Current Activities

The activities of Rural Partners are intended to be value-added and not duplicative. Our strength is in our networking and collaborative skills. The following are examples of successes our members have experienced and have credited Rural Partners’ network, leadership training, and /or direct involvement in that success.

Partners for Rural America Releases 2015 Annual Report
Click here to read the report.

Gibson City hospital employee named 2014 Rural Illinois Champion
Read the complete article.

February 2014 – Rural Partners Board Member, Norm Waltzer named to the Rural Policy Research Institute Panel.
Visit the Rural Policy Research Institute’s website.

Vermont Investments Put Landscapes to Work
In a state that is mostly forests and farmland, the Working Lands Enterprise initiative helps landowners generate income while protecting open space and the environment. Read the full article.

Partners for Rural America Holds Annual Meeting: Townsend Elected to Board Chair
Rural Development Councils from sixteen states including Illinois Rural Partners met in Montpelier, Vermont during the week of September 9, 2013 to hold its annual meeting, elect officers, reinforce collaborations and visit successful community vitality and entrepreneurship activities. Partners for Rural America (PRA) strengthened its ties with Rural Policy Research Institute and its President and CEO Chuck Fluharty and state policy centers from nine states including Chris Merrett of the WIU Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Macomb and Norm Walzer of the NIU Center for Governmental Affairs at De Kalb.

Given its mission from the Farm Bill, PRA is a unique bridge building organization of the state councils and helps them collaborate across sectors, coordinate program development and implementation and support models for community success. All councils work to connect local folks to regional, state, federal, non-profit and private sector resources to enable them to move forward and accomplish their long term priorities and build leadership.

PRA elected its sixteen member board representing eight districts from across the county. It also elected its officers as follows: Chair: Jerry Townsend, Illinois Rural Partners; Vice-Chair: Mike Field, Idaho Rural Partnership; Secretary: Mary Ann Hayes, Maine Rural Partners and Treasurer: Mary Randolph, Wyoming Rural Development Council.

PRA’s website is

Rural Partners Annual Meeting of the Membership
Rural Partners annual meeting of the membership was held March 6, 2013 during the 24th annual Rural Community Economic Development Conference in Peoria, a conference that Rural Partners cosponsors with the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs and the Office of Lt. Governor Shelia Simon.

Minutes of the March 6, 2012 annual meeting were approved. Board chair Matt Johnson presented the treasurer’s report noting the sound financial position of the organization and thanked all members for their support. He then discussed the many highlights and activities of Rural Partners over the last year.

The membership elected the following to serve another three year term on the board: Blanche Shoup, Director of Workforce Investment Office of Western Illinois; Harry Wolin, Administrator and CEO of Mason District Hospital; Anne Heinze-Silvis, Interim Program Leader and Extension Specialist University of Illinois Extension and Bryan Smith, Executive Director Township Officials of Illinois. Mary Ring with the Illinois Critical Access Hospital Network and formerly Director of the Illinois Center for Rural Health after years of exemplary service on the board and a lifetime of dedicated work improving health care in Illinois chose to retire from the board.

The members elected the following slate of officers for the coming year: Chair – Matt Johnson, Illinois Telecommunications Association; Executive Vice-Chair – Chris Merrett, Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs; Treasurer – Robert Paoni, Small Business Administration; Assistant Treasurer – Carol Jo Fritts, First Neighbor Bank; Secretary – Karen Bersche, Towanda District Library and Assistant Secretary – Blanche Shoup, Workforce Investment Office of Western Illinois.

All members were encouraged to give their comments and recommendations at and periodically check the website at

Simon Names 2013 Rural Illinois Champion
Jerry Townsend dedicated to improving quality of life for rural residents. View the press release.

Illinois Rural Partners Co-Sponsors 24th Annual Rural Conference
Illinois Rural Partners, the designated state rural development council for Illinois, along with the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs and the Office of Lt. Governor Shelia Simon are pleased with the attendance and learning opportunities of the 24th Annual Rural Community Development Conference held March 6-7, 2013 in Peoria. Every year of the conference Dr. Norman Walzer, Director Emeritus of the Institute and current Senior Research Scholar with the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University has arranged the keynote speakers and the presenters for breakout sessions which this year included seventeen sessions giving the attendees many options. Speakers came from seven states.

The focus of this year’s conference was “Meeting New Challenges with Innovative Approaches”. Financial support was provided by ten organizations and businesses as well by seventeen exhibitors. The keynote speakers and topics were Barbara Wyckoff, Dynamica Consulting, discussing “WealthWorks: A New Approach to Building Rural Wealth”; Eric Robbins, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, “The Role of Banking in Future Economic Health”; Gardner A. Carrick, Manufacturing Institute, “Manufacturing Resurgence in the Midwest” and Jeannette P. Tamayo, US Economic Development Administration, “Collaboration and Innovation: US EDA”.

