3 Keys to the Economic Viability of Small Towns

The goal is not only to get people to visit your community, but to get them to want to live and work there.
April 2, 2019 AT 6:15 AM
The Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum in Atchison, Kansas
The Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum in Atchison, Kan. (TNS/Kansas City Star/Keith Meyers)
By Roger Zalneraitis  |  Contributor
Economic development manager for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe

A sign in Denver International Airport says it all: "60-70 million people per year are moving to cities in the next three decades," reads the advertisement from an investment management firm. The ad goes on to call this global-wide migration "the greatest population shift in history."

How can rural small towns stay economically viable in the face of such dramatic changes? Here in the United States, rising disposable income and changes in how people work provide an opportunity to succeed. Begin by getting people to stop in your community, then turn to getting people to live in your community, before finishing by getting people to work in your community.

Getting people to stop in your town may seem easy to do. Each year tourists spend over $1 trillion in the United States. If you have a gas station, a hotel and a restaurant, you should be able to at least get an occasional late-night driver to spend money there.

However, that is accidental tourism. Intentional tourism means giving people a reason to come to your town. For instance, we named our daughter in part after Amelia Earhart. It was therefore no big deal for us to go a little out of our way last summer to show her the town (and spend money) where the pioneering aviator was born: Atchison, Kan. Other places, like Williamsport, Pa. (Little League Baseball) or Rapid City, S.D. (Mount Rushmore) know what makes their town unique and make it a centerpiece of their identity.

While not every town has the luck to have a tourist magnet like Mount Rushmore nearby, almost every community has something that makes it unique -- a quirky museum, perhaps, or distinctive downtown architecture, or an important but nearly forgotten historical event in its past. Find out what that is for your town. Brand it, promote it, celebrate it. People who share your community's values or interests will come to spend time -- and money -- in the place you call home.

Once you have discovered your town's unique identity, some people will want to live there because of it. What will it take to keep them? Neighborhood quality is first on the list. Desirable and affordable housing is a cornerstone of a good neighborhood. Blight is an issue in many places, so developing plans to combat it, including removing vacated properties, is critical.

Right after housing, though, comes safety and schools. People with children won't stay in places with bad schools or where crime is a threat to those they love. Working with your school district and police department on these issues is the next priority for getting people to live in your town.

Only after having quality housing, safety and education can you turn to "sexy" amenities like enjoyable parks, vibrant downtowns, and a thriving arts and culture scene. Every town needs these things. Without good neighborhoods, though, these amenities will not be enough to keep people living in your town.

Once you have people stopping in your town and living in it, you can start the process of getting people to work in your community rather than driving off every morning to make their living somewhere else.

Why does work come last? First of all, job trends are emphasizing individual choice. Since 2005, the strongest job creation in the United States has been among sole proprietors and home-based workers. People with these jobs can focus on the town that fits their needs rather than the place their employer (if they have one) has an office.

Some of these sole proprietors and home-based workers do go on to form companies that create jobs. Several years ago, the economic-development organization where I worked did a study of businesses in western Colorado. We identified at least 85 sole proprietors who had moved to the Western Slope and were then employing well over 2,000 people. This is a significant source of economic diversity in the region.

What small towns often lack is enough growth to attract capital to create space for growing companies. Public-private partnerships can bridge that gap, helping create space and opportunities for companies to start, grow and remain local. Small towns succeed when everyone steps in to help their local businesses stay and thrive.

Staying relevant in this unprecedented age of urbanization is challenging. Giving people a reason to stop in your town by defining and capitalizing on your unique characteristics, live in it by focusing on neighborhoods, and then work in it through collaborative development efforts is a sound approach to keep your community thriving.