The following is an editorial written by Daniel Smith, president and CEO of the Cooperative Network.
It is often said that if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there. That holds true
in the work of government and is especially risky when billions of dollars and a plethora of agencies are
So, with the goal of revitalizing our rural communities, the Biden Administration recently summoned
community and business leaders to the White House for a “Communities in Action” event to help place
programs and priorities on a road that will take us there. As the Trusted Voice of Cooperatives, and as
the representative of cooperative members from a dozen business sectors in the Upper Midwest,
Cooperative Network had a seat at the table.
To look ahead, it is often beneficial to first look back. Cooperatives have a strong record of delivering
goods and services to rural America. From agricultural production and processing, to credit unions and
mutual insurance, to the electricity that powers our homes and businesses, cooperatives have paved the
way. The economic, social, and cultural fabric of our rural communities was largely woven by the
Cooperative Network believes that what worked well in the past can work again in the future, especially
in a changing world challenged by emerging needs in telecommunications, access to healthcare,
housing, child and elder care, and transportation. How to meet these challenges was a major focus of
the White House discussion. It is important that officials realize cooperatives are already on the ground,
in rural communities and urban areas alike, laying the foundation on which revitalized towns and
villages may be built.
Our priority list is long, but Cooperative Network believes broadband expansion is the Number One
requirement to draw new residents and business investment, and to support existing enterprises in rural
areas. Telecommunication cooperatives are partnering with electric cooperatives to expand broadband
access. This essential first step leads the way for precision agriculture practices which increase
efficiency, lower costs, and protect the health of our water and soil. It expands telehealth access,
education, workforce training programs, and more. At its core, it builds and connect communities –
economically, socially, culturally.
Cooperative Network made it clear to the current administration that rural revitalization begins with
broadband expansion, but does not end there. The production of our farms and rural businesses relies
on the movement of goods and services over our roads and bridges, up and down the Mississippi River,
and through ports in Milwaukee, Superior and elsewhere. Rural farms, businesses, and communities
must be connected not only virtually but physically through trucks, trains, ships, and barges.
Reinvestment in our transportation systems is not an option, it is a requirement.
The theory that once a community attracts a major employer, scores of new residents magically appear
has largely been disproven. There is no quick lifeline available to communities following decades of
declining population, business investments, and public services.
Cooperative Network, through our work across multiple business sectors, understands communities
flourish only when they offer more than a job. Attracting new residents requires access to housing,
healthcare, food, social services, cultural events, recreation, and of course, broadband. The recent
trends toward remote work and flexible schedules, combined with other amenities, has the potential to
reverse the rural population decline and begin to revitalize rural America.
To speak directly to those in power is an honor and a privilege. It is also a responsibility to make certain
the decisions made today earn the greatest return on investment a decade from now. We live in the
present, but it is the best possible future that must remain our goal. To get there we must know what
road we are on and where we are going. Of one thing we can be certain, cooperatives will be leading the
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