Every place has people and assets to build on

Richard Florida is one of the most widely-read urban theorists, author of several books related to the Creative Class. He’s long been an advocate for urban areas, urbanization, and urban life. His writings have popularized a move towards focusing on the amenities needed to attract the Creative Class and thereby assure the future of your city. It always sounds to me like the people you have now don’t matter and the smaller your town, the bigger your disadvantage trying to attract those creatives.

It’s all so urban-oriented that I’ve viewed it rather skeptically. Or at least, I’ve been skeptical about the applicability to rural areas and small towns. Every town can work to improve, focus on quality of life, and become a better place to live for current as well as future residents. However, that’s only a surface application of Florida’s thinking.

But I read a quote from Florida recently that caught my complete attention.

“I certainly don’t think smaller cities should be decertified. I am not a big fan of what people call “the shrinking cities” movement. Every city, every place, every neighborhood has something to offer.”
–Richard Florida, writing in The Atlantic’s City Lab, emphasis added

OK, I’ll admit Florida probably wasn’t thinking about small towns under 10,000 population when he said that. (Especially since he goes on to mention “smaller college towns like Austin” — the 11th most populous city in the US.)

But I’m willing to stretch Florida’s point down to truly small towns. He drew a parallel between the loss of functioning neighborhoods in “urban renewal” and the loss we’d face in decertifying existing cities. The idea of functioning neighborhoods applies just as much to a town of 2,000 or 200 people.

Florida went on, “Every city, every neighborhood, every place has people and assets to build from.”

I love that sentence so much I’m thinking of having T-shirts made. Small towns have assets, we have people, and we have plenty to build on. There is no reason to simply throw that away and declare defeat.

When I shared this story with my friend Rob Hatch, he said, “all of the information is amazing, but what do I do with it?”

Rob doesn’t work in economic development or tourism or the chamber of commerce. He is “just a business person” in a small town in Maine. What role can he play? If the answer involves committees, meetings, SWOT analyses, or plans in binders, then you can forget about it, because Rob has no interest in that. And honestly, despite all the time I’ve spent doing exactly those kinds of things in the past, I have no interest in them any more either.

That doesn’t relieve us of responsibility. “Business, economic development and community development are everybody’s business,” Debra Hansen, Washington State University Extension, told me. I agree, and I think we can take care of business without sitting through committee meetings.

Here are two things you, just one person, can do to help your small town have a better future.

1. Shop local.
You vote with your money, so vote for your town more often. Vote for your local business owners more often. Yes, I know you can’t get everything locally and Amazon is really convenient. Yes, I know it’s fun to go to the big city for a day of shopping. I do it too, sometimes. It’s also fun to have a thriving town of your own to play in, so make the decision to shift your shopping a little at a time.

2. Show your support for local businesses.
Support isn’t just about money. It’s about showing support, being vocally supportive. Groups can give entrepreneur of the year awards. Publications can brag up local businesses. You can open your mouth and tell business owners that they are appreciated.

You may think I’m crazy with this one, that it doesn’t matter what you say. Actually, it matters deeply. Take Fred Carl, Jr., for example. He was a fourth-generation home builder based in Greenwood, Mississippi. He could see that more people wanted commercial-style kitchens in their houses, but appliances designed for restaurants really weren’t suited. So he designed a stove of his own, and he spent years running his construction company while working on the design project on the side.

“We had a rough time in the early days,” Fred said. “I remember once I said, ‘Margaret, let’s pull up stakes and move to Jackson [the state capital].’ But I couldn’t do it. I’m hardheaded. You have to be. Plus, so many people from Greenwood would stop me on the street and say, ‘Hey, Fred, how’s the stove project?’ I’d never have gotten that support in Dallas or even Jackson. I might not even get eye contact in New York. In fact, ain’t no way in hell I could have done Viking anywhere else but Greenwood. This is my cocoon.”
(Source: Inc. Magazine.)

Did you catch it? The stove project that Fred started on the side grew into Viking Range Corporation. And he used that as a platform to make Greenwood a more prosperous town. And it stayed in Greenwood because people told him he mattered there.

When is the last time you stopped someone on the street to ask how their crazy idea was coming?

Every place has people and assets to build on. You get the chance to build on yours.