Can a small town compete with a “cool” city? So many books have been written about the creative economy and what it is that our next generation is looking for in a place to live. Is it a Starbucks on every corner, is it an exciting nightlife or is it the large array of shopping outlets? Richard Florida in his book “Rise of the Creative Class” is adamant about his belief that all cities aspire to lure that “creative class” of individual, and to do that we need creative environments and stimulating places to live and work. But honestly, how do small towns compete with this? Yes, there are those small towns that have as many “cool factors” as some big cities, including great recreational opportunities, diversity of dining and shopping and a first-class livability factor. These are great small towns, with a bright future that should prosper for years. However, many small and rural communities struggle to be what most consider the stereotypical definition of cool. They do not have nightlife, they are miles away from an entertainment venue and the only type of coffee available is at the fast-food restaurant.
Most small towns cannot compete with the social environment of the urban areas, and we can’t fool ourselves into thinking we can. We must be authentic and true to who we are, and we must attack on another angle and redefine “cool” as it relates to what is truly doable for small towns.
Living within an hour’s drive of a big city is a selling point for many small towns—knowing that what we lack in things to do is only an hour away. This point has been used by those of us in small-town America for decades. What we must do is use what we have and what we do best. Small towns have to be honest with themselves about the opportunities available within their county limits. There are not enough jobs for everyone wanting one, and a significant percentage of the labor force will be forced to commute out of town. Commuting is not a four-letter word and is reality for many, and we must embrace the fact that while many must travel outside our county lines to work, they have chosen to put their head on their bed in the small town they call home.
Many small towns don’t have venues for large concerts or have art galleries, but they have great school and community theater. No, we don’t have a variety of shopping options, but what we do have are stores owned by our friends and neighbors where often to pay is to charge it.
No, we are not the state capital or have large state universities, but you can become part of your community’s decision-making process, and chances are there is a great community college nearby. We don’t need dog parks because we all have wonderful front and backyards and wide-open green spaces. We don’t need public transportation because many of us live only minutes from work, and, if we want, ride our bikes—not because it’s the “green thing to do” but because it allows us to see things that can’t be seen from the windows of a car or bus.
Some of the greatest outdoor recreation opportunities are in small-town America. Most of the country’s great state and national parks are located adjacent to smaller communities who understand the importance of their location and tend to capitalize on the tourism benefits from these visitors.
Below are some “must-dos” for the development of a successful small town:
- Small towns must keep up with technology to be considered a worthy contender: community leaders must focus on broadband and connectivity and have cell phone service countywide.
- Give attention to gateways and the main street of communities: image and first impressions are everything, and you don’t always get a chance to make a second impression.
- Develop venues to showcase homegrown theater and musical talents: realize that you don’t have to go to the city for entertainment.
- Social media presence: our next generation is communicating and getting their information online, including websites and Facebook. Websites are also where most potential clients are learning about your community for the first time.
- Focus on community development not just industrial development: economic development is more than smokestack chasing anymore. Parks, recreational opportunities and other quality-of-life issues are vital to the success of a community.
- Give attention to and promote small business and the entrepreneur: look at ways to entice and incentivize new business to your community and be progressive in the planning and zoning regulations.
- Development of adult and youth leadership programs: engage youth in the decision-making process and develop a leadership succession plan.
- Partnerships: reach out to community colleges and universities in your region to bring off-campus opportunities to your community.
- Be festival and event driven: every community has something to celebrate, and these bring people and their dollars to town.
- Get newcomers involved immediately: each newcomer brings with them ideas from previous places they have lived.
Bottom line, to be a creative rural economy, we have to rethink the way we do business and what we offer to our residents, especially our next generation of leaders. It is the job of community leaders to make their towns worthy of coming home to.
With the right foresight and business atmosphere, it is absolutely possible that the same business that you do in an office tower in the big city can be done from Main Street, USA.
Kim Huston will be presenting at the 2010 Governor’s Conference on Rural Development on Nov. 19 in Kearney, Neb. The theme of the conference is “Rethinking Strategy for Sustainable Communities: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Workforce.” Other speakers include William Taylor, founding editor of “Fast Company” and Kim Huston, president of Nelson County Economic Development in Bardstown, Ky. Conference registration information can be found at www.neded.org.