How to Revitalize a Small Town (Part 2)

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It has been nearly two years since I wrote the article “How to Revitalize a Small Town.” Without ever intending to or realizing it, by far it has been our most popular article to date. It struck a chord. Why? Because we continue to see the growing disparity between cities and rural America.

At first I wasn’t sure I had much to say or write on when it comes to rural America. I live in the city, love cities, and teach urban studies courses in the city (even though I grew up in small-town Iowa). But I also continue to see the connection between rural and urban America. Before I only saw the divide and disparity. Today, I see an inter-connectedness I had not noticed before. While on some levels it blurs the distinction between the two I’m not saying those divisions don’t exist. Let me explain.

Cities and the rural hinterlands form a symbiotic relationship. When I teach on urbanization while it seems natural to focus on the dynamics of people moving from rural to urban there are two sides of this coin. In other words, we can’t talk about urbanization without looking at what is happening to rural America. As I’ve written in numerous articles here this conversation is felt and experienced differently across the continent.

With that said, what have I seen, learned, or gleaned over the last two years to add to this conversation?

Observation 1: There is Much to Be Optimistic About

Maybe it’s because I’m a glass half-full type of person, but I believe there is much to be encouraged by. It is easy to get swept up in the rip tide of the doom-and-gloom decline of rural America. Whether an agricultural community or one dependent on resource-extraction we know that many of these industries have dried up or closed down. Mines … copper, uranium, coal, etc are not what they used to be. Timber … regulations and conservation efforts have taken their toll. However, communities across the continent are doing what we do well as humans … adapt. Towns that we once had written off are now rebounding. Sure, not every community is becoming the next Park City or Aspen … nor do we want that (please, no). Whether cultural events or outdoor adventure tourism many communities are reinventing themselves to revitalize their economy. It’s not easy. Change is difficult and even painful. But those who are able to turn the corner give their communities an advantage (or at least a fighting chance) over the next several decades.

Observation 2: It Takes a Committed Core

In all of the articles I’ve read over the past two years, whether heady academic ones, case studies, or articles gracing the pages of travel magazines the common theme for a community’s turnaround is this … there is always a committed core who dreams of a better future. There’s a handful of people … risk takers, passionate, tenacious, resilient, fighters, and in a good way stubborn who refuse to let their communities continue to free fall. Maybe substance abuse has sky rocketed after the uranium mines have shuttered, domestic violence gains momentum as it runs on a parallel track, and businesses shutter or leave town. But there’s always a plucky few who dig their heals in and say enough is enough. They talk with their friends, get businesses on board, court city officials., run for city government themselves, write and secure grants and so much more. Without them there is no turnaround. This all grassroots and much different than investors and developers swooping in to buy up real estate.

Observation 3: Innovation and Creativity is Key

The phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” is pivotal. Humanity is inherently innovative and creative. Crises and obstacles force us out of our shell. I saw this in the popular TV show of my childhood … MacGyver. With seemingly only a piece of dental floss, bailing wire, and duct tape he would do the impossible. We’re really no different. I always point out to my students that cities are the pinnacle of creativity and invention because of this very thing. For example, how did we ever think it was a good idea or healthy to throw out our refuse onto the streets? No wonder cities were unhealthy and full of disease. This crisis drove us to innovate and we created sewer systems and other sanitation improvements.

Small towns with a committed core who’ve seen their major industries shut down and leave are forced to innovate and be creative. There’s not a 1-2-3 recipe for exactly what to do or start, but most often many of the answers as already there … the people. Sure, there is help we can glean from consultants, outside agencies, and the like, but the people in the community are often more innovative and creative than we realize. It’s not like all of the creative people live in the cities. Studies have even shown that more people in rural America start more businesses per capita than city dwellers.

Conclusion

I am incredibly encouraged and optimistic about what I see across our continent. Yes, there are seemingly more places experiencing decline and loss than those who turnaround. But the point is this, it’s not a pie-in-the-sky dream for “others.” It can happen in your town, village, or community. It takes a tenacious committed core who set down roots and plan for the long term. It often takes decades for turnarounds to happen. Is it worth it? Yes it is.

What community are you dreaming about? Are you will to stay if you’re there or move in and set down deep roots?

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Written by Sean Benesh, Director of Intrepid