Can Small Towns Succeed?

Add 100’s to Your Town’s Population in 90 Days or Less
October 7, 2016

A recent guest editorial in the Battle Creek Inquirer, Battle Creek, Michigan, offers some interesting thoughts about small town assets:

Do small towns face challenges? Sure. Are they insurmountable? They don’t have to be. Are there opportunities? You bet. Several trends actually favor small towns. These communities have resources and features that contribute to an attractive quality of life. And, most importantly, they have assets.

Here’s a version of a story I first heard from my good friend Luther Snow who is associated with the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University and is a leading advocate for asset-based development. The story is about appreciating the value of “home grown” assets in small towns.

The leaders were concerned about their village’s future, so they invited a wise woman to come from a distance to advise them. When she came, she took a seat in the town square, opened her book of wisdom and began to leaf through the pages. As the villagers gathered and their leaders took seats nearby, the wise woman asked, “Do you know what I’m going to tell you?” The village leaders were somewhat surprised and said, “Well no, that’s why we brought you here.” The wise woman replied, “You will only learn what you already know. And if you don’t know what I’m going to tell you, I can’t help you,” and she left.

Although confused, the village leaders continued to try to make sense of their community’s future. But, can-small-towns-succeed-imagethey somehow were certain this wise woman had wisdom important to them, so they invited her again. She came, and in the gathering asked the same question, “Do you know what I’m going to tell you?” Based on her first visit, getting the woman to share her wisdom seemed simple enough, and it was arranged for all present to shout, “Yes!” The wise woman paused and then said, “Well, if you already know, then I have nothing more to tell you,” and she left.

Frustrated, the leaders nevertheless continued to plan for the village’s future, but made little progress. They agreed this wise woman certainly knew something. They just needed to find the key to having her share her wisdom. She was invited again and a great festival was planned to entice her to come. She came, and, as expected, asked the villagers, “Do you know what I’m going to tell you?” The village leaders were really prepared this time. In unison, half the villagers shouted “Yes!” and half shouted “No!” There was a wry and knowing smile on the old woman’s face then a long pause before she rose. The crowd hushed in anticipation, and then she spoke. “Will those who know tell those who don’t know. My work is done here.” Then she left, never to return again.

The village leaders stood dumbfounded, seething with anger. As they began to condemn the wise woman as an evil person seeking only to dupe their poor village, a young couple stepped forward and began thanking the village leaders. The wife said, “You brought us this wise woman to show us that any really important knowledge is already right here in our village – in our culture, in our traditions, and, most importantly, in our relationships with each other.” Then the husband added, “We already have the wisdom we need. Maybe no one person does alone, but collectively we’ll know what to do. We have simply lacked the confidence to believe in ourselves.” All of the villagers began to applaud, and the leaders, for their part, embarrassingly acknowledged the accolades. Then the great festival began.

Now, this is much more than just a sappy feel-good story. It is the basis for a philosophy that is almost essential for small towns to succeed. As my friend Luther Snow would say, “We need to use what we have to get what we want.” And, we have plenty, for the abilities and assets of our small towns are virtually limitless.

Those who focus on just our needs or deficiencies tend to see the glass as half-empty. They can’t fathom the breadth and depth of our assets. But, a change in the perspective of looking at what’s in a glass half-full reveals a vast array of assets small towns have in terms of resources, people, organizations and skills. And, even though these assets won’t automatically translate into community and economic development, they become the pieces of the puzzles we can put together for new opportunities.

In many ways, small towns are out front in terms of adapting to a changing world. We tend to know our limitations. We try to be efficient, with little time and few resources to waste. As economist George Erickcek reminds us: “The secret to successful economic development is adapting what you do well to what the world (market) wants.” It’s that simple. Continuing to produce a product or refine a skill not in demand is not going to lead to success. Instead, we need to use our strengths, our assets, and adapt what we do best to new markets and new products – in other words, focus on what the world wants. These markets and products may not be in today’s “hot” targeted industries. They may not be high-tech and they may be untested. Nevertheless, it is better to apply our assets and energy to pursuing these new avenues than continue hoping that what we’ve done in the past will somehow start working again.

Small towns will be most successful in the traditional economic development disciplines of Business Retention and Expansion. Sounds boring and unsophisticated, right? Not really. For from working with these home-grown assets will come Enterprise Creation, the new and emerging economic development strategy many see as both exciting and essential in reviving struggling economies.

Now, a pure Business Attraction approach might work from time to time in a small community, but the odds don’t favor it. Rather, the “attraction” focus should be on attracting the essential elements of a business — the final missing pieces of a puzzle where the other three or four pieces already reside in the community. We may have the natural resources or the intermediate goods/services, workforce skills and access to markets for a product or service, but lack the capital. Or, we might have capital but need the technology “piece.”

I like to refer to this strategy as prospectus-based economic development. It is taking what we have, our assets, and offering them in a package to secure the one or two elements we don’t have. It’s convincing those holding these final pieces to come into a potentially successful venture. It’s demonstrating to these piece-holders that we’re ready to go and that we know what we’re doing. And, we don’t necessarily have to look outside the community for these last needed pieces. In fact, it’s better to find them locally. They very well may be assets we have had all along, just undiscovered or not previously thought of as the final pieces of a new puzzle.

Small towns can be successful and prosperous. They just need strategies that best suit their situation. The Internet has leveled the playing field, and by focusing on their assets, these communities can recreate existing firms and create new enterprises that are truly competitive while offering their owners and employees the opportunity to remain and enjoy the quality of life they appreciate, right in their hometowns.

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