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The Rural Impact Fund Difference

The Alliance for Rural Impact (ARI) set out to redefine not only how community and economic development services were delivered in rural communities, but also how success is defined.  Everyone has a picture in their mind of an “ideal” community – one where people feel a sense of belonging, opportunity is available, services are readily at hand, neighborhoods are centers of activity, entertainment, culture, and recreation are prevalent, etc.  But how do you rebuild such a community, especially in an area where economic depression has been a reality for years, and capacity and resources are limited?  And how do you do this in a post-pandemic era? This is a significant challenge. True economic rebound will only occur with long-term, protracted investments of time, expertise and capital.  Rural communities are essential, and they need the type of assistance that is not rushed, is not forced, but rather is extremely intentional in its efforts.

At ARI, we believe the best way to begin that type of assistance is by first focusing on the businesses in the community.  We have to increase the size of the pie to increase the availability of resources in a community.  This will allow us to transition to broader community-focused initiatives, while continuing to support the economic drivers. Because of this, we’ve created the Rural Impact Fund (RIF), which is an emerging Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI).

What is a CDFI?

CDFI’s are private financial institutions that are 100% dedicated to delivering responsible, affordable lending to help low-income, low-wealth, and other disadvantaged people and communities join the economic mainstream. CDFI’s spark job growth and retention in hard-to-serve markets; they put community first, not the shareholder.

The Rural Impact Fund Difference

Our rural economy is changing, and it is changing drastically.

Rural communities struggle with depopulation, much of which is concentrated in areas already considered disadvantaged due to ages long exploitation and lack of investment.

Our founders have witnessed this change in population and how devastating it is to a region.  The resulting economic decline lowers demand for local services and businesses, which ultimately reduces the available workforce and the value of real estate (often the most valuable investment to a small business owner). All of this accelerates an already vicious cycle of closures for vital services such as schools, grocery stores, and hospitals. These issues, coupled with workforce issues exacerbated by socio-economic challenges, plague business owners and local leadership. The lack of economic mobility and opportunity leads to greater poverty, decreased health outcomes and an overall feeling of apathy and isolation.

And yet, there is opportunity. The Alliance for Rural Impact strives to build upon a foundation of strong partnerships that will create lasting rural impacts.

ARI was founded to be different than others in our field, bringing a fresh and customized approach to a system that is often cookie-cutter and generic. Still, what do we mean by different?

  • We are proactive.
  • We think innovatively.
  • We concentrate on rural and underserved areas in and around the Delta. 
  • We are committed.
  • We are outcome focused. 

We take a forensic financial approach to technical assistance.

ARI and our partners have worked diligently to develop a unique technical assistance program designed to give rural small and midsized businesses the same competitive advantages as their urban counterparts.  The investment into proven technologies – along with the capacity building instruction to optimize their usage – is the focus of ARI’s process modernization technical assistance and lending program.

ARI Rural Impact Fund Process Modernization Programs
Customer Management Tools
Marketing Assets
Procurement Mechanisms
Key Asset Acquisition
eCommerce Tools
Back-end Automation
Energy Efficiency Technology
Enterprise Virtualization
Product Development Innovation
Front-line Automation

The process works across the spectrum of business and industry to assist in determining the best solution to increase durability and efficiency. Process Modernization Programs© range from small investments, such as customer management programs, to larger investments in front-line automation systems.

Our process is modeled on the technology adoption and de-risking program used by the National Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Robotics in Pittsburgh – developed over multiple years and tested with customers of all sizes.  It is designed to de-risk projects at each stage of the financing process – from identifying the borrowers and proactively reaching them; to selecting the interventions most likely to generate a timely return for their specific business; through optimizing the process even after the solution has been implemented.

The Rural Impact Fund Technical Assistance Team

The co-founders and staff of the Alliance for Rural Impact, Jamie Wright and Jennifer Watkins, are experienced community development technical assistance providers who are driven and dedicated to bringing rural communities the resources they need to be successful.