Matt Johnson, Board Chair, discussed recent Rural Partners highlights and accomplishments, thanked current members and urged others to get involved in the partnership initiatives of the organization. Rural Partners held its annual meeting during the conference.

Jerry Townsend, immediate past chair of Rural Partners, was announced by Lt. Governor Simon as the recipient of the Rural Champion Lifetime Achievement Award for 2013. Jerry served in the military, the Peace Corps, worked 38 years for USDA Rural Development and continues to be active in many rural development organizations. Dr. Norman Walzer was last year’s recipient.

Ridenour Receives Touchstone Energy Cooperatives Distinguished Service Award
Aaron Ridenour, manager of marketing and business development at Prairie Power, Inc., received the Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives Distinguished Service Award during the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association Annual Meeting held in New Orleans, La. February 15-21, 2013.

The Distinguished Service Award is the highest honor bestowed by Touchstone Energy Cooperatives and is presented annually to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the development and success of the Touchstone Energy Cooperatives brand at the national level. Ridenour is just the 17th award recipient since the brand’s inception in 1998.

Ridenour was praised for his tireless efforts in working with the national staff as well as always offering a hand to forward the brand to Illinois’ cooperatives. Ridenour’s efforts were critical nationally to the development of, Touchstone Energy Cooperatives’ Web-based site selection clearinghouse, and the Co-op Connections member benefit program. Ridenour was also praised for his work to develop and promote the Energy Efficiency Wall, which has educated consumers across the country about measures they can take to reduce their energy use.

Illinois USDA Rural Development
The Illinois USDA Rural Development staff has published a report of its impressive annual accomplishments. Go to and click on 2012 Annual Review to read it.

Rural Illinois: Building the Foundation for a Robust Rural Develpment Policy
The annual report to the Governor and General Assembly prepared by the Office of Lt. Governor Simon and the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs may be found at

Creating a Common Voice for Downstate Illinois
More than 100 economic developers, community leaders, legislators and others attended an economic development summit on September 20, 2012 at the Decatur Conference Center. Conference Co-Chair Stepheny McMahon of Sullivan Chamber & Economic Development asked attendees to provide positive, non-partisan discussion on common, key development issues to make Illinois more competitive, to show solidarity and to highlight our strengths. Jerry Townsend, Rural Partners, Conference Co-Chair, stated that the conference was designed to implement ideas and success stories learned at the annual spring Rural Community Economic Development conference presented by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, and improved leadership skills learned at the Annual Illinois Leadership Conference spearheaded by Anne Silvis and U of I Extension. Jerry thanked legislators for passing legislation extending and expanding Enterprise Zones, as this was a priority at last year’s conference.

David Vaught, Director of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO), discussed business development success stories, all of which were partnerships between the State, communities and regions. All development starts at the local level with leadership, infrastructure, a skilled workforce and a willingness to be flexible to accommodate developers’ needs.

Norman Walzer, Senior Research Scholar with the Center for Government Studies at Northern Illinois University, made a presentation on where Illinois currently stands in comparison to surrounding states on economic development competitiveness, and noted that neighboring states have comparable industry and job loss trends. He noted a significant non-metro population decline in Illinois as well as a widening gap in wages compared to metro areas.

Six panel members discussed “branding Illinois.” John Grueling, President and CEO of Will County Center for Economic Development and current president of the Illinois Development Council, stated that Illinois has demonstrated that it can be competitive attracting businesses and chasing jobs, especially internationally, but local leaders hold the key. Each community and region must determine what its number one strength is and promote that and sell themselves. Plus, do not forget that tourism should be a part of your marketing. All panelists agreed we need combined and united efforts by multiple organizations at the state, regional and local levels to positively brand Illinois, actively share success stories, build a complimentary relationship between rural and urban Illinois, and develop means for effectively informing legislators of common issues and concerns for proactive rather than reactive legislation.

Kim Kuchenbrod, Workforce Development Consultant, Vermilion (County) Advantage, presented successful tools and ideas for building a skilled and educated workforce, and noted that many companies have job vacancies but are unable to find people prepared to fill them.

An evaluation of the conference, discussion of action items and plans for next year’s conference will be October 30 and 31.

Critical Access Hospital Program: Economic & Community Impact in Illinois
Rural Partners Board of Directors, Norm Walzer is one of the authors of this report. View the impact report.