Many prognosticators are predicting the death of small-town America.
Statistics from the census department seem to concur. About 81% of Americans are classified as living in an urban environment. Small towns across the country are struggling with their futures and how they can tap into a global business environment. More than ever before, small communities must become proactive in developing their future.
Four out of five Americans will not be affected by the loss of small-town life. Even fewer will be affected by the demise of one particular community. Rural residents must come to grips with the fact that no one is coming to their rescue. Any success that comes to a rural community will come only because the community creates that future by investing in itself.
Economic and community development can seem overwhelming and complex in a smaller community. Resources seem limited, challenges seem large, and too often leadership is divided. To succeed, rural communities must take steps to create an environment that is business and community friendly. While financial resources will be needed, many of the initial steps are low-cost and high-impact.
Four steps can help small towns jump-start the development that will lead to their survival. First, leadership must come together and work together for common goals. Often in rural communities, the “big fish” in the “small pond” engage in turf battles. A desire for credit can often cripple strategies that would grow the community. Community leadership must be a team. Poor leadership might be masked in a large city, but in a small town it is on display for all to see.
Second, a community must be willing to invest in itself. Grants and help from the outside will always be important resources. Yet, if a community is unwilling to invest in its own future, it will have a much harder time receiving grants. Small towns must ask, “How can we start creating the things we desire to see in our town?” Towns that find ways to invest in themselves develop a stronger sense of pride and accomplishment.
Third, rural communities need to learn to be proactive rather than reactive. So often, small towns have gone from crisis to crisis and have spent very little time or energy on looking ahead. This attitude can be the result of a fear of a future that is less desirable than today. One of the best ways to become proactive is to look for small communities that are succeeding.
Throughout the nation, there are bright spots of development in little towns. Visit these towns and learn how they transitioned from reactive to proactive. Adopt some of their forward-thinking strategies. The energy that proactive hope brings is one of the biggest community and economic development tools.
Finally, use great customer service skills to take care of the businesses and the residents the town already has. A community’s greatest sales force is composed of the people and businesses that already call it home. If a business has a problem or issues, do everything possible to solve it. Not all problems can be solved, but communities will find that many problems are solved by simply getting the right people in the room or the right resources to the business.
The people and businesses fell in love with the town at some point in the past. Rekindle that pride and desire. When a small community starts talking about the positives rather than the negatives, good results always follow. As towns start by taking care of their existing businesses, this leads to growth within those businesses and leads to becoming more attractive to new businesses.
Over the next century, many small towns will die. Some small towns, however, will not only survive, they will thrive. The future is in the hands of those who live in the town. No one is coming to save rural communities. The question is, will the community save itself?
Editor’s note: Jon Chadwell is the executive director of the Newport Economic Development Commission. The opinions expressed are those of the author.