Amenities: A Hopeful Approach to Rural Development

This is the second of two blog posts on rural poverty by Mariah Levison, a graduate student in International Affairs at Washington University in St. Louis, based on a presentation that Oklahoma Policy Institute gave last month at McCurtain Memorial Hospital in Idabel. In our initial post, Mariah summarized some of the data and theories on the causes of poverty in McCurtain County. Here she examines the research on amenities based development as a strategy for addressing rural poverty.

Rural poverty is an important issue for Oklahoma both, because 35 percent of Oklahomans  live in rural areas and because rural areas are poorer than urban areas.  According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service(ERS), the rural poverty rate has exceeded the urban rate every year since poverty was first officially measured in the 1960s.  In 2002, 14.2% of the rural population was poor, compared with 11.6 % of the urban population.

When rural areas in the US were predominately agricultural, development strategies focused on strengthening farms. As the economy of the US shifted, communities began to try to attract or retain industry through the use of tax incentives and other economic concessions. Unfortunately, the costs of this approach often outweighed the benefits.

The failures of the industrial approach contributed to the development of a new approach: amenity based development. Amenity based development is a strategy that focuses on developing natural and cultural amenities. These amenities retain the population and attract tourists, retirees, entrepreneurs, and others whose arrival generates new jobs. This stimulates employment growth and economic and community development.

According to an ERS report, counties with high levels of recreational amenities are one of the few bright spots in rural development. During the 1990s, these places averaged 20% population growth, about three times that of other non-metropolitan counties, and 24% employment growth, more than double the rate of other non-metro countries.

ERS developed a natural amenities scale to measure the characteristics that enhance a location. The scale consists of six measures of climate, topography, and water area. You can see from the map below that Oklahoma does not rank highly on this scale. But, it does not rank at the bottom either. While having a lower number of natural amenities diminishes the applicability of amenities based development, there is still much to be gained from amenities based development in Oklahoma.


There are various approaches to amenities based development. One strategy is to create recreational amenities. A stream can be dammed to make a recreational lake or a golf course can be built. Where amenities exist, such as lakes in Oklahoma, they can be enhanced through upgrade and improved access .  Another strategy is to capitalize on cultural amenities such as historical battlefields, local history museums, and local forms of music, arts, or food. Whatever the strategy, advertising campaigns are a mainstay of amenities based development plans.

There is some criticism of amenities based development. One criticism is that the types of jobs that are created by this strategy are primarily seasonal, unskilled, low-wage jobs such as hotel and restaurant jobs. On the other hand, if tourism and recreational development attract significant numbers of seasonal and permanent residents, it could change the community for the better. The new residents could spark a housing boom and demand more goods and services, resulting in a more diversified economy with more high-paying jobs. Even low-paid recreation workers could benefit if better employment became available.

One concern we could raise about amenities based development in Oklahoma is whether it works. We’ve invested substantial resources in amenities over the years. Yet Delaware County, on Grand Lake, is 40th of Oklahoma’s 77 counties in per capita income. McCurtain County, home of Broken Bow Lake and Beavers Bend State Park, is 56th. This suggests other factors, such as accessibility and education, need to be considered as well.

Despite these drawbacks, amenities based development has emerged on the scene as a source of success where agricultural and industrial development have too often failed. This strategy has been widely successful in regions with a plethora of natural amenities, such as Colorado and Oregon. While regions with fewer natural amenities will never see the levels of development that these regions have, the principles of amenities based development can make a positive contribution to any region.


Paul Shinn

Paul Shinn served as Budget and Tax Senior Policy Analyst with OK Policy from May 2019 until December 2021. Before joining OK Policy, Shinn held budget and finance positions for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the Department of Human Services, the cities of Oklahoma City and Del City and several local governments in his native Oregon. He also taught political science and public administration at the University of Oklahoma, University of Central Oklahoma, and California State University Stanislaus. While with the Government Finance Officers Association, Paul worked on consulting and research projects for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and several state agencies and local governments. He also served as policy analyst for CAP Tulsa. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from University of Oklahoma and degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland College Park. He lives in Oklahoma City with his wife Carmelita.

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