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October 25, 2005
Vol. 3, No. 26



Rich Heffern Economic development in rural areas built
on restored community ties


By Rich Heffern, editor of The Celebration E-series

It wasn't a barn raising but it shared the spirit of that timeless American enterprise wherein a community comes together on a Saturday morning to build together something new and mutually beneficial.

Titled "Making Connections, Sharing Hope: A Day for Northwest Missourians," the event displayed small businesses and family-operated services from six counties in northwest Missouri. It was held in the auditorium of St. Gregory Barbarigo Parish in Maryville last summer and was sponsored by Sparks of Hope, a rural advocacy group.

The purpose of the exhibit-gathering according to Sparks of Hope member and co-founder Franciscan Sr. Christine Martin "is to showcase entrepreneurs who are making a difference in our rural area."

"As people from surrounding counties gather," she said, "we hope to make connections and share hope for our rural communities to hear and see how others have successfully turned their dreams of business ownership into a reality."

A 34-page directory handed out at the door listed more than 90 local businesses and family-operated services. Some of those businesses were on display in the gym.

One exhibitor, Steve Curran, proprietor of Curran's Sharp-All, said he often drives the back roads of northwest Missouri, stopping by the local Amish communities, who run small sawmill operations to raise cash. "Their saws get quickly dulled cutting oak for pallets," Curran said. "If those blades need sharpening, we all benefit; if not, I've spent some time in the countryside. No loss there."

His wife Wanda does the bookkeeping. Curran works a regular job and does the sharpening for extra income to keep his son in college. "I've lived here all my life," he said, "but working night shifts in the factory I never knew anyone. Now I know everybody."

Larry Uehling exhibited his hand-crafted wooden tables and jewelry boxes. "I had a stressful job and to unwind at the end of the day I started working with wood."

Uehling said he prefers to use local native sources when he can get them -- walnut, sycamore and even unusual woods like that of the Osage Orange tree, which farmers long ago planted to provide fencerows between their fields. Together with his wife Penny, Uehling makes the rounds at craft shows in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.

Tony Mickler showed off his yard sculptures, made from welded-together horseshoes. He makes them at his home in Skidmore. Rodney Clowdus in Ravenwood makes looms for weaving rugs and cloth blankets, along with building sheds and remodeling homes. He weaves cotton blankets on the Swedish Countermarche Loom that he built.

Fr. Daniel Petsche, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Stanberry and another co-founder of Sparks of Hope, pointed out that, like the exhibitors in the gym, most rural folks work two or three jobs. "It's often the only way they can stay on the land or in small towns, such is the economic devastation in rural America over the past two decades."

Initiated in 2003 Sparks of Hope is a response to that economic crisis. Operating from a faith perspective, the group seeks to "positively shape the future by promoting the revitalization of rural community."

The group recently initiated the formation of the Northwest Missouri Enterprise Facilitation Project which received funding this year to set up a board and begin looking for a local facilitator who will, once hired, seek out northwest Missourians who have good ideas for businesses and services, then help them develop those ideas into full-fledged operations. It's the next step in a process that began last fall with a presentation by Ernesto Sirolli, founder of the Sirolli Institute, a global organization that promoted rural economic development.

"The usual way to try to develop rural areas in this country," Petsche said, "is to try to lure big companies into building their new factories in the area. The bait used includes tax incentives, lower wage expectations, and the strenuous rural work ethic. The aim of Sparks of Hope is to do this from the bottom up, linking local businesses, entrepreneurs, banks and consumers in innovative ways, re-establishing community ties and relationships that have gone by the wayside in recent times."

Statistics show that, of the 50 poorest counties in the nation, 49 of them are rural. The number of family-run farms has declined drastically over the last two decades. When the farms go down, the small towns soon follow. Sparks of Hope is truly an example of faith in action, making a real difference in one small part of rural America.

Rich Heffern's e-mail address is rheffern@ncronline.org. The Celebration E-Series, NCR sister publications, are Internet resources for parishes: The Catechist's Connection, Parish Life and The Reflecting Community. For a preview, follow this link: The Celebration E-Series.
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