Rural areas of Massachusetts face different challenges than the rest of the Commonwealth. Unlike the economic growth engine of Greater Boston, rural areas are dealing with issues such as: small, aging and often declining populations; limited fiscal resources and staffing constraints; inadequate infrastructure and mobility options; and acute public health challenges. To help identify strategies and opportunities to address these issues, the Rural Policy Advisory Commission was created by the state Legislature in 2015 with a mission to “enhance the economic vitality of rural communities.”
Rural communities (those with population densities of less than 500 persons per square mile) comprise 59 percent of the land area in the Commonwealth yet only 13 percent of its population. Totaling 170 communities, rural municipalities are primarily located in western and central Massachusetts, with clusters in the northeast, southeast and the Cape and Islands.
Over a two-year period, the Commission engaged in a comprehensive program of research and outreach including listening sessions at ten locations across the Commonwealth in late 2018 and continuing in 2019 with over 20 focused stakeholder meetings to refine the information and develop the recommendations in this first of its kind Rural Policy Plan for Massachusetts. The key issues identified through this work included:
- Demographic trends and declining populations are the single biggest challenge in rural areas
- Enhancing rural competitiveness depends on upgrading the infrastructure in rural areas
- Economic opportunities and workforce needs are different in rural areas and require different strategies
- Rural areas have unique housing needs, which are not being met
- Education and health care – known as strengths statewide – can be significant challenges in rural areas
- Rural communities struggle to achieve equal access to funding resources and have difficulty attracting professional staff
The intent of the Rural Policy Plan is to illustrate the unique attributes and challenges faced by rural communities, inform policy makers of existing best-practices and identify a series of recommendations to be explored and implemented under a proposed new Office of Rural Policy.
The report spans 15 distinct focus areas within the categories of Infrastructure, Economy, Community, Governance and Resiliency. Contained within each category and in each specific focus area are a series of prioritized recommendations for further analysis and implementation. From the roughly one hundred suggestions, the Commission identified a set of top priorities that, along with achievable action items, will assist rural communities in the near term.