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COVID-19: Rural America’s Opportunity


Read the full article by Jessica Glendinning “COVID-19: Rural America’s Opportunity” at

Ines Polonius, CEO at Communities Unlimited
Ines Polonius, CEO at Communities Unlimited

Social distancing is Rural America’s competitive advantage. Urban areas make up only 3% of the U.S. land area but are home to more than 80% of the population.

Young people, now more than ever, want to come back home to rural places. Intentional entrepreneurial ecosystems will help.

On July 5, 2020, The Hill concluded that a combination of the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty, and social unrest is prompting waves of Americans from large cities to permanently relocate to more sparsely populated areas.

This Self-Taught Farmer Grows Organic Food for His Community

This Self-Taught Farmer Grows Organic Food for His Community

By Jarquita Brown, Higher Purpose Co. and Metta Smith, Communities Unlimited, Inc.

Mississippi native, Robbie Pollard began gardening in 2011 and has been officially farming for 8 years in Marks, Mississippi. Pollard, a self-proclaimed YouTube farmer, began watching YouTube farming videos a few years ago and taught himself how to farm sustainably. He felt being from a small town such as Marks with not many food options, growing organically was much needed for his community.

Because of this, he founded Start 2 Finish, Inc. and began selling fruits and vegetables commercially in 2018. His farm’s mission is accomplished by demonstrating to local farmers and gardeners how to grow, process, market, and distribute healthy sustainably-grown food and value-added products while also helping to develop small farms and create employment opportunities for farmers and community residents.

Before COVID, Pollard was selling to schools, restaurants, and at farmer’s markets. He has also partnered with organizations such as Communities Unlimited, Higher Purpose Co, and the Mississippi Delta Council for Farm Workers Opportunities, Inc. (MDCFWOI), a minority-owned cooperative founded in 1971 in Clarksdale.

The cooperative is connected with Communities Unlimited’s Farm-to-Food Pantry Program funded by a grant from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation to buy fruits and vegetables from black farmers and donate the produce to food pantries in the Mississippi Delta.

Communities Unlimited has purchased purple hull peas from the cooperative because most people don’t want to shell them. MDCFWOI utilizes the Alcorn University Extension processing facility to shell purple hull peas. Pollard found out about the program when he was talking to a representative at the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) about partnering with them for the double up dollar program at his Farmstand. AARP connected him to Communities Unlimited’s Farm-to-Food Pantry program.

Pollard said he has been working nonstop since the pandemic hit, but also had to change a few things around in his business, but thanks Higher Purpose Co in its efforts to keep his business afloat during the pandemic. Pollard is a recipient of the Black Business Relief Fund, a half a million dollars fund launched by Higher Purpose Co to support Black entrepreneurs, farmers, and artists during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pollard said, “Because of the fund, I have been able to hire two young people, the relief fund has allowed me to be able to pay them and to have them working every day.”

He added, “The relief fund is allowing me to keep going with my business. Growing these fresh foods and being able to hire new workers and get supplies I need with the fund has helped me a lot, so for that I am truly thankful for what Higher Purpose is doing.”

Pollard is mainly selling at his Farmstand and to other nonprofits for their food boxes. He has established a program called the Happy Foods Project. He has worked with 6 to 7 farmers from different parts of the Delta, showing them how to farm sustainably.

He also works with Delta Fresh, a youth program in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. He plans on selling value-added products like salsa and dill pickles from other growers through his online.

Urgent & Primary Care Clinic of Clarksdale

Urgent & Primary Care Clinic of Clarksdale

Dr. Mary Williams has lived in Clarksdale, Mississippi, her entire life. She worked at the local hospital as a nurse practitioner for over 20 years. When she started Urgent Care & Primary Care of Clarksdale, there were no other after-hours clinics in Clarksdale.

“I was inspired to start my business because there was a need for after-hours care in the rural community,” Mary said. “People have to drive 45 minutes to get service after hours.”

“The need was there. I was available, and what better way to give all of myself to the community?”

Clarksdale, Mississippi, is a rural town of only 14,894 people, 34.5% of whom live in poverty. This rural southern town is located in Coahoma County, which has as its western border the mighty Mississippi River.

Running a business in a rural area is challenging, Mary said.

“Because we’re such a small area, we make such a small dot on the map,” she said. “It’s not an area that people would look at and bring attention to — ‘Let’s go to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and look at the rate of diabetes. Let’s go to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and look at kidney disease.’ That doesn’t happen.”

Those factors make it challenging to get financing and assistance for small businesses and startups. It meant driving 60 miles to the University of Mississippi-Oxford to utilize the Small Business Administration’s mentorship and other programs for Mary.