Jamie R. Wright, Executive Director

Jamie is a natural connector and spends much of her time interacting with community and economic development professionals as well as development finance practitioners to advocate for and advance the ARI mission. Jamie leads marketing, outreach, and networking efforts for the organization along with curriculum design, implementation, research, and resource identification, as well as ARI’s agricultural financial literacy curriculum. Previously, Jamie served as Deputy Director at East Arkansas Planning and Development District where she administered and managed a $2.6 million US Department of Housing and Urban Development Regional Sustainability Planning Grant. She managed a team that developed, administered, and implemented over 300 economic and community development projects with an average investment total of $25 million per year. Jamie coordinated the development of a regional food system analysis for 15 counties in the tri-state region, which led to the development of a collaborative value-chain distribution program. Prior to her time at EAPDD, Jamie served as Economic Development Director for the City of Harrisburg. During this time, she founded the Harrisburg Historic District and subsequent Farmers Market as well as planned and managed the largest in-fill project for the City at that time.

Jennifer G. Watkins, Director of Operations

Jennifer Watkins leads project and program development efforts on behalf of ARI, along with curriculum design, implementation, research, resource identification, and fundraising. Prior to founding ARI, Jennifer worked for a small consulting firm conducting strategic planning efforts in over 35 communities across the country. She served as the lead consultant for a $4 million, 12-county regional planning effort for the East Arkansas Planning & Development District, a project that introduced her to the Delta region. It was this project – in a place where rural poverty is rampant – that inspired the development of ARI. Before embarking on her consulting journey, Jennifer served for thirteen years as a local practitioner in her hometown in rural eastern Oregon. Jennifer worked with local businesses to develop sound business plans, access financing, diversify their products, reach larger markets, and plan for their futures. She also completed several multi-million-dollar projects, developed successful economic development campaigns, facilitated long-range planning processes, and secured millions of dollars in grant funding.

Collaboration

In addition to our experienced professional staff, we collaborate with expert-level consultants who join in on a project-by-project basis when and where their expertise can add value and create impacts for a community. Our technical assistance collaborating partners are recognized as some of the top consultant teams in their respective fields:

Dr. Byron Clayton

Dr. Byron Clayton is a technology entrepreneur, economic development executive and former CEO of Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) located in Pittsburgh, PA. ARM is a public-private partnership launched by the Department of Defense and Carnegie Mellon University supported by an $80 million commitment that now includes over 200 organizations from around the nation. Because of his unique skill set, Dr. Clayton will lead the implementation efforts for businesses pursuing financing for tech-based business solutions. His expertise will help business owners think creatively to address operational and workforce challenges, and new technological opportunities to ultimately create improved profit margins, product quality and business sustainability. While at ARM, he developed a proprietary de-risking model for businesses considering tech adoption on which ARI’s unique technical assistance model is built.

Nick Bush

Nick Bush is the founder and Principal of Bush Consulting Group, a business advisory firm based in Cleveland, Ohio providing technical and strategy services to leaders of innovation-driven organizations of all sizes. Mr. Bush will play a significant role in the technical assistance delivery for the lending program. Utilizing a proprietary methodology, as developed over 25 years of consulting to top-tier companies and organizations, Mr. Bush will conduct business valuation analyses and provide recommendations that will result in greater efficiency, productivity and sustainability for the businesses we serve. These recommendations will be the basis of the business plan and act as a structure for follow-up advisory sessions with each client.

Council of Development Finance Agencies (CDFA)

CDFA is a national association dedicated to the advancement of development finance concerns and interests. CDFA is comprised of the nation’s leading and most knowledgeable members of the development finance community representing hundreds of public, private and non-profit development entities. CDFA will play a key role in the implementation and operation of the loan fund. Through assisting with the planning, creation of policies and processes, and strategy for capitalization of the loan fund as well as playing a role in the servicing of the established loan fund, CDFA will be a critical partner.