Small Towns, Big Ideas

Lessons Learned

Seven themes emerged from stories in Small Towns, Big Ideas. These themes are offered as take-away lessons for other communities hoping to learn from small towns with big ideas.

1. In small towns, community development is economic development.

If community development -- compared with economic development -- is generally considered to include a broader set of activities aimed at building the capacity of a community, then these case studies demonstrate that capacity-building and other strategies typically associated with community development are analogous with actions designed to produce economic outcomes. This is especially true, it seems, when these efforts are included as parts of a comprehensive package of CED strategies designed to address a community’s core challenges and opportunities. For example, in Ord, Neb., a broad-based and inclusive approach to CED that included leadership development, youth entrepreneurship and philanthropy enhanced the community’s capacity to take on more traditional economic development projects, such as recruiting an ethanol facility (with dozens of new jobs) into the jurisdiction.

Further, communities that take a comprehensive approach to CED -- one that includes economic and broader, longer-term, community development goals -- stand to gain more than small towns that take a piecemeal approach. Selma, N.C., for example, had made significant investments in revitalizing both its downtown area and the train depot. Lack of consideration of a four-block area between these two investment zones, however, limited the positive impacts of the community’s work. By viewing redevelopment in a more comprehensive way, and by including community development considerations such as revitalization of blighted downtown properties in its strategy, the town was able to identify a barrier to continued revitalization and a potential means of overcoming this barrier that may pay off in the years ahead.

Finally, because CED includes short-range and long-range strategies, it is by definition a long-term and transformative process (a fact that is recognized more in community development circles than in economic development). Successful small towns tend to balance short-term economic gains with longer-term community development goals. In Davidson, N.C., Mayor Randall Kincaid said that every decision about development is weighed against the question of whether “this project is something that our grandchildren will be proud of.” Civic leaders in Ord, Neb., invest time and resources into entrepreneurship training in the local school system, with the hope that these activities will transform the local economy for the next generation. Similarly, Big Stone Gap, Va., having developed a CED strategy based on entrepreneurship, had to “help people think about economic development differently.” Over a period of six years, entrepreneurs harvested local opportunities, and slowly but surely, new small businesses started appearing in town – new businesses with local ownership and local roots. These outcomes, however, were not realized during the typical political cycle.

2. Small towns with the most dramatic outcomes tend to be proactive and future-oriented; they embrace change and assume risk.

These general characteristics of small towns (specifically, of leadership in small towns) perhaps relate to the fact that most communities featured here “hit the bottom,” and their stories evolved from circumstances in which local folks were willing to try new things and take new risks. For example, in Helena, Ark., the town’s collective sense of hitting bottom presented local leaders with an opportunity to step up, to initiate a new way of planning and implementing CED efforts and to convince locals to participate in the process. Similarly, in Scotland Neck, N.C., difficult economic and civic circumstances in the late 1990s presented an opportunity for Mayor Robert Partin and other civic leaders to look inward for new ideas and angles on old problems.

Being proactive (as opposed to reactive) can be measured by a small town’s willingness and ability to act on a particular challenge before it becomes a problem. In Tennessee, for example, Etowah’s proactive approach to building and occupying its industrial park, as opposed to reacting to trolling industries, has paid major dividends in terms of maintaining a diverse array of living wage jobs in town. In Ord, Neb., proactive meant preparing the community for opportunity. Having tackled a number of small-scale challenges in the community and seeded the roots of teamwork around CED activities, Ord was prepared to act when the ethanol production facility project arrived.

Cases from Chillicothe, Mo.; Douglas, Ga.; and Farmville, N.C., demonstrate that taking a proactive approach to CED also includes reaching out to existing industries. In Chillicothe, Mayor Rodenberg called his core team together on the day the prison announced it was closing. Rather than wasting valuable time, the town initiated an aggressive lobbying campaign and offered an alternative to closure that helped the prison system financially.