Even so, Mary said she needed assistance, particularly with accounting. That’s when she found out about Communities Unlimited.

After being introduced to Deborah Temple, Director of Lending for Communities Unlimited, Mary decided to take out a loan to help with her business startup costs. Deborah then connected her with Lequita Gray, a management consultant at Communities Unlimited, who assisted her with her finances and business management practices.

“She’s been a tremendous help, and I want to thank Communities Unlimited for that,” Mary said about Lequita.

As the business began to grow, so did the loyalty from the town’s residents, who seemed to appreciate that she had invested so much into her hometown.

Six months after Mary’s clinic opened, a national chain opened a clinic down the road. At first, Mary was worried about the competition.

“But you know what the town did for me? The day the other clinic opened, I had no [empty] parking spaces,” she said. “That week, and from that point on, they made it clear that ‘we support local, and we’re behind you.’”

Mary’s clinic was thriving almost from the beginning until COVID-19 hit.

“I went from seeing 25-30 patients a day to seeing five or six because we had to shelter in place,” Mary said.

She said she could see the vast impact the pandemic was having on her rural community, an insight many people didn’t have.

“In a small community, you don’t have a lot of manufacturing, and it’s really rural. So if they’re out of work, you can imagine the economic impact,” she said. “It has already impacted us wholly, but that economic impact on a small, rural community is unbelievable.

“It’s heartbreaking, that’s what it is. It’s heartbreaking.”

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Sardis Provides Cascade of Products for CU

SARDIS, MS — Sardis is a town with big hearts and a strong sense of community. But like many rural towns, it has struggled in the last few years to maintain its population. The town has lost about 20 percent of its residents since the 2000 U.S. Census, according to a 2018 estimate.

Communities Unlimited first began working with Sardis in 2013, when then-alderman Tommy Rayburn requested assistance with developing water system policies and procedures.

Communities Unlimited worked with Sardis officials for about six months as they developed proper policies and procedures for their wastewater system. The project was completed successfully, but Communities Unlimited let officials know that they would still be available anytime they were needed and would be just a phone call away.

By November 2017, Sardis was looking to make some improvements to its wastewater system. They were hoping to fund the project with money from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), but the application process was a very detailed one.

Communities Unlimited assisted with the application process, and the city was awarded a $450,000 grant for  improvements to its pump stations, as well as other parts of the system.

To ensure the continued success, Sardis Mayor Lula Palmer and Water/Wastewater Systems Operator Katera Newman called on Communities Unlimited for assistance.

Sardis wastewater system had fallen out of compliance with regulations from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) for its daily monitoring. Communities Unlimited assisted in setting up and properly maintaining the systems Daily Monitoring Reports (DMRs) and provided technical assistance to the wastewater operator to help meet the MDEQ requirements. Soon, the system was back in compliance and being monitored properly.

With the wastewater system in better shape, Communities Unlimited and town officials turned to another of the town’s issues — its lack of a grocery store.

Several residents and town officials expressed a desire to open a grocery store in Sardis so residents wouldn’t have to drive to the next town for groceries. Town officials were told about Communities Unlimited’s Healthy Foods program, which works to bring healthy foods to “food deserts,” or places that lack a proper venue for purchasing fresh foods.

Communities Unlimited agreed to do a feasibility study to see if a grocery store could be located in Sardis, and whether the town could sustain such a facility.

Unfortunately, the study concluded that a grocery store wasn’t feasible, given that two dedicated grocery stores and a grocery/department store were located just a few miles away in nearby Batesville.

But residents really wanted their own grocery, and Communities Unlimited wasn’t finished finding a way to try to make that desire a reality.

They decided, instead, to start smaller with a pop-up farmers market.

The town held a market in June 2019. It was so successful, the city government passed a resolution to keep the farmers market going.

Meanwhile, another investment was taking shape at nearby Sardis Lake, and Communities Unlimited saw an opportunity to encourage small businesses and entrepreneurs to get involved.

Greg Davis is the tourism director for the Sardis Lake area, is working on developing the Sardis Lake Project.

The project looks to bring in about $100 million in developments around the lake, from resorts to souvenir shops and restaurants.

Communities Unlimited brought in staff from its Entrepreneurship program to help train potential business owners who want to take advantage of the potential influx of tourists. The “How to Start a Business” workshop provided a starting point for future entrepreneurs who wanted to know not only how to start a business, but also how to maintain it.

As the development comes to fruition, Communities Unlimited will continue to work with the town officials, residents and entrepreneurs of Sardis to meet the community’s needs.

