QUINCY -- David Hetzler initially thought findings of a new study focused on building a resilient economy in the Lower Illinois River Valley would focus on things rural communities can do to help grow their economy.
"I didn't realize there would be quite as many things that point to the community college and how the community college can really play a role in that," said Hetzler, interim dean of career and technical education at John Wood Community College. "It's a good opportunity for us to be more involved in the rural communities."
JWCC used a grant from the Illinois Green Economy Network and commissioned THG Advisors to develop the recently-released study focused on assessing the regional rural economy, revealing challenges to rural communities and agriculture and identifying opportunities for strengthening livability in the region.
"There's some needs in the rural area, especially in our nine-county district, where technology is becoming an issue whether that's in farm and field management or automation and robotics that might be used by some ag business," Hetzler said. "Another area is use of energy -- better solar power, wind power, water power. The thing that sticks out most is a lot of talk about solar power in rural areas."
New JWCC programs targeting robotics/automation certification, initially geared to manufacturing, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning, including training on solar technology, could help meet those needs.
"Things we already had on our radar that weren't necessarily aimed at agriculture now we see how we can move those into an ag-related program of study as well," Hetzler said.
The report and an accompanying webinar are intended to help educators, agricultural producers and advisors, community leaders, local and regional community development organizations and rural policy makers as well as those who prepare, place and retain the next generation of rural professionals.
"The report's findings provide valuable information and insights to enhance our rural agricultural economy," JWCC President Mike Elbe said. "Community colleges provide the capacity to develop and build viable partnerships as we create together new generations of farm operators, owners and other rural careers in our service area."
The effort began with looking at national and regional trends to frame challenges and opportunities, then interviewed local stakeholders to help identify four "calls to action" that "when taken together and implemented could change the trajectory of the region," Hetzler said.
Priority areas, the study found, are e-connectivity for the Lower Illinois River Valley, improving rural quality of life, supporting a rural workforce and harnessing technological innovation. "Activation project ideas" tied to those areas include establishing a regional broadband council, planning efforts to revitalize historic downtown business districts, partnering with local businesses and organizations to identify gaps and emerging needs to grow LIV digital opportunities and developing a concept for a regional agricultural and rural innovation center
Key now is making people across the region aware of the study and its findings, then deciding on next steps.
"I would hope maybe in the fall we can start looking at those next steps and putting some plans together about what's right for us," Hetzler said. "If some is curriculum development, we can be doing that in the spring so the fall of the following year we'll be able to start rolling out some."
The recently released report, Building a Resilient Economy in the Lower Illinois River Valley – Considerations for Farm Profitability, the Workforce and Rural Recovery, and an accompanying webinar are available online at jwcc.edu/IGEN.