Finally, most of the communities profiled in this collection demonstrate a willingness to embrace change and assume risk. For example, Etowah had a history of adapting to shifts in social and economic conditions. Local leaders, therefore, tended to be less steeped in a mindset of “well, this is just the way it’s always been done.” In the face of a growing tourism economy, downtown merchants embraced change and adapted their business models to the shifting circumstances. Similarly, Fairfield, Iowa, is a small town where the entire strategy of building an entrepreneurial culture is based on the natural business cycle of success and failure. According to a local leader, “there was a lot of trial and error – and failures – to get to where we are today, but the failures of some companies have provided cheap space, office furniture and equipment for another round of start-ups. Failure has freed up talented people who again ask what new concepts and companies can we start here in Fairfield.”

3. Successful community economic development strategies are guided by a broadly held local vision.

Most communities in Small Towns, Big Ideas demonstrate the importance of establishing and maintaining a broadly held vision, including goals for all manner of CED activities. This idea is perhaps illustrated most dramatically by Helena, Ark., where the inclusiveness of the planning and visioning process was crucially important. In this case, it included representatives from government, community organizations, for-profit and nonprofit interests, resource providers and average citizens of the community. In fact, anybody could join the effort, and this perception of an inclusive and open-door process was widespread across Helena. Similarly in Ord, Neb., where so much of the momentum for CED comes from one-on-one conversations, local leaders take the time to meet individually with members of the community to ensure that opposition to CED efforts does not take root for lack of understanding the larger vision that drives local development. In terms of maintaining momentum behind a community’s vision, Douglas, Ga., demonstrates how a local organization (the Chamber of Commerce in this case) can take responsibility for calling stakeholders together on a regular basis to recommit themselves to the community’s vision.

A separate but related point is that in small towns, people are always the most important resource and communities with limited resources cannot afford to exclude anyone from planning or development efforts. Pelican Rapids, Minn., appears to be on the front end of an economic reawakening based on the entrepreneurial tendencies of new immigrant residents who were settled in the area by various refugee organizations. Case after case has demonstrated that people (as opposed to money or other resources) are the one absolutely necessary ingredient to successful CED. A committed group of local residents who are willing to work hard for their community’s interests can change the fate of an otherwise hopeless community. In Nelsonville, Ohio, an informal group of civic entrepreneurs and artists came together to revitalize the historic downtown square and in the process injected a new dose of energy into the community.

Importantly, it seems, special attention needs to be paid toward integrating newcomers into the community. Newcomers, including young leaders, bring a fresh perspective and new energy to local challenges. In Douglas, Ga., local leaders recognized that newcomers are valuable assets and the town has worked hard to integrate new residents into the community. In Farmville, N.C., new residents are welcomed every spring, when the mayor and town manager invite all newcomers to a “New Residents Picnic.” In Nelsonville, Ohio, several young professionals, including an attorney and real estate developer, are forcing the community to think creatively about new economic opportunities.

4. Defining assets and opportunities broadly can yield innovative strategies that capitalize on a community’s competitive advantage.

In almost any setting – urban or rural, small or large – shell buildings, low tax rates, limited regulation and access to trained workers, highways, railroads or professional services might all be considered economic development assets and justifiably so. Small towns, however, cannot afford to stop there. Given limited sources of competitive advantage, they must redefine economic development assets in a much broader framework.

For example, Allendale, S.C., capitalized on a regional university to create a local leadership development program that, in turn, trained new economic development leaders for the entire region. Brevard, N.C., demonstrates that retirees within a community can be economic development assets. The Retiree Resource Network is a group of retirees with private sector experience who mentor local entrepreneurs. In Columbia, N.C., local leaders recognized that their region’s natural beauty was an asset that could drive an ecotourism strategy. In an ironic twist on small town development, the arrival of Wal-Mart became an asset for the small community of Oakland, Md., when local leaders took the opportunity to help Main Street retailers diversify their product lines. Assets for small town CED might include individual people, nonprofit organizations, businesses, open space, farms, parks, landfills (biomass), museums, schools, historic architecture, local attitudes or any number of other things.

