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Strategies for Small Town Success

November 29, 2009

Leaders in struggling rural communities and small towns often pin their hopes for economic prosperity on the recruitment of a large manufacturing plant to “save” their town.  In Alabama, our success in attracting large automotive plants like Mercedes-Benz, Honda, and Hyundai has fueled such a lust for industrial recruitment.  Many small towns are sure that their big break is just around the corner, if only they can come up with the right financial incentives and recruitment strategy.

An unfortunate consequence of relying on strategies that focus exclusively on industrial recruitment is that many communities undervalue, or don’t understand, the importance of other determinants of a strong local economy.  Business retention and expansion, small business and entrepreneurial development, tourism and retiree attraction, for example, receive short shrift compared to industrial recruitment.   More significantly, local leaders pay too little attention to building community and civic infrastructure.  Put another way, many small towns overemphasize marketing and sales (industrial recruiting) without adequate attention to product development (improving the quality of life in the community). But prosperous small town economies are built upon the foundation of strong communities.

Strategies for Small Towns and Rural Communities

Successful development strategies in small towns will typically include the following elements: 1) Developing strong and diverse community leadership that is inclusive, collaborative, and connected; 2) Identifying local assets and creating and carrying out a strategic plan based upon these assets; and 3) Joining with other jurisdictions to maximize economic resources.

1.  Community Leadership: Create leadership that is inclusive, collaborative, and connected.

“Leaderful” Communities.

Successful communities all over the United States understand the importance of an expansive view of community leadership.  The traditional notion of the community leader – often a mayor or other powerful “position-holder” — as chief community problem-solver has given way to a new, more dynamic model of the community leader as catalyst, connector, and consensus-builder.

Dr. David Mathews, President of the Kettering Foundation, in summarizing the findings of the Foundation’s research on community politics, writes:

“What stands out in the high-achieving community is not so much the characteristics of the leaders as their number … The high-achieving community had ten times more people providing leadership than communities of comparable size. This [high-achieving] community is “leaderful”; that is, nearly everyone provides some measure of initiative.  And its leaders function not as gatekeepers but as door openers, bent on widening participation.”

This new leadership model recognizes that leadership is not confined to a few elected officials and business leaders.  Rather, successful leadership requires mobilizing the knowledge, talents, and perspectives of every segment of the community.  Successful communities tend to be full of leaders.

2. Community Assessment and Planning: Identify all community assets and create a plan to take strategic advantage.

Strategic Planning.

There is an old saying that goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”  Citizen leaders and stakeholders in high-achieving communities know where they are going.  They understand that an era of rapid social, cultural, and technological change requires a proactive approach to addressing current and future problems.  They engage in a strategic planning process to identify what makes their place special and to decide how to cultivate and promote their unique assets – e.g., a river, a lake, a mountain, or a unique history.  The result of this process is a strategic plan that identifies community priorities and outlines specific strategies to make best use of available assets and to address local challenges. It becomes a road map for the future and a benchmark for community progress.

The benefits of strategic planning are not limited to the final product.  In fact, one of the most beneficial aspects of strategic planning is the process itself.  A successful strategic planning process brings together a diverse group of stakeholders, who address basic questions for the community:  “Where are we now?” “Where do we want to go?” and “How do we get there?” There are few other occasions when representatives from throughout the community come together for an extended period of time to discuss shared hopes, dreams, knowledge, perspectives, ideas, and concerns.  Broad-based strategic planning is a ‘mega-crossroad” and one of the best tools available for building and strengthening community connections.

3. Local and Regional Partnerships: Connect Local Stakeholders and Join Forces with Neighbors.

From Planning to Action: Connecting Community Stakeholders.

The process must not end with the creation of a strategic plan.  If so, it would resemble most other community planning efforts.  The result would be a plan that looks good on paper, but ends up collecting dust on a shelf.  To prevent this, the community should create an entity responsible for seeing that the major objectives in the plan are actually implemented.  This group, which should include representatives from government, business, education, and faith-based institutions, should meet regularly to monitor the community’s progress on the plan and make needed modifications to ensure that the plan remains relevant to community priorities and needs. 

The value of the group is not just that it checks items off of the list of community objectives.  It can serve as an important community “crossroad” where key community stakeholders have the opportunity to think, work, and act together.  Most communities have many excellent people, programs, and projects.  All communities have at least some institutional assets – city government, churches, schools, civic clubs, and Chambers of Commerce.  But far too often, individuals and organizations work independently, rather than in concert with one another.  The truly high-achieving communities are those that create crossroads where leaders from all of these community organizations and institutions can come together to accomplish shared community objectives.

Joining with other jurisdictions to maximize limited resources.

Because small towns and rural areas are sparsely populated, they lack a critical mass – of taxpayers, leadership, financial capacity, infrastructure, and skilled labor.  So if small towns are to survive, they must join forces and work together.  Small towns must learn to see their neighboring community as a competitor only for the Friday night football game.

While a holistic strategy for economic development is needed, attracting new businesses clearly should be one part of the overall approach.  However, small towns rarely possess adequate resources to be effective in the increasingly competitive arena of economic development.  Hiring a professional economic developer is an impossible dream for most small communities.  That is, unless they decide to partner with their neighbors.

Conclusion

Small towns, and larger jurisdictions for that matter, are best served by a holistic approach to economic development.  Industrial development may be an appropriate strategy, especially if done in partnership with regional neighbors.  However, it should not be the only strategy.  To be successful, small towns need to cultivate strong and diverse community leadership that is inclusive, collaborative, and connected.  They need to identify their unique assets, create and implement a strategic plan, and establish strategic partnerships among community stakeholders and with other jurisdictions. And they need to be proactive in creating community and regional crossroads — organizations, or structures, where leaders can connect on a regular basis to assess, plan, and work together.

If small towns aggressively pursue these strategies, they have excellent potential for success.  Many city-dwellers long for what people in small towns already have, and often take for granted: a slower pace of life, friendly people who know their neighbors, attractive open spaces and beautiful scenery, quaint shops, historic homes and buildings, parades, festivals, and streets that are safe and free of traffic congestion.  Many of our small towns still possess a sense of authenticity and charm that cannot be replicated in bigger cities.

These inherent quality-of-life advantages, enhanced by community leadership, planning, and partnerships, ultimately make the community more attractive to both existing and potential residents and employers.  In other words, investments in product development make the community much easier to market and sell.  The irony is that strategies emphasizing community development ultimately make small towns much more attractive in the competition for those large manufacturing plants they covet.

___________________________________

An expanded version of this article appears in the book, Building the Local Economy: Cases in Economic Development, edited by Douglas J. Watson and John Morris (Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 2008).

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