Elected “leaders” of rural economic development have gotten lost somewhere in the connection between theory, practice and possibilities. The question repeatedly asked since the 1990s is: What is it that keeps rural communities poor?
Is it the increasing fragmentation and isolation that has characterized rural development research for the past two decades? Is it geography and demography? Is it a politics of resentment and despair? Is it brain drain? Is it the hallowing out of Flyover country? Is it the lack of immigrants?
The answer is: none of these. It is a failure of leadership fallen into the “politics of spectacle”.
Sometimes it helps to seek answers by seeking wisdom in non-economic sources, such as John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Economic ideas lie at the heart of his corpus that are useful in understanding the predicament of how to seek “salvation” for rural communities in America.
The root of the problem could very well be described by adapting Milton’s: wealthy m[e]n addicted to [their] pleasure and to [their] profits through the idolatry by which markets construct value. Value for whom? For those who can hoard, of course, to build personal thrones and dominions. Hoarders take inanimate things and ascribe to them a value beyond what inheres in them, while burying the talent of those who can insist instead on both equality of rank and of material means.
Take, for example, the current push for casinos in Virginia. The, until now, prudent policy of avoiding establishment of gambling dens is poised to change. A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is pushing for setting up casinos in six locations in the Old Dominion, arguing that they will raise tax revenue and create jobs in struggling cities. This is a perfect example of how the pursuit of Milton’s earthly hierarchies leads to the dehumanization of economic development.
Casinos are necessarily bad. The localities affected by gambling establishments can either suffer the exploitation and manipulation of members of their communities through competing market, social and political forces or harness opportunities for constructive investment and profit. With the right leadership, they can be a force for good economic development.
Gambling can be addictive and lead to an increase in different types of abuses and even financial ruin. But light can always be brought into the dark. Casinos can be an economic tool for empowerment, especially for economically struggling cities like Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth. But to do so, their economic development leadership must focus on how this type of economic “incarnation” can bless the marketplace of each of their communities as a space with an authority of its own.
How are the disadvantaged communities in those struggling cities going to be used fairly and in the right way? By generating minimum wage service jobs and bringing in outside talent, or by ensuring that a share of profits is invested in schools (for example, for STEM, given that gambling is directly related to math), that skills relevant to the gaming and hospitality industry (for example, the culinary and catering sectors) are developed locally, that local management talent is developed, and that local entrepreneurial potential in gaming and hospitality industry-related goods and services is developed to ensure a virtuous economic ecosystem?
A casino is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop and apply a holistic approach to economic development. Economic development leadership needs to apply an inclusive and egalitarian value chain focus to ensure revenue streams are created to benefit individuals in the Miltonian sense: that which cannot be divided off because it is a part of a whole, i.e. the community.
So, what pathways out of poverty and marginalization are leaders of economic development in Virginia going to define? Are they going to break with the illusion, fear and defeatism that characterizes economic development in rural areas? Or are they going to ensure the casino cities and the rural counties around them both get their fair share of investment and profit?
Paradise Lost ends with choice: “The world was all before them where to choose / Thir place of rest” (XII, 646-7). I will end by saying that leadership is making the right choice under difficult circumstances.
Leaders are leaders not because they fight to get there first or to rein in the biggest investor, but because they are the first to fight for change and to turn problems into opportunities. Leaders know that the difference between a problem and a challenge lies in how they perceive the circumstances and help others perceive theirs. A problem reflects an obstacle that deep down we’re not sure of being able to resolve. A challenge is something that forces us to “stretch” in order to reach something that’s worth achieving.
Our biggest problem today is with leadership. Our biggest challenge is finding leaders who can "stretch" beyond their egos. Our current economic development leaders today unfortunately ignore, at their own peril, that investment in the potentialities of the Miltonian individual is the greatest opportunity to bring light into the dark.
It's time our leaders stopped gambling away our future. Now is their chance for “felix culpa”, or the opportunity to achieve a greater good than would have been possible without their (fortunate) fall.