competition for labor from outside businesses
  • Limited capital
  • Land use restrictions
  • Small population
  • Recent economic downturn
  • Transportation costs
  • Lack of interest in development of the ?South End? of town
  • Political climate

The resources for addressing the problem included the natural environment, low cost of living, quality of life, and hard-working residents. Other community assets, which developed from or were strengthened by this project, included the Community Advisory Panel, the Vocational Rehabilitation program, and the Study Team.

As a part of the assessment process, the Study Team also developed a list of 32 new or existing businesses with potential for development or expansion. They were grouped as "most viable," "have potential," or "would face significant challenges." Only five were identified as facing significant challenges. This list was presented to the community at a public event as part of the final report and recommendations from the assessment. The listed "viable" and "potential" business opportunities served as a starting point for economic development for Emery County, which led to Phase 2 of the project.

In Phase 2, the Community Advisory Panel expanded in response to the recommendations and created what would become the governing body for the South Eastern Utah Small Business Investment Fund. In short, this fund was used to develop 79 small businesses that, in turn, created 192 jobs over just a three-year period. The project shows tremendous potential to remain strong and continue to produce economic growth in the community. [JS2]

[JS1] Are there other data that suggest economic problems or consequences of the e.g., higher rate of violence, poverty?

[JS2] What does the community itself have to offer? Money, expertise, retired leaders, community college?