Extension has long been an economic development partner involved in a wide range of issues, from water quality and agricultural practices to retail and energy. Since passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, Extension has provided outreach and non-formal education to strengthen lives and communities across the country.
Over the last century, Extension has continued its original mission to extend university resources while also adapting to changing times, to address a wide range of challenges and opportunities in both urban and rural areas. Extension can be found in all 50 states, with about 2,900 offices nationwide. In Ohio, over 700 Extension professionals staff offices within all 88 counties, in addition to numerous regional and state offices, that enable this outreach arm of Ohio State University to engage communities, businesses, and organizations of any size and location.
How do local economic development organizations (EDOs) find out about and engage with Extension? Typically, they hear about services and contact Extension directly, or Extension professionals reach out through workshops and forums about their programs and resources. Extension professionals are frequent speakers at a variety of conferences and meetings at the local, state, and national levels. EDOs are also often in contact with Extension professionals as co-members on boards of community and economic development organizations.
Extension has partnered with EDOs in pursuit of just about every imaginable economic development function. In Ohio, Extension was an early adopter of business retention and expansion practices, developing one of the first formal BR&E programs. Since 1986, Ohio State University Extension’s BR&E Program has developed capacity of community leaders via more than 140 programs in 77 Ohio counties, in both urban and suburban areas.
In terms of workforce development, OSU’s STEM Pathways program aims to increase youth curiosity, logical thinking, problem-solving skills, and team communication abilities, to ensure tomorrow’s workforce is highly skilled and globally competitive. Extension professionals teach the STEM program curriculum directly to students and in a train-the-trainer format for the teachers who will then deliver the program.
Energy development, including renewables and shale gas, is a focus area for Extension. New programs have been developed to help businesses and communities assess the costs and benefits of energy development. The commissioners of Wyandot County recently enlisted Extension to conduct a survey of residents and land owners on their feelings toward wind farm development. Survey findings enabled the county commissioners to decide whether wind development was a good fit for the county.
Most of Extension’s work is research-based, involving collecting, compiling, and analyzing original data through surveys, focus groups, and other outreach techniques. For instance, Extension professionals implement a variety of qualitative and quantitative tools to help communities better understand trends and conditions of their local and regional economies.
The Economic Impact Analysis (EIA) and Retail Market Analysis (RMA) programs are good examples of applied research in action. Both programs help communities measure change in their local economies to guide local decision-making. Extension professionals recently completed an EIA project to estimate the impact of tourism generated by the Lakeside Chautauqua in Ottawa County. RMA projects are frequently implemented, usually on the county level, to help inform EDOs about which retail sectors are growing and to identify gaps in the retail market.
Extension professionals and resources are also widely available online. Economic developers can find out more about Extension services on university websites, many of which have extensive links to fact sheets, blogs and social media sites. A somewhat new initiative, “eXtension,” is an internet-based portal with access to specialized information and research on a wide range of topics from land-grant universities across the country.
The pursuit of meaningful and productive partnerships is a core principle of Extension. Extension professionals seek out opportunities to collaborate on mutually beneficial projects and welcome new project ideas from economic developers and others. Economic developers can partner with Extension to leverage a wide range of useful university resources.
Nancy Bowen is an Associate Professor & Extension Field Specialist, Community Economics.