UTSA Program Aims to Breathe New Life into Texas Small Towns

Texas is very much two states economically, one state, which contains Houston and the urban areas along the I-35 corridor from San Antonio through Austin and Waco to Dallas Fort Worth is booming, with record low unemployment, and rapid growth in jobs and employers ranging from tech to manufacturing, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

But outside of the big cities, in small town and rural East and West Texas, the story is far different, and the UTSA Institute for Economic Development convened a panel of experts in New Braunfels on Tuesday to come up with answers to growing rural depopulation.

Research economist Monique Long-White says one challenging facing small towns is their unwillingness to cooperate with other small communities.  She says big cities are centers of cooperation between several differing interests.

"In big cities, you have a lot of collaboration among all of the city institutions, several chambers of commerce, several economic development corporations, all working together for the same cause," she said.

She says the nature of rural Texas, perhaps exacerbated by high school football rivalries, make that cooperation much more difficult.

In Texas, small towns face a myriad of problems not faced by large urban areas.  The flight of jobs has meant that young people graduate form high school and leave, not to return.  That not only means a general population loss, but also an ageing of the population, and frequently the closing of schools, which in many cases are the lifeblood of a small community.

In addition, hospitals, doctors offices, and key locally owned businesses also frequently leave, due to the lack of a large enough population to support them.  

And, on top of that, add the decline in the number of locally owned farms, replaced by corporate farms with managers, who don't have the same stake in the future of the community as a farm owner.

Long-White says research has shown that one way to boost small towns is to focus on programs to bring high speed Internet, like Google Fiber, to small communities.  She says frequently, the largest ISP's bypass small communities because there aren't enough potential subscribers to justify the costs of installation.

Long-White says the government needs to step in and provide incentives to ISP's for broadband deployment.  She says an effort to make sure broadband Internet was available in the Rio Grande Valley shows the promise of such a program.

"So we see these different success stories where broadband is implemented, and with that, there has been an increase in development."

She says small town and rural Texas has a culture all its own, and it is definitely worth working harder to save from economic depression.

"There is a characteristic of rural Texas that you can't replicate," she said.  "You can't bring that to an urban area anywhere."

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