Why economic development here is everyone's business
While the general expectation is that our local governmental units (city and county) are taking care of it for us, the economic development efforts in small communities like ours in Jackson County are really everyone’s business.
Why is that? Because as local taxpayers, we all have a vested interest in ensuring that our communities grow and prosper to keep up with the ever increasing services that the public demands.
My hometown of Garnett is currently a good example of what can happen when everyone in a small community thinks the local community leaders have all the answers and are taking care of all economic development issues.
The city of Garnett needs to improve its water treatment facility and city officials have announced that residential water rates in the city may need to be doubled soon to pay for the needed improvements.
Economic development efforts in Garnett over the years have not kept pace with the public utility needs of the residents there. Local government officials are an easy target in times like these. And certainly, community leaders need to take economic development as serious as any community issue.
Economic development ulitimately decides which communities are successful and which ones aren’t.
Local residents who say they like their towns just the way they are now, today, often are the same ones who bristle at any talk of increased public utility rates and local taxes.
The reality, however, is that if your town is not progressive, if it is not growing, if it is not actively working to attract additional business and industry, then your town is going backwards, losing ground and most likely will need increased taxation in the future to keep the public services in place that it has now.
The National Main Street organization lists five factors that can drive economic development in small communities.
1. Development of the entrepreneurial ecosystem: Create an environment where people want to do business and then identify and support entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs and other local champions should find ways to prop up local innovators. Support their risk-taking. Connect them to others in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Give these entrepreneurs every chance to succeed.
2. Human investments driving new economy growth: Successful communities recognize their vitality is dependent on new innovations, enhanced educational opportunities and strong human capital. These communities identify human capital assets and leverage these opportunities for long-term economic success.
In the 1980s, Dubuque, Iowa led the Midwest in unemployment. Now, Dubuque is engaging young, university talent – despite the fact that this small city isn’t actually home to any colleges or universities.
University of Wisconsin has a campus about 35 miles away; another small college is 30 miles away. In conjunction with its Chamber of Commerce, the City of Dubuque established Young Professionals organizations at each college and university within about a 60-mile radius.
3. Strong social capital: Successful small communities have cultivated a strong social fabric with relationships that go deep and are durable over the long-term.
Research finds that successful communities identify and engage residents to help craft and implement a long-term vision. But not everyone likes to go to community meetings.
That’s why Marshall, Mich., created a “meeting in a box” for those who have great ideas but don’t show up to meetings. Hundreds of people in this community of just 7,000 people participated through the “meeting in a box” mechanism.
It’s equally important to extend citizen engagement to the youngest of residents – including school children and young adults. Research shows that young people who have fond memories of their hometowns are more likely to get involved and return to that town when they’re ready to settle down and raise their own families.
4. Strong quality of place: Successful communities create vibrant downtown environments where people want to be.
Communities that embrace their assets are viewed as authentic places that tend to become regional destinations.
5. Dedication to progress: Repeatedly, researchers found that successful, thriving and “cool” towns were proactive and determined to push their community forward, no matter how small the steps.
Sometimes it starts with the petunias, the researchers said. Simple, short-term projects can test concepts and build momentum for larger revitalization efforts.
When the only grocery store in Argonia, Kan. closed, residents banded together and committed to opening their own grocery store as a community cooperative. They knew having a grocery store was critical to keeping people in their community.
But keeping people wasn’t enough; they needed to attract people. They used the momentum from the grocery co-op and worked with local builders to create a housing development where new residents were offered homes at cost if they were willing to move to Argonia.
Even the smallest of efforts help generate support for larger scale projects that help to beautify Main Street districts and support local businesses.
From the Main Street Program, we realize that there’s plenty to learn from places in the U.S. that seem to be getting it right.