A few years back, a posting on Small Biz Survival -- a blog dedicated to small and rural business interests -- asked the $1 million question: "Can Small Towns Be Cool?"
The answer: Of course, small towns can be cool. But to earn the title of "cool," it takes some work by community residents.
According Dave Ivan of Michigan State University Extension, small towns can be cool if they are willing to follow some common success themes. Here they are:
1. Strong Engagement Between Citizens, Community Organizations And Local Government. For example, in St. Joseph, Mich., approx. 8,000 in population, city leaders hold neighborhood town hall gatherings in backyards all across town. They also produce a unified community calendar and hand-deliver it to residents. Coopersville, Mich. uses its town entry sign to salute a different non-profit, business person, and teacher each quarter.
2. Local Entrepreneurial Investment. Ivan said this is often initiated by a local entrepreneur and then served as a tipping point to get others to invest. In New Carlisle, Ind., Bill Owens expanded a floral shop into gifts, a furniture store, and transformed the community into a regional destination. This can also be a community initiative, such as economic gardening to grow entrepreneurs, where you may have village staff used to make things work for business. In Ord, Neb., they developed a wealth transfer plan to strategically fund their community economic development initiatives. By asking people to give 5% of their estate back to the community, they now have $8.5 million in hand or in pledges.
3. Willingness To Change. This may be the hardest part for many towns. These new opportunities may require changes in all sorts of local laws, including zoning.
4. Actively Pursues Cultural Elements To Economic Development. The most common cultural elements include the arts. In Three Oaks, Mich., the creatives are working to integrate with the existing parades and local celebrations. So it can work.
5. Cultural Efforts Reach Out To Community Youth. New York Mills, Minn., established a cultural center that capitalizes on the natural amenities.
6. A Deliberate Effort To Engage Youth. There is a continuum of efforts to involve youth. You can do things to youth, or do for youth, or do with youth, Ivan said. It can be tough to get a town moved along the continuum. One idea was to provide disposable cameras to young leaders. Ask them to take pictures of what they like and dislike about the town, and have them present it at a future meeting.
7. Retaining Youth And Attracting Families. Create economic choices that are appealing to youth. Ord, for example, has a youth entrepreneurship program starting in grade schools. Another town gave high school seniors a mailbox with their name on it, saying: "Brookfield is always going to be your hometown."
8. Conviction That, In The Long Run, You Must Do It Yourself. Cool small towns cannot wait for an outside savior. Argonia, Kan., lost their grocery store. But they built a community convenience and grocery store. They are now doing spec houses to sell at cost to new families. And if you enroll kids in the school, Argonia will even cover your closing costs.
The real key to small town success, Ivan says, is strong leadership that is willing to stand up to the CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything).