The power of a region

(Journal stock photo.)

Some rural development success stories have come from regions composed of communities and organizations coming together to seek answers to problems that are larger than their own, and in the process find solutions to their own issues.

Almost 20 years ago, federal government agencies “pushed” for the formation of regional coalitions and provided funding for them. While many were successful, later administrations did not necessarily push for regional development and many good ideas fell by the wayside and we don’t hear near so much about regions today. The old saying, “there is strength in numbers” may be appropriate today as we consider again the power of rural regions.

I have the privilege of currently chairing an organization that can be considered an emerging regional power. Allow this to be my example for how we formed it, successes we have enjoyed, and how we are moving forward. In 2005, a group of us formed the Northwest Oklahoma Alliance, with our first meeting in Buffalo, Oklahoma, to increase our strength in economic development efforts for northwest Oklahoma. We are the forgotten lands of Oklahoma and have to work very diligently to maintain and create economic stimulants. NwOA develops, promotes, and identifies existing resources and coordinates efforts to educate and improve our region.

NwOA consists of 19 counties of northwest Oklahoma. These 19 counties include 129 towns and cities. Of those 129 towns and cities, 117 of them are populations of 3,000 and lower. We began working on our Teeny Tiny Town Summit for a couple of years having been held up for obvious reasons; yet when “small towns and cities” are considered by many agencies and programs to be those communities with populations of 50,000 or less we knew we needed to focus on truly tiny towns.

The NwOA formed a sub-committee known as the Northwest Water Action Team. Then we contracted research and development of a Water Plan for our region that has been very beneficial for farms, ranches, towns, and cities.

Another success has been our annual NwOA Legislative Reception. It is held at the state capitol in Oklahoma City and has upwards of 500 people in attendance. This event has done much to increase the level of awareness of rural problems among legislative members, as well as state and federal agencies. At the end of each year, we hold a retreat for the purpose of reviewing our activities of the past year and then establish priority issues and projects for the coming year.

Communities that are members of NwOA have many of the same problems as much larger communities but also much more obstacles to deal with them. We recently held our first Teeny Tiny Town Summit in October 2021; and it was a huge success.

We had an enthusiastic 80 people in attendance for this first ever event. Participants learned about topics, issues, and how-tos which included rural broadband, American Rescue Plan Act applications and programs, innovative rural retail, water planning, sales tax matters and rural health projects. Several state agencies sponsored booths and provided information and application assistance.

There is no doubt that the NwOA is making a difference. One of the very important benefits is communities are learning that they face many similar issues and can work together and help each other.

James Leonard is the economic development coordinator at Buffalo, Oklahoma. He can be reached by telephone at 580-735-2030 or by email at [email protected].