In December, the New York Times published an article about rural America that painted a bleak picture of declining populations, declining employment, increasing opioid addiction and death. The article suggested that the decline is inevitable and perhaps irreversible. “This is the inescapable reality of agglomeration, one of the most powerful forces shaping the American economy over the last three decades. Innovative companies choose to locate where other successful, innovative companies are,” said the authors.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, I think the rumors of the death of rural economies are greatly exaggerated. It is undoubtedly true that some small communities are vanishing, having to close their schools due to lack of enrollment, and eventually losing their post offices, local governments and local businesses. And, I have met folks from across the country who are proud that they have fought off any development efforts from anyone with outside capital.
On the other hand, all across this country, I’ve visited (and lived in) small towns from Maine to Indiana to Virginia to Colorado to New Mexico that are flourishing. Sometimes the ones that are flourishing are just miles away from those that aren’t, providing a natural experiment to determine what makes a difference and what works. There are quite a few commonalities among the towns that are doing well.
One that stands out is that these thriving places have high-speed internet service and reliable cell service. What seemed like a “nice to have” only twenty years ago is absolutely a baseline requirement these days to attract and retain citizens and businesses.
Another commonality is what some people call “place-making.” Most of these towns have invested in themselves. They spruced up downtowns with new sidewalks and street lights. They helped landlords repair and enhance storefront facades. They supported the real estate investors who come in and rehabilitated signature, historical buildings, like old textile mills in New England, tobacco warehouses in North Carolina, Victorian-era houses in Colorado mining towns and adobe buildings in New Mexico. Most of all, these towns celebrate their history, rather than tear it all down.
A third commonality is civic engagement. In many of these places, a major anchor entity –Colby College in Waterville, ME; Corning Glass in Corning, NY; the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, IN – makes a commitment that goes beyond enlightened self-interest and starts to invest in the community and takes a leadership role, bringing others along with them. Often, these moments of civic engagement occur because of a crisis, or a generational change in leadership – a base closure; a weather-related disaster like a flood or tornado; a major plant closing. Smart leaders know the value of a good crisis – it’s a window of opportunity when resistance to change is lowest, and the willingness to try something new is highest.
But the most important thing that all of these thriving small towns have is an entrepreneurial spirit. There are entrepreneurs who are thriving in Maine’s small towns and in small towns across the country. In these places, you will meet intrepid entrepreneurs who have seen a need and created a product to meet it.
- Joshua Davis and Bruno Tropeano, two recent college graduates, decided it was too bad that they couldn’t get gelato in Brunswick, ME. So, they opened their flagship store, Gelato Fiasco, on Maine Street in 2007. Today, their gelato is distributed nationwide.
- Shannon Kinney, Founder of Dream Local Digital in Rockland, ME, came home after years of traveling and working with large corporate clients. She started an internet marketing agency in 2009 and had grown to nearly 40 employees, supporting clients all over the US and in Maine too.
- Hannah Kubiak started Sea Bags on the Portland, ME waterfront fourteen years ago. When Beth Shissler learned about the company in 2006 and joined in, a dynamic entrepreneurial team was born. Sea Bags makes custom, fashionable tote bags and other accessories out of used sails. Now with eighteen company retail locations, a corporate sales arm and distribution in specialty stores nationwide, this company leads the way in sustainability, and is bringing back traditional textile work.
Visit most any small town with a thriving downtown, and you are highly likely to find a great coffee shop that’s locally owned, a co-working space or a maker’s space, restaurants serving food from India, Thailand, and Greece, as well as locally sourced, farm-to-table meals with micro-brewed beer. Talk to folks in these places and you will probably meet young, well-educated people, who have moved home with their families because it’s affordable, they can find interesting work, and be part of a community. No, these rural places aren’t dead, not by a long shot.
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A recent op-ed written by a local economic developer about the rural economy in Maine generated a lot of comments showing clearly the live wire he touched. Leaving aside the usual name-calling and insults that unfortunately inhabit most comment sections, several points of view emerged. One was the idea that if people don’t find opportunity where they live, they should move elsewhere. Another was that we should revive the traditional ways of making a living (i.e., forest products, fishing, agriculture) and embrace them. A third was that reliable cell service and high-speed internet offer people a way to make a living where they are. Perhaps all of these things are valid to some extent.
What many of the comment writers, and indeed, the author of the piece all have in common is nostalgia for the “old days” when the rural economy was strong, when young people didn’t leave to move to the “big city” and when you didn’t need a college education to make enough money to raise a family. A great narrative to be sure, but there’s a problem. These “old days” never existed. Whether you go back a generation to the 1950s or to the start of the last century, rural communities have always been characterized by hard work and marginal living. Young people have always heard the lure of anywhere but where they grew up. And more education has always been correlated with higher incomes.
Like it or not, shift happens. Economies change. Places change. People (sometimes) change. For rural economies today, this means that new technologies are changing and potentially reviving traditional ways of making a living. Whether this is the advent of aquaculture or bio-based products made from wood pulp, or the use of sensors and drones in agriculture, nothing stays the same for long. The race is won when people, and their leaders, see the opportunities ahead and seize them.
Are you ready to learn more about innovation and entrepreneurship-focused economic development? Get started with this complementary pdf. https://pages.convertkit.com/d33a2124c1/13b87cf746