While many small towns across America are in the throes of death and decay, there is another side to this story. Namely, the hope many small towns are giving to communities across the country through stories of innovation, revival and growth. These stories are proof that small towns can come back from the brink. It simply takes a collective will to do so. While many a snake-oil seller comes in from afar on a white horse pitching “can’t miss” schemes to city elders, genuine recovery and revitalization must be done by the residents of these locales. It is gritty, dirty, hard work which boasts immense rewards in terms of both prosperity and pride. So, here are some elemental things all small towns must do, either in whole or at least in part, to begin the comeback trail.
Embrace Your Civic Identity.
It’s so easy for a small town to become married to the idea of what they want to be, rather than what they. Just like a person who decides they want to a police officer or doctor, but has neither the aptitude nor the ability to excel in either position, is often miserable in these professions, so too are towns which attempt to be something other than what they are. If your city has a college or university which has been there a long time, and not much else, the fact which must be faced is your city is a “college town.” If your town has a factory which produces auto parts, and just about everything in the town supports that factory, you are a “blue collar” town. There is no shame in this. By embracing a civic identity, towns can begin to rebuild and thrive.
Blue collar towns can use the success of industry to lure other industries. Cordele, Georgia is an excellent example of this. Once a decaying city with little hope of improvement, this city has leveraged its location at the intersection of US Highway 280 and Interstate 75 as a prime asset to lure industry. Cordele now hosts several distribution hubs and, combined with an active rail line, has become an intermodal transfer point for several major companies. Frozen foods, hardware, heavy goods and such often find their way to terminals located in Cordele and, combined with its centralized location to traffic arteries connecting major port cities such ains Savannah and Tampa with Atlanta, Columbus and other major cities, this once dying town is beginning to make a comeback. Once a dot on the map trying to market itself as a “throwback” city to yesteryear, civic officials saw their assets and used them to reinvent the town.
Move Forward and Innovate
No small town has seen a more profound transformation in the last 25 years than Homestead, Florida. This tiny town, located southern Miami-Dade County near the end of Florida’s Turnpike, was home to an Air Force base, some orange groves, a retirement community or two, and not much else. It was, in essence, a waypoint for vacationers en route to the Keys. When Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, Homestead took the absolute hardest hit, with 90 percent of the city destroyed. Shortly afterwards, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended Homestead AFB be shuttered to take advantage of the so-called “peace dividend” resulting from the end of the Cold War. Even the Cleveland Indians abandoned the city as a spring training location in favor of a location further north in the state. So how did Homestead, which was once pronounced a “dead city” by many in the media shortly afterwards, come back?
Civic leaders took a long, hard look and realized they had an immense asset available: lots of land. The late Ralph Sanchez, the Miami financier who brought open-wheel racing to South Florida with Miami Grand Prix, pitched the idea of a racetrack to the city. Reeling from one misfortune after another, the city council could have said “no thanks,” and decided to just founder. Instead, they took a risk, and did it ever pay off. Shortly after Homestead-Miami Speedway opened, NASCAR began openly talking about the possibility of a Super Bowl-style championship race to decide the then-Winston Cup Series. In 2003, Homestead’s speedway become host to the NASCAR Championship Weekend, the first-ever conflux of all of the sport’s title races, including the Sprint Cup Championship. Homestead soon became as famous as Daytona Beach, and the championship weekend, along with its associated businesses, has helped to revitalize a city once destroyed by nature itself. Homestead’s answer to utter devastation was simple: finding hope through innovation and the assets they possessed.
Find the Common Bond
One of the things which tear small towns apart is income and social stratification. Groups of people cluster together based on profession and money, and it creates resentment and sows the seeds of civic discontent. While ethnic and socio-economic clustering in major cities ,such as New York and Atlanta, can be managed, they spell doom for small towns because everyone knows everyone else. When you live “on the wrong side,” of town, people know it. Residents tend to associated with like-minded, incomed and professioned individuals and, for that reason, small towns can become divided in stark ways which lead to both finger pointing and an unwillingness to work together. When this sort of failure takes root, the associated division only serves to accelerate a town’s demise. There are, however, cities which find their common bond, and those are the ones which are able to begin the long comeback to civic pride and prosperity.
In Conrad, Iowa, this spirit of community has taken a tiny farming community, which was among the hundreds in this state which were dying, back on the road to being a thriving community. According to the article and program on Iowa Public Radio’s website, the people of Conrad saw what was happening and, rather than tear the community apart through finger pointing, began to come together and find the common ground. As the article states, the city’s clarion call came in the 1980s when its grocery store was on the verge of closure. Residents rallied together to save the store, and found they could do much by coming together in a spirit of community. As stated in the article, “small victories” helped to galvanize residents, and soon Conrad on the comeback trail. They even developed a motto ‘e pluribus plow em,’ a play on the national motto to highlight their agricultural roots. Their story has served as inspiration and education for scores of other now-revitalizing cities in Iowa, and this model is now being taken nationally.
Hold the Powerful Accountable
One of the most common refrains among those living in small towns is how power and wealth coalesce into the hands of a privileged few. Those in power tend to pick and choose who gets what, how much of it, and who is able to “get ahead” in life. Those who think differently or come from families who are not related to the innermost circles often find themselves on the outside looking in. These are cities which suffer the most from a “youth flight,” in which the best and brightest of their youngest residents often leave for greener pastures in larger cities or towns willing to accept them. On the other end of the spectrum are communities which have begun to open their collective eyes, and are now holding those in longtime positions of power and means accountable for situation their cities are in.
While there are few public stories of cities whose citizens have been willing to stand up and say “we’re as mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore,” that sort of mentality can have a positive outcome when channeled effectively. Well-meaning public servants, rather than those who expect the public to serve them, are the key to revitalization of many small towns. People with the attitude of the “greater good” instead of “what can my community do for me,” are the individuals who are able to change hearts and minds. The greatest obstacle to this change however is the final key to small town revitalization projects.
Abandon Preconceived Notions
We all have them; those ideas within our minds of how people are and how things should be. Rather than looking at life with a critical eye, we assume. In order for a small town to begin the “great comeback,” all ideas of “the way things ought to be” must be tossed out the window. It’s time write a new book when your city is dying and you’re trying to save it. The same old methods obviously don’t work, so those things once held to as standard practice and procedures must ultimately yield to a new thought process. Once a city’s residents are able to think in more “open” terms (not political correctness but, rather, being open to new concepts of doing business and ways to attract individuals and organizations), change is truly possible.
I invite comments on this post and its related one, as well as testimonials.