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Celebrating 30 Years of Helping Rural Communities Thrive

Thirty years ago, with the drastic downturn in the timber industry, many rural communities in the Pacific Northwest lost high wage jobs and many rural mills were forced to close. To respond to this economic crisis, the Oregon Economic Development Department’s Community Initiatives Program was formed to help these communities diversify their economies. In 1991, this program was transformed into Rural Development Initiatives, the private nonprofit as we know it today.

As RDI celebrates 30 years of helping rural communities thrive, we are reflecting back on the hundreds of rural communities we’ve worked alongside over the years. As RDI’s Executive Director Heidi Khokhar has said, “Every town in the rural Northwest holds a special place in our hearts, with a familiar face, a favorite coffee spot, or a great memory.” These communities are several miles away, or hundreds of miles away, yet they are the home away from home for RDI.

One such community is Rainier, located on the Columbia River in northwestern Oregon. Decades ago, the town had a series of events that resulted in the loss of family wage jobs due to a mill fire, a decline in the fishing industry, and a nuclear power plant closure. In 1993 RDI was invited to help the community develop a strategic plan. The focus of the strategic plan and the heart of the community’s vision for the future included a riverfront that blends commercial, retail, and industrial development with space for people. A first step in realizing this vision was when U.S. Gypsum broke ground on a plant along the river, which became a source of stable long-term jobs for the community.

The community credited the strategic planning process and the Rural Futures Forum leadership training facilitated by RDI for the community knowing what it wanted and how to get things done. “RDI helped us figure out exactly what we wanted. It’s what our community needed, not what was appropriate for some other city.” ~ Bette Lang, Former Chair, Rainier Economic Development Council

From that initial response to the economic crisis during the downturn of the timber industry in the 1990s, RDI has continually adapted to meet the needs of people in rural places like Rainier by facilitating visions and strategic action plans, training leaders to make change in their communities, helping rural people carry out their visions, and supporting entrepreneurs to start businesses.

Over the next several months, we’ll be sharing more stories of RDI collaborating with communities throughout the region over the last 30 years to achieve a vibrant rural future. Follow along as we highlight stories of community-based recovery and resiliency over the past three decades on our newsletter, blog and social media channels, and look toward the next 30 years of strengthening rural people, places and economies throughout the Pacific Northwest.