SHIPROCK — The U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a new initiative the agency hopes will help rural communities develop strong economies.

The department hosted a meeting in Shiprock Tuesday afternoon to enlist community members in its "Strengthening Economies Together," which aims to teach community members economic community planning through a series of eight courses held over the next 18 months.

The courses are open to community members and professionals who want to learn more about creating strong rural economies.

"It's our hope we're setting the stage for growth to come," said Terry Brunner, state director for the Agriculture Department's rural development program.

At center, Jeff Kiely, Director, Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments, listens, on Tuesday during a "Strengthening Economies Together"
At center, Jeff Kiely, Director, Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments, listens, on Tuesday during a "Strengthening Economies Together" program at Senator John D Pinto Library Auditorium at Diné College in Shiprock. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

The initial meeting at Diné College was held to recruit interested community members and about 25 people attended, most of whom were from New Mexico State Extension Program and the Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments.

Community leaders from the Shiprock and Tse Daa K'aan Chapters attended the meeting as well.

Brunner said the program is designed to teach community members about the dynamics of their local economy so they can create sustainable projects that suit the communities strengths.

Brunner said the New Mexico Rural Development office has performed similar trainings in the rural parts of southern New Mexico that have produced positive results.

He said the small city of Deming in southwestern New Mexico used information from the training to begin efforts at becoming a tourist destination for archers.

Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments Director Jeff Kiely said the best economic plans come from the communities. He pointed to the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply project as an example of how water usage plans have not been developed even though pipeline construction started nearly two years ago.

"Is there a plan to take advantage of that water resource?" Kiely asked, "This (training) would be the proper place to discuss those plans."

Brunner said they hope to have as many community members as possible attend the eight-course program.

"I like the idea of the grassroots (organizations) being at the table to plan," said Russell Begaye, Shiprock's Navajo Nation Council delegate. He also asked if prior community plans could be incorporated with the curriculum.

Brunner said prior community plans could be used.

Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie said he liked that the course would be open to all community members, including community organizers and professionals.

"I agree, they should be a part of this process," he said.

In an interview prior to the meeting, Brunner said his office will support and help organizers strengthen their plans. He said he can advocate for strong economic development plans with other federal agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"If we don't have a program that can help, I'll try to find another federal agency that could," he said.

Prestene Garnenez, planner in the Council of Governments, said they hope to start the first course by the end of March or early April."

According to a handout, the courses will explore topics that include demographics, regional economy strategy development and regional strengths and barriers.

"We're wanting communities to develop their own economic development strategies," Garnenez said.

She added that the same type of community recruiting meetings are scheduled to take place today in Zuni and Grants.

"I hope you spread the word to these communities," Brunner said.

Erny Zah is the business editor for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4638 and ezah@daily-times.com. Follow him @ernyzah on Twitter.