3 Ways to Make Small Towns Successful: Get the practical steps to Beautification, Good Leaders and Keeping Your Youth.

3 Ways to Make Small Towns Successful: Get the practical steps to Beautification, Good Leaders and Keeping Your Youth.

People who are open to new ideas and willing to let newcomers be involved in the decision making help create communities that will thrive. Iowa State University’s 30 year Sigma study conducted over 99 towns told us that.

These three things help small towns be more open to new ideas:

Beautification: There are many ways to add beautification to your town, it’s not just murals on walls. Food, revitalizing downtown, art and placemaking fit into this first way. 

Good Leaders: The days of a small group running things is a thing of the past. The times today require diversity in leadership. There are good leaders everywhere. Learn how to find them. 

Keeping Your Youth: Youth that are involved in your community strengthen it. Starting young in the decision making process creates stronger adults. 

All three ways contain practical steps, and a success story from a small town. There are also links to videos we created and produced at SaveYour.Town to explore in more detail.

One. Making your town beautiful in ways that serve the community. 


Having enough food is a challenge many rural people face. How can you marry quality of life, beautification and finding ways to feed people?

  • Vegetables: Instead of planting flowers, plant vegetables in your city wide flower pots.
  • Community Garden: Move your community garden downtown to an empty lot and add in person instruction from local gardeners on how to raise a vegetable garden. 
  • Farmers markets: They are a great quality of life resource and can be started with just one or two vendors. Invite folks who have beautiful flowers in their yards to come and sell cut flowers. Ask your local churches to sell baked goods at the market. Invite artists to sell their work.

The students at Dillard Academy grow vegetables in Goldsboro, North Carolina, population 36,000. They sell some at a community market, and they cook some for themselves from recipes their grandparents used. Their teacher said the students’ test scores are improving, and they are teaching their parents healthier ways to prepare food.

food builds community promo piece

Food Builds Community

Watch this video about how to use food to build community.

Revitalizing downtown 

Many small towns want to revitalize their downtowns. They face different challenges in doing so: Lack of money, lots of empty buildings and old way of doing things ideas. 

You can do some simple things that make your downtown look fuller and don’t require a lot of money. This also addresses the problem of empty buildings. 

  • Pop Ups: There are entrepreneurs who work from home and are ready to showcase some products and sell them. Try pop ups in an empty building. It can be for one day (like for an event), or a season (the holidays.) This gives the entrepreneur a chance to test their idea and product out, see if there is a market and collect valuable data. 
  • Decorate: An even smaller step would be to decorate the windows of the empty buildings. Perhaps another business could advertise in one of the windows. Your artwork could be displayed. Or make a banner that fills the window and is an image of what kind of business could be there. 
  • Be a Ninja: A ninja move can bring attention to an empty building and help start conversations. Simply clean the windows, and sweep the sidewalk. You don’t need to own the building to do that. Be a ninja.

A project that could fill an empty building, even temporarily, is a repair cafe. In Willimantic, Connecticut, population19,000, a group of neighbors started this as a way to keep salvageable goods out of the landfills. Locals can drop off household items that need fixing. Bicycles, clothes, vacuum cleaners – you get the idea. Volunteers fix and repair them, and they even give folks a few tips on how to better maintain their things.

Look Full for the Holidays

For more information on how to make your downtown look fuller, watch this video



Art is more than just murals on the side of buildings. (Although we do love murals on the side of buildings!) The arts share our cultural stories and preserve our history, address our present and create the kind of future we want. 

  • Collaborate: Getting together with bakers and making some great treats to give away at a public event is an art project.
  • Music: Having an open mic event downtown is art, and it opens up music to the artists and the listeners.
  • Culture: Attending a cultural event different from your own culture exposes you to new kinds of art, and you’ll meet your neighbors too.

A local store owner asked artists originally from Webster City, Iowa to participate in a gallery showing. Local and out of towners merged to bring art into an empty building downtown. Their friends visited and were exposed to all kinds of artists and art. Students, immigrants and many others showed up during those 2 weeks. Connections were made. Because of this event, someone else is now planning a showing of local photographers’ work. 

arts builds community video promo with pics of bango player and quilt

Arts Build Community

For more ideas about using art to build community, watch this video



Placemaking is a buzzword these days. I like to think placemaking is the introduction to better economic development ideas. And good ideas help make your town a better community and more successful.

