Rural economic development is a primary focus for CEI – but what exactly do we mean when we say we’re a national leader in rural business development? As a starting point, rural economic development requires a national network of partners and collaborators, as well as capital. For CEI, a primary partner has been Rural LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation). LISC, which combines corporate, government and philanthropic resources to help nonprofit community development corporations revitalize distressed neighborhoods, was founded in 1980. Rural LISC, which was launched in 1995 with CEI as a founding member, expanded LISC’s reach to rural areas with a focus on low-income rural communities.
Rural LISC’s members, made up of CDCs (Community Development Organizations) and CDFIs (Community Development Financial Institutions) deploy capital and technical assistance to rural areas, stimulating job growth and economic activity. At its most basic, Rural LISC provides capital to CEI, which CEI then lends to small businesses in rural areas. In addition CEI provides sector-specific technical assistance, which functions, practically speaking, as wraparound services for its lending program.
As a founding member of Rural LISC, CEI hosted Rural LISC’s first annual conference in Bethel, Maine in 1995, and in June, hosted Rural LISC’s 20th anniversary conference in Portland. The content was rich and diverse with three tracks: Economic Development Track, Multi-Family Development Track and Single Family Development track. The keynote speaker, Lisa Mensah, USDA’s Under Secretary for Rural Development, poignantly underscored the importance of partnerships in rural economic development, noting that USDA, through entities like Rural LISC and CEI, had created 6000 rural jobs through deployment of capital.