In New Mexico, All Politics is Rural

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Many years ago Tip O’Neill famously observed that all politics is local.

After spending yesterday afternoon in Albuquerque at a gathering on rural economic development sponsored by the New Mexico Community Foundation and New Mexico Community Capital, I’m convinced that in New Mexico all politics is rural. In fact, in a state with as much land and as few people as New Mexico, it’s almost impossible to distinguish the line between what is rural and what is urban. It’s all New Mexico.

To spark the three-hour conversation, the sponsors brought in Don Macke from the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship. Don has worked on rural economic development for almost four decades, has served in government in Nebraska, and has worked as a consultant in nearly 40 states, Canada and the Caribbean. His perspective on rural economic development, in general, and New Mexico, in particular, was informed by experience and tested by practice. Don is practical, pragmatic, results-oriented and reality-based. In other words, exactly what New Mexico needs.

Here are some of the things that surfaced in the course of the half-day discussion.

How rural is New Mexico? According to Don, roughly 75% of all communities in New Mexico have 500 or fewer residents. So finding a strategy that would safeguard their quality of life while improving their economic prospects would make a huge difference to the people of New Mexico.

Unfortunately, the economic prospects for New Mexico have been bleak–and remain so. Moreover, as one of the attendees commented, the economic strategy of Governor Martinez, which seems to be captured by the cliche slogan,  “New Mexico is open for business,” sounds to rural New Mexicans like a insensitive threat to their treasured livability and invaluable quality of life.

Just how bleak is the New Mexico economy? Since the end of the Great Recession in 2009, New Mexico has shown a total gain of 1,335 new jobs. One thousand. Three hundred. Thirty-five.

At the same time, according to Forbes magazine, New Mexico ranks number 5 in the nation in terms of people leaving the state–presumably to look for economic opportunity elsewhere. In America, historically, a lack of economic opportunity in one place leads to an out-migration of people seeking it another place.

In other words, people vote with their feet.

What is New Mexico’s big growth industry? Contrary to what Governor Martinez says, it’s not new companies relocating to New Mexico–although apparently that’s where roughly 75% of her economic development budget is focused. It’s neither tourism nor oil and gas exploration. It’s not movies–which she originally opposed before she flip-flopped and decided to support them. Or the Spaceport–which she originally opposed before she flip-flopped and decided to support it.

The Number 1 growth industry in New Mexico? Retirees. Retirees–and the transfer payments they bring with them–account for 23% of New Mexico’s total personal income. Of course, that is hardly a sustainable economic strategy. Retirees don’t live forever. But it can mask a lot of short-term pain.

What does work? Local communities coming together around a shared strategy. This is a model that has worked in places as diverse as Tupelo, Mississippi and California’s Redwood Coast. Grass-roots leadership, local “sherpas” who can show others in their own communities how it’s done, coaches who can act as  mentors–these components have  produced high-performing small communities, where economic opportunity, individual entrepreneurship and public-private partnerships pull together.

What else helps? In  2013 it helps if you have access to the Web. Today, when you talk about infrastructure investment, you don’t only mean transportation investment. You mean technology investment that creates access and affordability across the state.

And yet, according to one participant at the meeting, New Mexico currently ranks dead last in terms of access and affordability of any state in the Rocky Mountain region. Dead last. Only 38% of small businesses in New Mexico have online presences–and, according to Don, it’s realistic that only 15% actually use the web to do business.

This, despite the story we heard about a seed company in rural New Mexico that went from dial-up service to broadband–and with that one change, found they could hire an additional 13 new employees. Now 13 hires may not sound like a big deal, but in a state that’s created 1,3335 net new jobs since the end of the recession, every job counts! One participant pointed out that web-connectivity and entrepreneurial coaching could lead to 60 new jobs per year in small communities–a number shrugged off by some large institutions. But a job is a job, and a win is a win.

When a small town or rural community sees a win that like, it offers hope and inspiration and pride to everyone. It’s a sign of what’s possible, a symbol that things can change for the better.

So in the end, all politics is rural. Because in the end, we all live in small communities, even if we live in a city.

And we all need the whole state to prosper; we all need the parts of New Mexico that are sustainable, livable, authentic and resilient to point the way to the future.

But as the meeting yesterday made vividly clear, we need leadership to make it happen.

Leadership at the local and regional level. Leadership at the state level. This was no campaign gathering; in fact, people went out of their way not to point the finger of blame at Governor Martinez–which may explain why she has a high approval rating despite her absolutely dismal performance. And as Don Macke said, economic development is too important to be left to any one governor; governors come and governors go. Which means it’s up to ordinary people to get organized, to come together and take action.

If there will be public-private partnerships in New Mexico, they’re much more likely to be private-public partnerships–where the private sector takes the lead and drags the Governor and her team kicking and screaming into the future.

But make no mistake: unless we do that New Mexico will continue to see moving vans take people out of the state; rural communities and small towns will continue to see fewer choices and fewer opportunities for their sons and daughters; the state will continue to under-perform in the job creation market; and New Mexico will confront a future that offers fewer choices to fewer people.

The good news: there are rural communities from coast-to-coast that have taken the challenge and chosen a different path. There is a new story out there waiting to be told.

It’s been shown in Kentucky and North Carolina, in Kansas, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Now it’s New Mexico’s turn. We need to show up. We need to take on the challenge of our own economic future. It’s time to embrace an entrepreneurial future for New Mexico, rural and urban.