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Can Small Towns Be Cool?

Casey Woods by Casey Woods, Executive Director | June 20, 2016
Many communities that attend the National Main Street conference simply send one staff member.  In Emporia one of the keys to our community success has been encouraging board members and other volunteers to attend the conference.  Each conference day there are different sessions that occur at the same time.  Having several Emporians at the conference means that we can each attend different sessions, share the wealth of knowledge with all of our members, and take advantage of many more educational opportunities.
Each volunteer that attends the National Main Street conference is tasked with taking detailed session notes so that we can relay information gleaned to our general membership.  We believe that information is only useful when it is disseminated to those that can use it.  The session described in this week’s e-news was attended by Tracy Weltha of IM Design Group.
Everyone, whether they want to admit it or not, wants to live in a “cool” town.  They want their community to exude pride, and they want those outside of the community to recognize the “cool” aspects of the town.  But, what makes a community cool?  While the “cool factor” may not be a standard statistical measurement like median household income,  communities that self identify as “cool” do have some unifying characteristics.  According to David Ivan, the Institute Director for Michigan State University’s Extension, there are five traits showcased in “cool” small-town communities.
1. Cool communities intentionally focus on identifying and supporting entrepreneurs.- This requires a cultural shift in many small communities of building entrepreneurs up instead of tearing them down.  In conservative communities, it’s easy to talk about things that fail, but cool communities need to recognize and celebrate entrepreneurs that try to make a difference.  Sometimes the identification takes place through the creation of a local “entrepreneur hall of fame” or a highlighted corner in the local newspaper.  Support can take the form of formalized mentoring/educational programs, business grants/loans targeted for entrepreneurs, endowments that support entrepreneurial activities or incubation programs for different age ranges or specialties.
2.  Cool communities make human and capital investments.-  Communities committed to “cool” know that they must grow their own talent, so they engage youth and university students to provide unique experiences and tailor the local jobs to intersect with local talent.  Sometimes, the youth investment takes the form of a multi-level internship program that focuses on meaningful learning while pairing students that want to stay in a community with businesses that actually want to hire them.  Typically, a formalized internship program begins as a “shadow” event for freshmen, that evolves into a mentoring program for sophomores and culminates in full paid internships for juniors and seniors that have proven themselves.  Some communities have gone so far as to create loan forgiveness programs to attract and retain the right kind of entrepreneurial youth.  An example of youth retention and recruitment was presented at the session in the form of a “Why Dubuque” video (CLICK HERE for the link).
3.  Cool communities have strong social capital and civic engagement.  Downtowns are the one central point that is owned by “everybody”.  Youth and professional engagement is critical to community and downtown development, but engagement needs to take place in a culture of making real changes to benefit the area.  It is important for communities to adapt and change with the local positive narrative, because perception can become reality.  Engagement on a civic level extends to youth- not as a separate group, but as part of the planning and implementation process.  Civic engagement is critical for youth, because if a person has a positive memory of a community as a child (ages 4-11), they are more likely to return as an adult.  Displaying youth artwork, encouraging them to get involved with important elements of community aesthetics and encouraging their creativity is critical to the engagement process (this served as part of the basis for the family downtown chalking event welcoming the Dirty Kanza riders).  Listen to what children want in a community, and then engage them with discussions about market realities and the unique assets of the community.
Communities with strong local engagement start working with youth as young as 3rd graders on creative community problem solving and entrepreneurship.  Once youth “grows up” and moves on, they are viewed as alumni, and specialty systems in place continually reach out, reminding “alumni” that they always have a home in their home town and encouraging their return for a variety of activities (and eventually a job and a home).
4.  Cool communities have a strong sense of “place”.-  Visual “third places” are critically important to the retention and attraction of individuals to “cool” small communities.  This means that small townsmust plan for density, aesthetics (building coverings must come down and boarded windows must be replaced).  Community “hang outs” are important in proximity to entrepreneurial businesses.  An aesthetically pleasing “that looks COOL!” place is important for communities to show commitment through investment and providing a place where locals and visitors want to “hang out”.
5.  Cool communities have a commitment to get things DONE.- Youth and young professionals are change oriented.  Nothing frustrates generation X and millennials like endless meetings without tangible results.  The culture of “doing” goes beyond just showing up- it permeates the community only when creative solutions to problems and intersections with opportunities actually happen.  Doers create for the community good and partner with others to elevate existing assets with community potential.  Cool communities look back to recognize where they came from, but they focus on the future.
Do these five points describe your community?  The wonderful thing about Main Street is the recognition that there is always more to be done.  We can always improve, and through hard work and innovation we can create the “cool” community that we all want to see.  But, these five points aren’t achieved FOR you, they are achieved WITH you.  Your time, talent and treasure are required to develop a “cool” community.  
If one of the ideas above looks appealing, or if you have more ideas on creating a “cool” community, contact Emporia Main Street.  We would love to work with you as we prove that yes, a small town can be cool!

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.


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