Coral Murphy

| USA TODAY
Who works in America? A breakdown of the US labor forceFrom gender to the gig economy and location, the American labor force is changing. Here’s how you compare to the average American worker.Olga Ragel takes pride in her small, rural town of Emporia, Kansas, where she opened her own restaurant in 2014. Ragel moved to the U.S. from Coahuila, Mexico, not knowing what to expect in the Sunflower State, more than 900 miles from her home town. More than 30 years after the move, she hs established both a family and her own business in Emporia. “I’ve never felt excluded here,” Ragel told USA Today. “The community loves the food we make, especially because we’re known for making it fresh and fast.”The founders of El Toro restaurant are an example of residents living in rural communities experiencing economic growth through the bridging of economic and social divides.Rural downtown revitalization can be fostered by promoting racial and economic inclusion, enforcing community identity, and enhancing residents’ attachments to place, according to a Brookings report published on Dec. 1. The study, in collaboration with the nonprofit National Main Street Center, found that that enhancing social cohesion in rural communities contributes to small business success.The presence of locally owned businesses within communities can also increase social capital, or networks of relationships among community members. This social capital can lead to higher levels of upward economic mobility for rural residents.Emporia, Kansas, Wheeling, West Virginia, and Laramie, Wyoming were the three communities analyzed for the report, conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic.These communities experienced an increase in leisure and hospitality business openings between 2015 and 2019, according to the Brookings report. In Wheeling, 104 new businesses opened outside and in their downtown area. Meanwhile, 92 and 57 businesses opened in Laramie and Emporia, respectively. The authors of the study, Hanna Love and Michael Powe, said they focused on the social and economic disparities between residents, as well as neighborhoods within a rural community.“When we talk about social disparities, we’re talking about the type of investments one neighborhood might get compared to another, how far people of different races have to travel to get to a grocery stores and poverty rates,” said Hanna Love, senior research analyst in the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.Love said this bridging also refers to intangible social divides, such as how welcomed a person feels going into a specific shop or event, as well as a sense of belonging in the community. In Emporia, for example, the National Main Street Center partnered with community groups representing Latino or Hispanic residents, co-hosted events with them to welcome Latino or Hispanic residents downtown, and identified Latino or Hispanic grantees for small business loans to increase the number of minority business owners downtown.This lead to financial assistance provided to Latino- or Hispanic-owned businesses. “It’s been 46 years since I’ve been here and it’s grown very diverse,” said Sally Sanchez, a member of the Emporia-based nonprofit Hispanics of Today and Tomorrow. “Just within the last few years, Main Street has loaned out to Hispanic businesses and they wouldn’t have been able to open without that.”However, the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening the viability of these strategies, according to the report. Emporia, Wheeling and Laramie canceled events and gatherings and the tourism economy has plummeted. For Love, who spoke to business owners and community leaders amid the pandemic, the situations these communities face could be more optimistic than one would initially think. “They’re used to working under tight financial constraints for decades,” said Love. “They have the know-how and dedicated local organizations who are working on behalf of the residents and small businesses.”For Ragel, maintaining her restaurant afloat has presented a challenge and what she describes as a series of “ups and downs.” “Business has been a little slower, but I know we can pull through,” Ragel said. Follow Coral Murphy on Twitter @CoralMerfi


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