Greener Pastures: Small-town economics major takes...

Greener Pastures: Small-town economics major takes the lead on BERC grant serving distressed rural areas

By Patsy B. Weiler

The first person Economics major Patricia Hummel wanted to tell about her hiring as part of an exciting new endeavor between MTSU’s Business and Economic Research Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture was her mom, Michelle Hummel.

Energetic and confident, the younger Hummel was eager for the chance to be involved in the center’s $127,500 USDA grant announced in fall 2020. A part of MTSU’s Jones College of Business, BERC will work with 16 impoverished communities across 11 counties identified in east Tennessee’s Knoxville and Greeneville USDA service regions.

Growing up in Lafayette, a hamlet northeast of Murfreesboro with a population that barely squeaks past 5,000, Hummel has firsthand knowledge of living in a small town with limited resources. The youngest of five children raised by a single parent, she is an MTSU Presidential Scholarship recipient, Honors student, and vice president of finance for Gamma Iota Sigma, a risk management, insurance, and actuarial science professional fraternity.

Patricia Hummel, Economics major and BERC project student technical assistant (MTSU photo by J. Intintoli)

“I was so excited to be involved with research that was relevant to my childhood experience that I called my mom and said, ‘Guess what I get to do? I am going to be involved with helping rural communities,’ ” said Hummel, 20, a junior who also is pursuing three minors—Risk Management and Insurance, Philosophy, and University Honors.

The grant is designed to serve distressed areas with populations of fewer than 10,000 and incomes that are less than 75% of the state’s nonmetro median household income. However, all areas in the region meeting the population and financial criteria will be eligible to utilize the services offered.

Recent U.S. Census data shows that in each of the 16 identified places, there is an average of slightly more than 3,100 residents living on an average of $28,660 annually—about 65% of the state’s nonmetro household income. Though they live in some of the most beautiful sections of the state, residents are faced daily with the harsh reality that their communities often lack financial means for rural infrastructure development.

I was so excited to be involved with research that was relevant to my childhood experience that I called my mom and said, ‘Guess what I get to do? I am going to be involved with helping rural communities.’

Hummel had expressed an interest to Keith Gamble, then-chair of the Department of Economics and Finance, in becoming more involved with the University and a research project.

He directed her to BERC Director Murat Arik, who selected Hummel from a strong pool of applicants in November 2020  as the new USDA project student technical assistant in the center’s Business and Aerospace Building office.

“We hired Patricia because she had all the required qualities for the job: academic experience, GPA, and communication skills, as well as passion for the project,” Arik said. “She will work as a liaison between the USDA, the BERC staff, and the identified rural areas.”

Arik was quick to add that the most important product to come out of BERC is the talented, work-ready students.

“The center’s main focus is to foster student success and produce graduates who are ready for the professional workforce,” Arik said. “Students are at the heart of what we do. At any given semester we have about seven students working here. We help prepare them for a promising future by teaching a variety of skill sets from survey creation and teamwork to learning programming languages and project management.”

Pockets of Poverty

The three-year joint venture will focus on building a bridge of information, education, and encouragement designed to eliminate barriers associated with accessing available federal funds in order to help longtime pockets of poverty progress toward rural prosperity.

“Some applicants may lack the expertise or resources necessary to complete funding requests for infrastructure projects such as a children’s playground, senior citizens center, health facility, or library—there are different possibilities,” Arik said. “Hence, the need for the outside assistance the BERC will provide.”

By providing technical and application aid to make rural infrastructure development attainable, the partnership with MTSU and BERC “will create access to capital in some of east Tennessee’s most vulnerable communities,” said former state Sen. Jim Tracy, the USDA Rural Development’s previous state director.

Jones College Dean David Urban echoes the excitement about the center’s expanded role in helping Tennessee residents.

“The Jones College of Business prides itself on impactful engagement with the broader community,” Urban said. “This latest BERC partnership gives Jones College an excellent opportunity to implement vital business solutions by utilizing the knowledge of our scholars and professionals who are experts in business research, finance, and technology. We are all about economic development.”

Since its founding in 1970, “BERC has helped communities across Tennessee overcome business challenges through research and information for half a century,” said Arik, an assistant professor in the Department of Management. He has been associated with BERC for 18 years since arriving at MTSU.

The research center is well respected for its interaction with a variety of professional entities to collect and disseminate data about the regional economy. BERC produces a monthly report on economic indicators for the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, a quarterly housing report in partnership with the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, and a quarterly analysis of international trade data about global commerce in the state.

The center’s consulting work also is an important tool for increasing awareness of MTSU and Jones College in the public arena.

The Perfect Pairing

One of MTSU’s strongest selling points is that undergraduates get opportunities to collaborate on real-world research in a way only graduate students do at other institutions. Participating in undergrad research opportunities leads to life success downstream. It’s the equivalent of job experience. In essence, a degree from MTSU is not just a degree—it is a résumé.

Hummel, an avid reader whose favorite authors are Mary Higgins Clark and Jane Austen, also was recently awarded an Undergraduate Research Experience and Creative Activity (URECA) grant to assist with research for writing her Honors College thesis. She’s tackling a timely topic with her project titled “Analyzing College Students’ Finances and How They Were Impacted By COVID-19.”

With her newfound role with BERC, Hummel is rounding out her skills in a robust manner. Additionally, Hummel was recently awarded an undergraduate research fellowship through PERI.

“The USDA project is very important for me,” Hummel said. “I’m lacking in technical skills, but this allows me to have the opportunity to gain them and [will] be something I can  use in the future as I plan to enter MTSU’s Ph.D. program in Economics.”

Leadership team for MTSU’s rural development partnership (l–r): David Urban, dean of Jones College; Jim Tracy, former state director of USDA Rural Development; and Murat Arik, director of the Business and Economic Research Center

During the initial year of the program, the BERC team has been tenaciously reviewing and entering large amounts of USDA data to build a comprehensive database of grant offerings that is accurate plus easy to understand and navigate, she said.

“First, we have to develop a solid game plan on how we are going to weave all the components together,” Hummel explained. “There are many details to consider.”

For example, one possibility under discussion is providing an online library or storage site where basic information can be kept and easily retrieved for future use after the initial application. This option would make completing additional grant forms much easier.

Once the well-vetted information is put in place, grant descriptions and requirements can be viewed by logging on to a specific portal, which most likely will be a web page but is still being developed.

“If the decision is made to apply, then the applicant will go through a preapplication process,” Hummel said. “One of the many things we plan to prepare is a checkoff list to make the experience easier, make sure the criteria are met, and help prevent errors that could result in the grant request being denied.”

When the preliminary groundwork is finished, the actual application can be completed and submitted through the portal to be reviewed by the USDA.

Additionally, BERC will develop and implement other supportive tools that could include a webinar, instruction materials, handouts, and—once pandemic conditions allow—an in-person workshop in east Tennessee.

“We are looking forward to eventually being able to go into the region and meet with the people there personally,” Arik said. “It is a little too early to know specifically what the communities will need the most. It could be assistance with preparing the application, help in how to find financial sources needed to meet grant criteria, or other hurdles they may encounter. We will determine those needs as we move forward.”

At the end of the 36-month effort, the center will prepare a report evaluating the success of the services it provided.

For now, the dynamic BERC team is already on the job, reviewing plans, and ready to build the tools needed to remove the obstacles rural areas face when accessing USDA grants—which, in turn, can be blueprints of future hope and prosperity.