Small Towns, Big Ideas

A recent press release from the University of North’s Carolina School of Government caught our eye. The headline was “Small Towns, Big Ideas: Case Studies of Innovation”. Will Lambe, associate director of the Community and Economic Development Program at the School of Government, conducted the yearlong study in collaboration with the North Carolina Rural Center. The publication “features real stories, from real places that are successfully confronting real challenges similar to those facing small communities everywhere, such as globalization, geographic isolation, urban sprawl, aging populations, and natural disasters.”

According to the study, seven themes emerged that offer take-away lessons for other communities hoping to learn from small towns with big ideas. Those include:

  1. In small towns, community development is economic development. Communities that incorporate economic and broader, longer-term, community development goals stand to gain more than small towns that take a piecemeal approach.
  2. Small towns with the most dramatic outcomes tend to be proactive and future-oriented; they embrace change and assume risk. 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.
  3. Successful community economic development strategies are guided by a broadly held local vision. Case after case has demonstrated that people (as opposed to money or other resources) are the one absolutely necessary ingredient to successful development. 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.
  4. Defining assets and opportunities broadly can yield innovative strategies that capitalize on a community’s competitive advantage. Assets for small town development 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.
  5. Innovative local governance, partnerships and organizations significantly enhance the capacity for community economic development. The key to innovative local governance is to think creatively, but always keep the community’s overall net benefits in mind. Regionalism and partnerships beyond municipal boundaries can help small towns to pool resources toward shared objectives.
  6. Effective communities identify, measure and celebrate short-term successes to sustain support for long-term community economic development. Leaders in small towns must repeatedly make the case for the importance of their efforts to maintain momentum, invigorate volunteers and donors, convince skeptics and, most importantly, keep the focus on the vision or the goals established in a community’s strategic plan.
  7. Viable community economic development involves the use of a comprehensive package of strategies and tools, rather than a piecemeal approach. Successful development in small towns is always multifaceted. Successful communities tend to have evolved to the point where they have a comprehensive package of strategies and tools that are aligned with the core assets, challenges and opportunities with their regional context.

The report includes 45 case studies of small towns across the United States that are using a wide range of community and economic development strategies to advance their communities’ vision for prosperity. The entire report can be downloaded from www.cednc.unc.edu/stbi.

We at Boomtown Institute have been studying small towns for over two decades. My research for Boomtown USA – The 7 ½ Keys to Big Success in Small Towns, along with my travels over the past five years to nearly 400 communities throughout the United States, echoes the findings of Will Lambe. There are great things happening in rural America!