  • Online: Making a Pinterest board that shares what your town has is cost free and you can have many people participate.
  • Promotion: Put art or banners promoting your town on chain link fences around construction areas.
  • Adoption: Let anyone adopt one of the empty flower pots you see in a lot of towns.
  • Empty Lots: Use your empty lots downtown and set up markets there, try your ideas out in a temporary fashion. 

Colfax, Washington may have originated the phrase crack art.They had a group of artists that looked at a crack in the sidewalk and went, “How could we turn this into a piece of art?” And they looked at the crack and they made it look like the trail left by a clown riding a unicycle. So when you see the crack, it goes up to the wall of the building and there’s the clown disappearing. It’s 12 inches tall. They’ve done several little creative bits like that all around town. And so, it’s a fun little scavenger hunt to go around and try to find them in the town. And they’re unexpected, they’re just really inexpensive to do. And creative fun.

cheap downtown placemaking video promo with pic of painted poles

Cheap Downtown Placemaking Ideas

For more ideas about cheap downtown placemaking, watch this video

Two. Good Leaders

Good leaders must be open minded. Openness allows everyone in the town to have a say in local affairs and projects. Involving more people in decision making helps to find what the community really wants and needs and gets more people to volunteer time and money. 

There’s room for leaders from all walks of life and that represent the entire community. The towns that are led by a set group of people that accept no input are not thriving. The new ways involve input from many people working together on innovative ideas and building connections to grow your community.

Youth: Listen to your youth. Ask them what they want. Then let them try their ideas out. Put them on your city council as a non voting member, hear their input.

Partner Up: Ask your seniors to partner with your students to participate in a project. Capturing oral history is a good project to start with.

Find the people. We tend to hang out with people we know. How can you meet new people in town? Attend events where parents are likely to be – dance contests, soccer games, and the pool come to mind. How about the old people? Visit the coffee shops and join in the conversation. Go to the nursing homes and have lunch with the folks there. Stop by the historical museum and talk to the volunteers.

Akron, Iowa hosted a Plant Your Flag Party, led by the mayor. Everyone was invited to come with their ideas for their town. No discussion was about what they didn’t have. Instead they talked about what they wanted. And they got into action right away.

The city of Pullman, Washington built on the enthusiasm of local merchants to crowdsource cleaner streets and sidewalks without extra work for the city.

Idea Friendly Officials and Boards promo video with pic of boring looking old men and pic of exciting looking young people

Idea Friendly Officials and Boards

For more information on how to create idea friendly officials and boards, watch this video

Three. Keeping Your Youth

We encourage our kids to further their education, whether it’s going to college, trade school or working and learning together. In the past, we wanted them to go to the big city and college, get a good paying job and visit when you can. That’s the old way of doing things! 

The new way of doing things is different. Yes, we still want them to further their education. But we’d like them to return home with their new skills and often new families and be a part of our community. 

  • Get started early: Involve your students in your town activities.  Embedding a strong sense of community needs to start when they are in school. When you host events, ask for their input of what they’d like to see at the event. Human Foosball? Bar stool races? Dunk tanks? They’ll have ideas you wouldn’t even consider! Then let them put their ideas into action.
  • Help your students become entrepreneurs. Starting their own business helps connect them to your community. And these young entrepreneurs help boost your economy too! Support your school’s entrepreneurial class and ask how you can help. Perhaps you have room for a pop up run by a student in your store.

In Mt. Ayr, Iowa there is a group of people who have moved back to this small town of 2,500. They brought with them technology, a large network of professional friends and their families. It’s not a beach town, there’s no mountains and people don’t go there to vacation.

Why had they moved there?
They came:

  • because they wanted to be close to family,
  • to raise their kids in a safer environment and
  • because they wanted to make a difference.

That’s right, they moved back home. And they have started new businesses, are creating new networks of people and getting involved in their community.

group of young people with their arms around each other

Idea Friendly for Youth:

Picture and Make the Change You Want

For more information watch this video

Youth Entrepreneurship

For more information watch this video

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