Small towns across the U.S. are dying. But it doesn’t have to be. While there are trends toward population shifts to urban areas, some small towns have found creative ways to turn the tide and stay alive in the 21st century.
Some of people behind major small town success stories across the country gathered in Mississippi this week to network and share strategies for small town success. Representatives from the successful small towns were attending a workshop, Extraordinary Results in Ordinary Places, at the Advanced Education Center in Tupelo sponsored by the McLean Center for Community Development at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss).
“We brought in key leaders from five successful small towns, and asked them to share their stories for one day in the form of conversations with fellow citizens,” said Dr. Vaughn Grisham, professor of sociology and director of the McLean Center. “In every case, the key has been that these places, with no unusual resources, have achieved extraordinary results by utilizing local resources, and finding ways to work together on projects that have reshaped their communities.”
Grisham’s work involves helping rural communities survive and thrive. He has worked on projects in 32 different states and two Canadian provinces, and does more work outside of Mississippi than inside the state.
An estimated two out of three small towns in the U.S. are losing jobs and population. “There is just no question that major urban areas are the ones that have been seeing the growth,” Grisham said. “What I have been doing is finding cases where small towns are not just doing well, but thriving. Then I studied these small towns to see if there is a pattern. I wanted to see if there were commonalities in communities that are doing well.”
Grisham picked five outstanding small towns, and from that has produced a model of what makes them successful. The first thing is that it all begins with a catalyst, a person who begins moving things forward.
“Often small towns worry about losing jobs, but they don’t know what to do about it,” Grisham said. “Many are not aware other communities are struggling with exactly the same thing. What you will find is one individual will start doing work on a specific target. In most cases with these individuals, a lot of learning has to take place. A common thing these people will say is, ‘We were making this up as we went along.’
“So, what they do is start out taking baby steps. They experiment. They try one thing, and then try another. What happens is they begin to recognize their own limits, and engage others in thinking about this same problem. They begin to form a group, and the group begins to grow. They pool their thoughts and explore what I call ‘possibility thinking.’ What are we going to do? What are the options?”
The smartest innovators look first to their own assets, thinking about what the small town has that might be useful for attracting economic development. Grisham said that compares to another type of effort that is rarely successful. That is small town leaders going to a state or federal agency, and expecting the solutions to come from government.
“Usually that is going to sit on some bureaucrat’s desk, and nothing happens,” Grisham said. “So, no one is working on it. What I tell communities is if something gets done, it is going to be because you do it. No one cares that much about the community except those people who live there or used to live there.”
The five successful small towns Grisham selected as models have all won national and even international recognition for their community development achievements. The communities, in alphabetic order, are: Colquitt, Ga.,; Haven Acres in Tupelo; Houston, Minn.; Morrilton, Ark.; and communities from Western North Carolina.
Here, in brief, are their stories:
• Colquitt, Ga., has created a revitalized economy around local stories that are produced as plays. The Miller County Arts Council that produces the plays began a decade ago with a budget of $2,500. Today the annual budget is $2.2 million. They have invested their earnings in the community itself. The Miller County Arts Council has purchased almost every vacant building. They converted a cotton warehouse into a theater/museum/gift shop. A bank building is now a first-class bed and breakfast with a fine restaurant. Another building houses apartments. A similar structure serves as a mini-mall and as a setting for retail startups. Still another has become a community center featuring all types of creative activities. They have even converted grain silos into attractive apartments. The Arts Council has become Miller County’s largest employer.
• Haven Acres is an African-American neighborhood on the periphery of Tupelo. Local leaders have transformed a neighborhood, which had been riddled with crime, into a model for neighborhood development. They have received numerous national awards for their grassroots leadership. The lessons for neighborhood development and active partnerships between citizens and the public sector are as good as it gets in this case study.
• Houston, Minn. Schools were in debt and in danger of being consolidated with other county schools seven years ago. School and community leadership have come together to provide a model of local support for the public schools. The schools are prospering, they have reduced the cost per student, have 100% graduation, and are providing services to the whole community that have benefited the entire population and helped to make the school the center of the community. Both town and education are thriving.
• Morrilton, Ark., is a town of 6,500 that lost more than 1,100 manufacturing jobs in less than two weeks in February 1999. Almost half of the downtown stores were vacant. Today, the community has replaced its jobs, and the downtown is bustling. This is an excellent case study of the way in which community development can lead to economic development.
• Western North Carolina has become a national model for rural tourism and the folk arts. Moreover, they have established a regional development program that also serves as a model. This is an outstanding program that provides multiple lessons for all regions. It is one of the best in the world.
Grisham said what communities need to learn is that problems can’t be solved just by looking in. External resources including technical assistance are important. For example, the Town of Winona is trying to get an ethanol plant into production. Grisham said they have the investors, but it is a pretty sophisticated operation.
“They turned to the Chemical Engineering Department at Mississippi State University,” Grisham said. “What they are looking for now is technology transfer. The problem is that often small communities are not connected to these technical sources. One of the roles the McLean Institute plays is being a conduit for information about where to get outside help.
“I get on average 15 calls a day from somewhere in the U.S. from someone who says, ‘This is who we are, we’re trying to work on a problem, and we don’t know what to do.’ I will put them in contact with others with the expertise. What I’m doing is sort of making these links, building networks in the community.”
Another important part of the picture is that, at some point, volunteers working to revitalize a small town will form an organization that meets regularly to work on the issues. That organization will develop very specific projects that will lead to an improved community.
“In every community we have exactly the same story: Local people using local assets to make it happen,” Grisham said. “You must have the right people doing it. I can’t tell you how important that is. It takes time to get things like this off the ground. And this person can catch a lot of abuse. For example, the person who started the plays in Colquitt, Ga., must have had people say, ‘Why would you think people would come from all over the U.S. to see our plays?’ Mark Twain said that all people with ideas look like crackpots until their ideas succeed, and then they are called geniuses. In every case, that is what we have.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.