Bogata Enlist Aid From CU on Many Issues

BOGATA, TX – Often, the work Communities Unlimited performs in one community leads to assistance for another, nearby community.

Such is the case of the community of Bogata, Texas (pronounced “bah-GO-dah,” for those not in the know).

It was CU’s work with the quilt trail project in nearby Clarksville, Texas, that drew the interest of a Bogata resident who had some big ideas for the smaller community.

Bogata lies southwest of Clarksville and has a population of about 1,500. For years, the town thrived in a self-sustained community setting. That is, until about a decade ago, when the local nursing home closed.

The nursing home was a major economic stimulator for the community, providing not only jobs, but also residents in need of local goods and services.

Not long after the nursing home shut its doors, other businesses began to close. While every closure had an impact, one of the largest impacts came from the closure of the town’s lone grocery store. Now, residents must venture about 15 miles out of town to find the nearest grocery store. It was not only an inconvenience for residents, it was a major loss of tax revenue.

One of Bogata’s residents, Lee Williams, saw some of the assistance provided by Communities Unlimited in Clarksville and approached them with ideas for Bogata.

Bogata was a perfect candidate to take part in Community Unlimited’s Community Sustainability Initiative. The initiative uses the BUILD method: Begin the project, Understand the community, Initiate planning, Lead implementation and Develop sustainability. The goal is to guide a community into remaking itself from persistent poverty to sustainable prosperity.

The work in Bogata began with ideas for a solid waste project. Specifically, community leaders wanted to start a recycling program to help reduce their waste stream. They also wanted to find a way to acquire a “one-armed bandit” trash collection vehicle.

While waiting for word on the grant, community leaders found another task for CU — bringing businesses back to downtown.

Communities Unlimited was able to provide a small business loan to the Honey Hush Boutique, which went into a previously vacant building in the heart of Bogata’s downtown. Today, the homegrown business is thriving.

But the community leaders of Bogata didn’t want to stop there. They also wanted a grocery store returned to their town.

A management consultant from Communities Unlimited began working with community led steering committee to discuss opening a cooperative grocery store. The process began with a feasibility study conducted by Communities Unlimited and presented to the Bogata steering committee.

The steering committee was able to review the feasibility study and determine that they should move forward with the project, starting with preparing a strategy for raising the capital needed.

The grocery store and small business loans are just two of the ways Bogata is working to stimulate its local economy with assistance from Communities Unlimited. After seeing the possibilities for the town’s future, they decided to apply for a grant that would take their sustainability plans even further.

Thanks to a Rural Community Development Initiative Grant through USDA-RD, Bogata will receive three years of technical assistance training through Communities Unlimited to used on economic development, GIS mapping and assistance to local businesses.

Communities Unlimited is currently working with Bogata officials to bring a grocery store or a farmer’s market to the town. The project is a perfect fit for CU’s Healthy Foods program, which links farmers and agricultural centers with communities in need of a source of fresh food.

Bogata is a perfect example of how the facilitation of one project can grow into a multi-faceted approach to improving a community through economic, environmental and sustainability approaches. Though the projects may seem separate on the surface, they actually share an overall goal of improving the sustainability of the community.

Safe Driving

Safe Driving

Norman and Marietha Timmerman own Safe Drive Non-Emergency Transportation, LLC, or Safe Drive NEMT. They first opened their business in January of 2020 and began transporting patients the last week of February. They are located in Jonesboro, AR, and serve Craighead County and the surrounding area. They intend to expand their services areas as they can add more vehicles. They currently have two vehicles but would like to add 5 or 6 more over the next two years. Norman wanted to start a non-emergency medical transportation service for several reasons. He said, “I have always had a passion for community service,” and this was an area he could meet a need with quality customer service.

His mother used a non-emergency medical transportation service when she fell very ill. The service provider was frequently late to pick her up for her appointments, and she would have to wait for 45 minutes or longer to be picked from her appointments. He had driven for a similar company for six years and knew he could provide a quality service for people in a similar situation to his mother’s. Norman and Marietha worked after opening to be approved as a sub-contractor for 2 Arkansas vendors. They were approved. Then they had to shut down the business entirely because of COVID-19.

After two months of being closed, they re-opened on May 4th.  In their 2nd week, they were hit with another stroke of bad luck one of their two vehicles had to go into the shop for repairs so they could only operate at half capacity. They hadn’t generated any revenue in 2 months, and now they could only make half with the added expense of repairs. They were unable to cover overhead costs, including rent and insurance. They turned to Communities Unlimited and applied for a Reboot Loan to get their business moving again. They also started working with CU management consultants on financial planning.

