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The Big Dreams That Small Towns Can Fulfill

The success of remote work could revitalize the economies of America’s small communities. But there are things they need to do to maximize their economic growth.

Downtown Council Grove, Kan.
Downtown Council Grove, Kan.: The success of remote work during the pandemic provides small communities with the opportunity to revitalize their economies. (Kansas Tourism)
COVID-19 has been devastating on many levels, but the pandemic may well have set in motion a dynamic that could revitalize the economies of many small communities. Not only has it proven that remote working works, but it has caused millions of Americans to rethink their lives — and to dream. Those dreams can now be fulfilled in America’s small towns, provided that those communities seize the opportunity. In the Flint Hills of Kansas, we see the potential up close.

As executive director of the Trade and Tourism Association in Council Grove and Morris County, with populations of 2,140 and 5,386, respectively, I know the benefits that have already accrued to smaller communities from remote working and the greater opportunities still to be realized. With remote working comes an influx of talent and money, a diversification of the local economy and renewed vitality. Workers who in the past would have stayed in Chicago, Kansas City or New York are finding it possible to achieve their ambitions while living in smaller communities that offer a unique quality of life.

The opportunity is not a small one. Gallup reports that “approximately 56% of full-time employees in the U.S. — more than 70 million workers — say their job can be done working remotely from home.” As a result of remote working, smaller communities can also more easily attract aspiring entrepreneurs. Smaller communities could previously offer lower costs and easier connections to local expertise. Now, any resources not available locally can be accessed remotely.

Yet smaller communities cannot simply wait for new residents to find them. We must take steps to maximize the economic growth that we want. Four steps are vital and offer a model for much of America:

First, we must ramp up high-speed Internet access. In rural areas, nearly one-fourth of the population —14.5 million people — still lacks fixed broadband service at threshold speeds, according to the Federal Communications Commission; in tribal areas, nearly one-third of the population lacks access. The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides vital funding for high-speed Internet, but small communities still need to see it delivered.

Second, we must build and maintain infrastructure to support a more vibrant economy. That means not only roads and bridges but also improved municipal water and sewage systems. Those who aspire to live in smaller communities expect acceptable levels of public services. But as the Center for American Progress reports, “rural counties are frequently overlooked or excluded in the distribution of federal and state aid.”

We must also find and train sufficient numbers of contractors, plumbers and electricians to ensure that needed services are locally attainable. This is a national problem with far-reaching implications. “A lack of skilled construction labor is a key limiting factor for improving housing inventory and affordability,” the Home Builders Institute reports. That has an immediate impact on small communities, where it restrains growth potential.

Third, we must invest in aesthetic improvements. Remote workers have tended to concentrate in some of the nation’s prettiest, most vibrant places. To spread transplants more broadly, local governments should invest in downtown enhancements, including storefront improvements. In Morris County, we have the benefit of two lakes that have long attracted vacationers and now help attract remote workers. But all small communities need to make improvements to attract potential residents and the economic vibrancy that they bring.

Fourth, we must remove barriers to entrepreneurship. I’ve become an advocate for the national nonprofit organization Right to Start, which champions entrepreneurship as a civic priority. Every community should analyze the barriers in the way of starting new businesses, since new businesses create virtually all job growth in America.

In general, smaller communities already have an advantage, putting up far fewer barriers to entrepreneurship than big cities. A recent report from the Institute for Justice found that opening a restaurant in Boston is a 92-step process; in Atlanta it takes 76 steps, and in Detroit it’s 77. That’s a stark contrast to the approximately 13 steps it takes to start a business in Council Grove. But that’s still too many, and we are exploring those barriers and working to remove as many of them as we can.

For communities of all sizes interested in reducing barriers to entrepreneurship, a great place to start is Right to Start’s Field Guides for Policymakers, which offer a list of common barriers at each level of government and a road map for communities to boost entrepreneurship.

Through remote access, small communities can now offer big dreams that were previously available only in large cities. And we can offer them less expensively — with far fewer barriers to success. If we seize the opportunity, the economic potential of smaller communities will be greater than ever.

Zoey Bond is the executive director of the Council Grove Area Trade and Tourism Association.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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