Rural areas often depend on large manufacturing plants for job creation, economic stability, and prosperity. Consequently, struggling small towns put significant energy and resources into recruiting these large manufacturers in order to save their own citizens from economic woe. The problem is, relying solely on industrial recruitment isn’t the only, or the best, means of building, or resuscitating, a strong local economy.
A town also needs to build a strong community with proper infrastructure, support entrepreneurship, retain small businesses, and attract local tourism. Diversifying resources towards a variety of initiatives will actually set small towns up with a more stable and independently functioning ecosystem than depending completely on outside contracts from large corporations. So what do small towns need to do to be successful?
The Kettering Foundation says that high-achieving communities depend less on the characteristics of individual leaders and more on the number of leaders. In fact, in one study they found that high-achieving communities had ten times more people providing leadership than communities of comparable size. They call these communities “leaderful” rather than just having strong leadership. Leaders roles are less about assigning responsibilities, and more about garnering participation from the community. They act as facilitators, communicators, and mobilizers of the townspeople, and empower them to make changes for themselves. The more of your community that is engaged and involved, the more resources you have to solve problems and promote growth.
Identify and leverage your strengths.
Having a “big picture” about where you’re growing and why is key if you want to be able to stay on target, predict roadblocks, and avoid distractions/unnecessary costs. It’s important for a community to determine what its individual assets are. For example, does your town have natural resources, environmental attractions, or historical importance? How can you utilize these assets to boost economic growth?
Have a plan.
With these assets in mind, make a development plan, including setting benchmarks, identifying top priorities, and strategizing how to overcome foreseeable challenges. Having a plan allows your town’s leaders to measure success and focus its attention/resources appropriately.
Create a sense of responsibility.
Next, you need to ensure accountability for carrying out the plan. Agreeing on what to do is useless without someone actually going out and getting their hands dirty. It’s best to form an entity responsible for implementing and maintaining objectives. This group should meet regularly to discuss progress and devise modifications as the communities priorities and/or needs change.
Ideally, whatever entity your community forms should include representatives from a variety of local institutions including government, business, education, and any relevant faith-based institutions. All too often, organizations within a town work independently from one another without much active communication. Creating a space for people with different responsibilities, expertise, and perspectives within your town to collaborate means your community can identify shared objectives and tackle pervasive problems more efficiently.
Forge regional partnerships.
It’s always beneficial for small towns to work with neighboring communities. Small populations have small resources, but combining powers with neighboring towns means more taxpayers, more institutions, and more skilled labor. Again, working together with other towns will yield similar benefits to working with different people across your town: more and better collaborative efforts.
Industrial development may be appropriate for your town, but it should not be the only strategy or the only goal. Building a strong local economy starts with a strong community that is engaged in its own success. Even better, strategies emphasizing community development ultimately make small towns more attractive to large plant contracts, so you might hit two birds with one stone.