The Timmerman’s are developing a 3-year financial statement projection. They have been given a cash flow and budgeting tool so they can understand how money flows through their business to better plan for future expenses. This tool will also help them in identifying where they may be able to cut costs. They are also working on forecasting revenue, variable costs and overhead. They are also receiving QuickBooks training. While they may have had a rough start, they have started moving forward to build a solid foundation to build their growing business.

Brazilian Baker's Dream Becomes Doce Vida

ALEXANDRIA, LA — Several years ago, Neila Craig went to her husband Sean and told him that she wanted to stay home with the new child they were about to have. That meant their dual-income household would become a single one.

“It caused anxiety, for sure,” Sean said.

“He said, ‘there’s no way,’ so I said, ‘well, I’ll make a way,’” Neila said.

CU’s Deborah Temple (left) and Kevin Tillman (right) stand with Doce Vida owners Neila and Sean Craig.

She did just that, turning a hobby and sideline into a full-time, in-home business. In time, the business outgrew the home, and the couple decided to take another massive step and help Neila fulfill a longtime dream.

Together, they opened the Doce (pronounced “Doe-see”) Vida Brazilian Bakery in Alexandria, Louisiana.

The journey to the Louisiana shop started in Brazil, wove through family history and recruited assistance from the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance (CLEDA) and Communities Unlimited.


Neila Craig was born in Juiz de Fora, Brazil, a city in southeastern Brazil located north of Rio de Janero. She came to the United States with family and became a permanent resident.

It was through Neila’s family that she acquired her love of baking. At age 14, she baked a cake for her mother’s birthday with help from another family member. She enjoyed it so much, she began to learn more about baking.

She eventually met and married Sean Craig. Neila would bake cakes for her children’s birthday parties, and friends began asking if she would bake for them.

She began taking orders, and  eventually, she decided to improve her craft by taking cake decorating course being offered at the local craft store. She also took a course at the Culinary Institute of Baton Rouge.

Sean worked overtime with his job at the local Veterans Administration, and Neila turned her sideline baking into a full-time job.

She began expanding from baking cakes for family and friends by creating desserts and treats and taking them to Sean’s workplace at the VA two or three times a week to sell.

On the way home one day, she spotted the Alexandria Farmers Market and decided to stop and inquire about selling there.

“The guy there was very receptive, and he said, ‘Oh, we need somebody with baked goods! Can you start next Tuesday?’ And I said, ‘absolutely,’” Neila said.

She started at the farmers market in 2015 with a single folding table, a single chair and 20 items. She sold out that day, and came back every Tuesday for three hours each day to sell more at the market. By the time she ended her work at the farmers market in September 2019, she had 378 items on her table.

“I couldn’t keep up with the demand,” she said. “That’s how Doce Vida came about.”


By 2018, Neila knew she needed help maintaining the growth of her business, so she turned to CLEDA for business advice.

After working to better organize her business, Neila decided her main goal was to open an actual bakery, but she had no idea how to go about creating the shop.

Gary Perkins of CLEDA recommended that Neila and Sean work with Communities Unlimited to get a business plan and a loan to start their own bakery.

“All the sudden, we had to learn how to write a business plan, projections, and very scary things,” Sean added.

But Communities Unlimited and CLEDA worked with the Craigs on their “scary things,” assisting in developing the bakery from concept to a physical store.

The couple found a location in a retail center located along one of Alexandria’s main thoroughfares. With a loan from Communities Unlimited, Neila and Sean purchased what they would need to start the bakery: the ovens, the cold cases and other equipment, dishes, ingredients, furniture, décor and even a new website.

In March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country, and many businesses had to close. Doce Vida was able to keep its business going with a few cutbacks. Soon, it got busier and ended up hiring more employees. The business even was nominated in the 2020 CENLA’s Choice best-of competition for Best New Business, Best Bakery and Best Dessert.

Neila and Sean say they couldn’t not have opened the shop without the help of CLEDA and Communities Unlimited.

“Us trying to do this alone would be like running through a mine field in the dark, with barbed wire up for good measure, because there’s so many things you just do not know, and experience is a very expensive teacher,” Sean said.

Neila said they were skeptical at first that business management services such as those offered by CLEDA and Communities Unlimited could be cost-free and still be real. Once they got involved, however, they found working with both entities “amazing.”

Both said they were especially grateful for the business guidance offered by CLEDA and Communities Unlimited.

“It has been a learning experience, and we still learn every day,” Sean said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”