Dave Ivan of Michigan State University Extension rocked the house at the Michigan Small Town and Rural Development Conference with his “Can Small Towns Be Cool?” presentation.
He showered us with ideas and examples gathered from 250 community visits, a literature review and the Michigan “Cool Cities Initiative” survey of young professionals. He grouped his results into success themes.
1. Strong engagement between citizens, community organizations, and government.
St. Joseph, MI, approx. 8000 pop, does neighborhood town hall gatherings of 75-120 people, in backyards all across town. They also produce a unified community calendar and hand-deliver it to residents.
Marshall (I think in Michigan) did an amazing community-wide visioning process. They created a “meeting in a box” to involve a big swath of the public. The result was a whole different data set of what was important to residents than the usual results from having the same ten people involved.
I loved how Coopersville, MI, uses their town entry sign to salute a different nonprofit, business person, and teacher each quarter.
2. Local Entrepreneurial Investment
Ivan said this is often initiated by a local entrepreneur, and that then served as a tipping point to get others to invest.
In New Carlisle, IN, 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.
Ord, NE, is a ranching town. 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.
Ivan also praised Fairfield, IA, the “Silicorn Valley” mentality that has a mentoring program, local angel and venture capital funds.
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. Suttons Bay MI, was one of the first towns in North America to adopt form-based zoning.
Having dealt a bit with municipal zoning issues, I think this may be one of the biggest hurdles.
Bellow Falls, Vermont, used state housing rehab dollars to renovate an old building into an artist live-work facility.
This approach may not suit every town. Conservative, traditional towns may have conflict with creative artists. In Three Oaks, MI, 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, Minnesota, established a cultural center that capitalizes on the natural amenities. Each artist to spend time in their space must participate in an outreach project, mostly with the school system. The local superintendent raved about the quality of artists brought in with this program, Ivan said.
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 the youth. Ask them to take pictures of what they like and dislike about the town, and have them present it at a future meeting. Can you imagine the impact this could have?
7. Retaining Youth and Attracting Families
Create economic choices that are appealing to youth. Ord, NE, for example, has a youth entrepreneurship program starting in grade schools.
Brookfield gave kids a mailbox with their name on it. “Brookfield is always going to be your home town. Go out, explore, learn, but come home.”
8. Conviction that in the long run you have to do it yourself.
Cool small towns are not waiting for an outside savior.
Argonia, KS, 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 mayor of St. Joseph, Ill, said, “We’re always looking for projects we can’t afford.” That’s a great development attitude!
While I was live-tweeting this session, Grant Griffiths of Kansas asked about implementation. “Ideas are great and we have to have them. But how do we get them implemented in our rural towns?”
Ivan’s short answer on implementation was strong leadership. And don’t let the CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) define the community.
The best advice for all small towns wanting to be “cool” maybe a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt. “Do what you can with what you have where you are.”
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