Further, the mere fact that a particular town is small can become an asset. In some cases, locating a business in a small town can provide a competitive advantage for the business. In Fairfield, Iowa, local leaders are taking advantage of the perception that businesses located in small-town, rural locations carry a moral and ethical standard above their urban competitors. Civic and business leaders in Fairfield have exploited this perception to their competitive advantage. In Oxford, N.C., the Kerr-Tar Mini Hub concept is based on the idea that rural communities within driving distance of the Research Triangle Park can capture a market of technology companies that need to be near the park, but can thrive outside it, where business costs are lower.

A final emerging trend in this category is the increasing use of small town assets as either fuel or triggers for innovation in the area of environment-friendly development or clean energy. In Dillsboro, N.C., the town turned an environmental challenge, in this case methane gas migrating from the community landfill, into an opportunity to create jobs and provide space for entrepreneurs. The Jackson County Clean Energy Park (in Dillsboro) is using methane gas from a nearby landfill to power the studios of local artisans. In Cape Charles, Va., the town’s investment in an eco-friendly industrial park was an innovative strategy to bridge the dual challenges of environmental degradation and job creation. And, in the most extreme case, Reynolds Ind., is capitalizing on latent energy contained agricultural waste from 150,000 hogs to become BioTown, USA, the nation’s first energy-independent community.

5. Innovative local governance, partnerships and organizations significantly enhance the capacity for community economic development.

Most towns featured in Small Towns, Big Ideas include an innovative element of either organization or governance. It is clear that innovative local governance, in a variety of forms, can strengthen a community’s CED strategy. In Columbia, N.C., the town’s ability to design an alternative arrangement for generating tax revenues on protected lands helped turn a potential obstacle into a local innovation. In Selma, N.C., the town used an innovative property tax incentive tool to focus redevelopment on a particular blighted area of town. In New York Mills, Minn., the town structured a public investment in the Regional Cultural Center so the town assumed ownership of the building, thereby reducing long-term risk and creating a win-win situation for artists, public officials and local residents. The key is to think creatively about organizational structure, but always to keep the community’s overall net benefit in mind.

Regionalism, or identifying opportunities and partnerships beyond municipal boundaries, is another emerging theme in successful CED. Cross-jurisdictional partnerships can help small towns to pool resources toward shared CED objectives. Strategies in Ord, Neb., and in Davidson, Oxford and Hillsborough, N.C., each involve commitments to interlocal revenue- and responsibility-sharing among varying jurisdictions. Davidson and Oxford are partnering with neighboring communities in industrial development efforts while Hillsborough is partnering with the county to manage growth beyond the town’s municipal boundaries. Ord joined with the county and the Chamber of Commerce to share costs and revenues from a wide range of CED activities. In Washington, N.C., local officials recognized the growing marine trades cluster in eastern North Carolina and created a workforce and entrepreneurship development strategy to harness the regional economic opportunity.

In addition to regional partnerships and opportunities, successful small towns tend to have local leaders who connect with higher level policy makers and business leaders. Mayor Partin in Scotland Neck, N.C., and several key leaders in Helena, Ark., make explicit efforts to link the interests of their individual communities to policy makers in their respective state capitals. Further, as demonstrated by Douglas, Ga., leaders in small towns must forge partnerships with state-level developers, bankers and power companies, each a critical player in state economic development.

Finally, public-private (including not-for-profit) partnerships are emerging as the prominent organizational model for small town CED. In Siler City, N.C., for example, the successful establishment of an incubator was the product of a partnership between the community college, local government and a state-level nonprofit organization. In Spruce Pine, N.C., the town’s approach to supporting local entrepreneurs requires that the Chamber of Commerce and the craft community work closely together for the first time, to ensure successful marketing and branding. After the plant closures in Morrilton, Ark., Mayor Stewart Nelson brought area churches together to discuss how the faith community could contribute toward economic recovery efforts. In Chillicothe, Mo., an ad-hoc partnership between the town administration and a local business (a prison) demonstrates the influence that towns can have on strategic management decisions within a business, which in turn can have a tremendous impact on the local economy. Given the wide range of concerns that cut across CED, small towns are taking creative approaches to public-private partnerships.

