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Center for Rural Pennsylvania

We recently interviewed Kyle Kopko, director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. The Center is a legislative agency that serves as a resource for rural policy within the Pennsylvania General Assembly. It promotes and sustains the vitality of Pennsylvania's rural and small communities through research and information sharing. Click here for the full podcast:

 

Kyle, I briefly described the Center in my introduction, but please give our listeners a more comprehensive background on the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. How/why was it created and what type of work does the Center do each year

We were founded in 1987. The reason for that is in the 1980s, I'm sure as many listeners are aware, it was a period of economic transition for rural communities in Pennsylvania. The General Assembly didn't have great information about conditions on the ground, data trends, and other things of that nature. The Center was founded as one of the legislative service agencies of the General Assembly. We are part of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the legislature

We had two legislative mandates in that enabling legislation. One was to create a comprehensive database of rural indicators and trends. That way policy makers not only within the Commonwealth, but throughout the entire state of Pennsylvania (municipalities, school districts, nonprofit leaders) would all have access to good information on conditions in rural communities. Secondly, our other big task was to fund a grants program to study applied policy issues in rural communities. We do that in partnership with state universities and faculty members at those universities.

Those are our two big objectives as a legislative service agency. Also, we respond to requests from members of the community as I mentioned, nonprofit groups, school districts, municipal leaders. That way they have the best information possible for long term planning and to better understand how policy affects rural communities, and how it might also be different from a policy that affects an urban community. We can do that comparison and contrast, so that's the Center For Rural Pennsylvania in a nutshell.

There are certainly a lot of hot topics impacting rural America right now, from broadband to the impacts of COVID-19 on rural communities. What key issues do you expect the Center will focus on for 2022?

There's a lot going on, as I'm sure everyone's aware, but there are three things I'll highlight here

First of all, the opioid crisis isn't going away. It is still a major issue affecting many rural communities. It's not just opioids anymore, it's a larger addiction crisis. We're actually going to have a hearing on that topic coming up in February in Harrisburg, so I'd encourage listeners to check out our website for more information as we get that posted. There may be some strategies that communities can help implement to mitigate what's happening there.

Broadband access obviously is a huge issue for many of our rural communities. We're very happy to see that the General Assembly passed House Bill 2071, creating the statewide broadband authority. Governor Wolf signed that into law before Christmas break, and thankfully we do have a seat on that board. By legislation, a member of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania must sit on that authority to ensure that there is a rural voice.

The other big thing that we're going to be looking at here are population shifts within rural communities. Specifically, there's been a long-standing trend of decline in many rural communities, not all but many rural communities throughout Pennsylvania. What could be done about that? It's an issue that affects all types of industries including, healthcare, education, and public services. It's an economic development issue too. It's not that having fewer people is a bad thing, but it’s not having the resources, information, and knowledge handy to plan for that. That's our main concern. There are also some communities that would like to reverse that trend and grow a little bit, or at least sustain the current population that they have for years to come. That is going to be another big topic that the Center is going to tackle this coming year.

I recently reviewed the Center’s website in preparation for this podcast and I noticed your release on the Rural PA Housing Boom during the pandemic. That’s a topic we’ve discussed in a few other episodes on the podcast. Could you share with our listeners about the findings of that study?

That study is available freely on our website for download too, so the listeners can go check it out. We have a lot of GIS maps and color-coded maps there, so you can see these trends.

We were hearing about this from our community partners on the ground all throughout 2020, that there are more and more folks moving into rural areas. The sentiment at the time was that this was a way for folks to escape urban areas that were really being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but we didn't really have any data to go on.

Eventually the State Tax Equalization Board released their 2020 data, and we did a preliminary analysis and broke this down by county. Sure enough, we saw a sharp spike in housing sales in rural versus urban counties. Just to put this in context, the number of home sales in calendar year 2020 went up by 7% in rural areas, but they declined by 6% in urban areas. This gives us a very stark difference between rural and urban in terms of home sales.

Then we dug a little bit deeper, and we researched some of the counties that saw the sharpest increase in home sales. We went to their tax assessor’s offices to find out any information that they had on file about these sales. We were actually able to obtain data on where the buyers came from. We were able to then determine for a select number of counties what percentage of these home sales were out of county or out of state. There was a significant minority of these sales where they featured home buyers from the New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia regions moving in, particularly to the Northeast. Wayne, Pike and Monroe counties saw the sharpest growth during this period of time. They also had a fairly high percentage of home buyers from outside the region.

We also saw something happening in Somerset County. I was actually really surprised that it wasn't more folks from the Washington DC area moving into that particular region. Instead, it appeared to be individuals from the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area moving in, particularly to the ski resort areas around Seven Springs. The Poconos obviously having a lot of outdoor recreation and Seven Springs have a lot of outdoor recreation as well. We were also hearing from a lot of our partners that outdoor recreation industries were thriving during the pandemic because it's one of the businesses and industries that was still open for operation. Customers and consumers felt safe engaging in those types of activities. I think that there's a parallel there between home sales going up in these particular counties and what we also have heard on the ground from our industry partners, particularly in the outdoor rec and tourism industries.

Our podcast listeners range from farmers to agriculture industry professionals. What other research has the Center conducted in recent years that are resources to the agriculture community?

I'm really glad you asked this question because we just released the Second Edition of our Agritourism Handbook. Again, this is freely available for download on our website. Dr. Susan Ryan of California University of Pennsylvania and her co-author there updated this edition. It's really a how-to guide for anyone who's interested in either starting an agritourism business or expanding their current ag tourism business. Anything from how to use social media accounts properly, best practices for promoting yourself, ideas for ways to engage tourists with different types of activities, to different types of products that you might consider selling. That's something that I think would be of interest to folks.

We also just recently released a report regarding the 2017 census of agriculture. That should be up on our website here shortly, so I'd encourage listeners to check that out as well. We also frequently release weekly data grams that touch upon issues of agriculture and industry.

In fact, I'll put in a plug here. Please mark your calendars for January 14th. We are going to have an online webinar, which is our last scheduled webinar as part of our Rural Policy Summit Series. It will focus on agriculture. Secretary Russell Redding has indicated his willingness to participate. We also have several legislators from the House and the Senate. Members from the House Ag and Rural Affairs Committee and the Senate Ag and Rural Affairs Committee will be participating. The broad theme is going to be the future of agriculture in Pennsylvania and where some of these policy makers see policy matters going over the next five to 10 years. It should be a really fascinating discussion.

As we conclude, are there any other thoughts you'd like to share here with our listeners?

I'd just like to encourage our listeners to reach out if they have any requests or if they have any ideas for research projects that the Center should undertake. We were created to help decision makers create good, actionable public policy that benefits our rural communities. We want to hear from people and understand what's happening on the ground so we can provide the best services possible.


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