Small town survival of the fittest

Not every small town can be saved. And maybe we shouldn’t try to save every small town.

Burlington History Mural

Some towns have a proud history and a bright future. Some have neither. Photo by Becky McCray.

If a town can’t get its act together enough to accept help or seek opportunities, should outside groups spend any of their limited time and resources on them? Or should they focus on the ones with the best prospects of success?

When I first had this conversation with a state agency staff member, I was a bit appalled. Don’t the people of those towns deserve a quality of life, too? Is it their fault that the town board is still fighting tooth and nail?

It may be callous, but I’m starting to shift my opinion. All people deserve a quality life, but not all of them will get it. In this era of extremely limited resources, the agencies and funders will have to draw some lines. And if we’re honest, this has been true for a long time.

It’s a self-service world, and the best solutions come from within. You want your town to be saved? Start saving it yourself, as best you can, and know that small successes lead to bigger successes. And successful communities attract more resources. And those who are just begging won’t get much positive attention.

But My Town Sucks… 
Let’s be honest. Most towns suck to some degree. Your town is not the only one that is messed up.

You have to start by acting on your own. You do what you can, and it won’t be easy. Build relationships with other like-minded revolutionaries. Savor small, even tiny, victories. Build relationships with the people in neighboring towns, the towns that other people consider enemies. Build relationships with like-minded people online. Draw support from each other and dream up small but meaningful ways to make a difference.

Take the ideas you’ve read here and all those other resources online, and pick one idea. Scale that idea down to do-able, then do it.

Know that you’ll fail, that others will squash your best ideas, that opposition will drive you bananas.

Fair Warning
The towns that keep sucking the life out of their residents are going to be the ones that head downhill the fastest. People can be extraordinarily mobile today, and they can choose to invest themselves in any one of the many amazing and cool small towns out there.

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About Becky McCray

Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.

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  1. says

    The towns which enable, encourage, and support entrepreneurs like you are the ones with the highest likelihood of being successful. Successful small businesses will employ people, bring in revenues, and organically grow the tax base.

  2. says

    I like your emphasis of gettting personally involved. Your post is timely for me. The leader of a small catholic college in our small town (7000 population) gave the invocation at Rotary today . . .he asked God to make us grateful . . .and then explained that being grateful moves us to action and giving back to our community. A good thought to contemplate. Thanks for your post.

  3. says

    Bringing change has never been easy and he ones who try to get it have to pass through a lot many hurdles. But this is rightly said that if you wish to get some changes around you first you need to change yourself.

  4. says

    I agree, we need to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps! However, our small town has a difficult time getting people engaged. What is the secret to that?

    • says

      Lila, there is no magic answer. The closest thing to that is to understand those people who aren’t engaging. What are they thinking? What do they care about. There’s only one real way to find out. You have to ask and LISTEN when they answer. Here’s a little more from someone who really gets this issue, Marci Penner: How to get more volunteer participation.