6. Effective communities identify, measure and celebrate short-term successes to sustain support for long-term community economic development.

Given the long-term nature of CED, and the fact that measurable results from a particular project may be decades in the making, leaders in small towns must repeatedly make the case for the importance of their efforts. Making the case is important to maintain momentum, invigorate volunteers and donors, convince skeptics and, most importantly, to keep the focus of CED activities on the vision or the goals established in a community’s strategic plan. Many of the communities profiled in this study recognize that making the case is an ongoing and continuous effort and that there are a number of strategies for doing it.

First, in small town CED, short-term success can build long-term momentum. Obviously, the best way to make the case for any intervention is to demonstrate success. Along these lines, Scotland Neck, N.C., decided to begin with actions that would demonstrate success quickly. Town leaders decided to support local hunting and fishing guides, to start bringing more tourists into town and to show local residents that there was reason to be optimistic. This initial success helped them build momentum before beginning to tackle more intractable challenges. Similarly, to maintain buy-in from the Arkansas community, the initial action steps in Helena’s strategic plan were those that could be accomplished in short order and for which there was already some momentum. By starting with “low-hanging fruit” that was easiest to pick, town leaders demonstrated that change was possible. Once people started seeing change happen, there was more of an incentive to join in the process. Short-term success is a means for making the case that particular CED activities are worth the investment.

Second, many communities profiled here make an explicit effort to measure and monitor the impacts of local CED efforts. It seems obvious, but measuring progress and evaluating programs tend to get pushed to the end of priority lists. Not so in successful small towns. In Ord, Neb., impacts of the community’s CED programs are monitored and have become useful for both external and internal audiences. Data are used to attract additional investment from outside sources. Moreover, by demonstrating a reasonable return on investment, these data also may be used to convince a community’s naysayers to join the efforts. In Hollandale, Miss., an analysis of local data helped the community to convince outside grant-makers that a rural transportation network was a smart investment. In addition, it helped to convince policy-makers that rural transportation was a viable (if incremental) strategy for alleviating a range of economic challenges.

Finally, small towns profiled here tend to communicate and celebrate success, another simple concept related to making the case for CED activities. For example, in Douglas, Ga., community leaders work hard to keep local papers informed about various economic development projects and publicize even the most modest success, including stories of local entrepreneurial successes. Leaders in Ord spend an ever-increasing amount of time publishing newsletters and writing articles for the local newspaper. They send e-mails to as many residents as possible and appear on radio broadcasts regularly. The idea is to replace rumors and coffee shop chatter with accurate information about what the community is trying to accomplish.

7. Viable community economic development involves the use of a comprehensive package of strategies and tools, rather than a piecemeal approach.

The capstone lesson is, perhaps, a reaffirmation of a point that we have heard over and over again: there is no silver bullet. No single strategy saved any community in this study. Successful CED in small towns is always multi-faceted. Small towns that are working to develop CED strategies should take nothing off the table in selecting strategies to pursue. Successful communities tend to have evolved to the point where they have a comprehensive package of CED strategies and tools that are specifically aligned with the core assets, challenges and opportunities within their regional context.

Furthermore, given the basic strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats affecting each community and the virtually limitless menu of possible strategies, no single package of strategies necessarily fits with a particular type of community. That is, there is no universally applicable formula for determining the right way to do CED. Decisions about what to do and why to do it have to be based on local conditions, context and capacity. The lessons from these small towns, however, provide insights and inspiration for other community leaders as they begin the important process of building locally driven strategies that create economic opportunities and improve the social, civic and environmental conditions that face their hometowns.