FRS Grantee Is Transforming Rural Ohio Communities—Four Years and Counting

The initiatives supported through the 2016 Foundation for Rural Service (FRS) grant program have us excited to hear from the awardees as their projects unfold and start benefiting rural communities. This process often yields impressive stories that detail the impact that the FRS program has on communities.

Jared Ebbing, director of Mercer County Community Development Department, a 2012 FRS grant recipient from Celina, Ohio, recently touched base with us, tracing its launch of a tool that is helping Mercer County boast one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state.

Several years ago, Ebbing found himself hearing from local companies unable to fill open positions, while recent graduates and others who were planning on moving from the area expressed frustration that there were no jobs there. The area needed a better platform for communicating the local economy’s demands and offerings, and the prominence of online activity in everyday life indicated that broadband could provide the solution.

When the Mercer County Community Development Department sought funding for a locally run job search/placement website in 2012, they discovered the FRS grant program from NTCA member Wabash Mutual Telephone Co. (Celina, Ohio) and FRS supported it with a $5,000 grant, helping sow the seeds for western Ohio’s economic boost.

As a locally run site that engages many community entities, Hometown Opportunity is more than just a jobs website, Ebbing insisted, he considers it an “enhanced communication tool” that encourages and draws on relationships with schools, guidance counselors, parent groups and businesses to help foster greater awareness of the area’s resources.

Since its inception, the site’s been generating a remarkable impact on the area’s economic development, both encouraging business expansion and enabling folks to stay in the area. The project got off the ground November of 2012 and quickly became “synonymous with job search/placement in the area,” expanding its reach to three counties and cementing its role as “the most prevalent tool in the area.” It has drawn about 260,000 unique visitors (72% of which end up returning) despite being based in a county with a population of about 40,000. Ebbing estimates that an average of 12–15 jobs get posted daily and says that, to this point, approximately 7,000 jobs and 2,000 resumes have been posted (resume posting is a relatively new feature that allows businesses to peruse the talent pool that may not have found them). Ebbing suggested, “It’s not uncommon for jobs posted to quickly get 20 resumes.”

Ebbing urged folks not to “assume lack of opportunity in rural areas just because you don’t know about it,” maintaining that there are often bountiful careers that sometimes we just “need to make people more aware of them.” He insists that the tool is replicable and points to the importance of engaging community leaders, businesses and schools as well as how critical promotional efforts are in popularizing the unique platform.

We encourage rural communities to follow Ebbing and the Mercer County Community Development Department’s lead by taking advantage of the FRS grant program’s available funding so that they might be able to share similar successes. Ebbing cited one of the greatest benefits as the area’s resultant reputation and positive perception. “The community is now engaging with local companies or industries and what they do,” helping it rekindle the sentiment that “rural America rocks!—we’ve got a lot of stuff going on,” he said.