How To Revitalize a Small Town


How does a small town turn around? How does a struggling rural community move from economic decline to one that is growing and flourishing?

Answer: I have no idea.

With that said, it's not that I'm unaware or ignorant, but this is a very layered and nuanced conversation. Each community is unique and each context differs greatly from the next town over. The site and situation of each town is unique even if they are 5 miles from the next. However, I believe there is a blueprint at the heart of unlocking a town's potential to see a turnaround.

Most often I stay away from prescriptions because they seem to do more harm than good. Again, context is everything. But there exists a few key elements of this blueprint that are universal.

Step 1: Love your community

One of the most overlooked foundations is really the core. Why do you want to see your town turn around? While there are a lot of viable reasons ... better schools, more jobs and a stronger economy, increased livability, and more the core motivation needs to be simply this .... "I love my community." Why? Because love is not blind. It takes in and assesses everything ... opportunities and obstacles ... and sees all of the warts in the community but still loves nonetheless.

It is this deep love that becomes the animating factor in seeking creative solutions. It means capitalizing on strengths, leveraging opportunities, and organizing assets. When roadblocks confront us we collaborate, brainstorm, and look for solutions to keep moving forward. It is our love that compels us.

Step 2: Mobilize those in your community

Every community has more assets, talent, skills, and resources needed to pull off this turnaround than we realize. There is this latent creativity and potential housed within the community ... it just may need to be unlocked. Or even more basic than that, it just needs to be given permission and an opportunity to step out, experiment, stumble forward, and thrive.

Think about it. Your local high school each year pumps out dozens ... hundreds of highly gifted people. While some stay, many others go on to university where they will become lawyers, pharmacists, educators, researchers, film producers, business owners, and so much more. Those that stay often take over family businesses. The point, communities are incubators of talent. How do we mobilize, empower, and release it in our communities?

So while this is a general prescription we cannot overlook it. It's easy to want to jump immediately into specifics like wooing industry, storefront remodels, striping bike lanes, and so on. But we need to start with actually loving our community and involving those already there who call it home.