A Catalyst to Spur Rural Economic Growth

In 2017, CoBank partnered with Rural LISC, a national community development financial institution, providing a $250,000 grant to seed its Road to Capacity Predevelopment Fund (RCPF). The lack of predevelopment funding creates serious barriers for many rural projects. Rural LISC addresses this by providing community organizations with zero-interest loans of up to $50,000.

The fund provides an innovative catalyst to spur rural economic growth. Loans support housing, commercial and community development projects in rural areas, and are used for expenses such as feasibility and market studies and preparation of funding applications. With the help of CoBank, Rural LISC has already made 21 investments in the past two years, supporting projects in Montana, West Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, California, Florida, Oregon and New Mexico.

“Rural LISC provides capacity building grants, affordable capital and equity to a network of community-based groups,” said Suzanne Anarde, director, Rural LISC. “One of the most important things we do is connect our partners to each other. We help cross-pollinate skills, resources and experience across rural communities— connecting the dots to leverage success.”

One of Rural LISC’s successes is the renovation of the historic Delmonte hotel in Elkins, West Virginia. Built in 1899, the property originally served as a hotel and housing for railroad personnel. Later incarnations included a restaurant and a barber shop. Eventually the property became vacant, and despite significant redevelopment in the area, remained so for more than 15 years.

One of the most important things we do is connect our partners to each other.

“Highland Community Builders (HCB), a local nonprofit, partnered with the Delmonte’s owner, the Randolph County Housing Authority, to redevelop the property,” said Karen Jacobson, HCB’s president. “We spent three years renovating it and another two years searching for a for-profit partner to help us bring it to completion. It’s a wonderful location, directly across from Elkins’ historic train station, but we just weren’t able to find anyone willing to take the risk.”

In 2014, HCB partnered with Americorps to sponsor a holiday market in the space featuring the work of local artists. Florist Tammy Dolly and her partner, Doug Starcher, fell instantly in love with the building’s unique character and the concept of a market featuring artists and craftspeople from throughout the state. Dolly and Archer sold their existing property and rented the first floor of the market.

“Tammy and Doug created a highly visible, well-curated space that initially included the work of 10 artists and craftspeople,” said HCB’s Jacobson. “The concept quickly took off, attracting more and more artists who were looking for a place to sell their art locally, reducing the need to manage online sales or travel long distances to art shows. But to keep expanding their business, they needed more space. Rural LISC provided technical assistance, peer support and training and their predevelopment loan allowed us to attract the rest of the capital we needed to finish the building.”

Rural LISC and Highland Community Builders were truly essential in making the vision of the Delmonte Market a reality,” said Dolly. “We’ve expanded to feature the work of more than 26 artists and craftspeople. We’re more than just a store, we’re a small-town experience. People come here from all over the region and we get to share the stories of this building and our artists with every person who visits.”

“Our work with Highland Community Builders and the Delmonte Market is a great example of what the RCPF is all about,” said Rural LISC’s Anarde. “It’s a comprehensive economic development project that is breathing new life into a rural community and creating exponential opportunity. And it’s something that wouldn’t have been possible without CoBank’s support. Their dedication to strengthening and supporting rural America truly helps to make our work possible.”