What will it take to help small towns survive?

  • Published: Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Many small Missouri towns – perhaps most -- need new businesses and improvements in their downtown area, according to David Burton, county engagement specialist with University of Missouri Extension. 

"One key is going to be rethinking how we do things," said Burton. "I just read 'The Total Town Makeover' by Andrew McCrea. He encourages communities to rethink business, community, and homes in small-town America."

McCrea shares about a small town (he never names it) struggling for decades. The community was slipping away, but there was little energy to do anything about it.

The local Chamber of Commerce, the logical group to take the lead, could not agree on what to do. In McCrea's words, "the group had leaders who simply didn't see a reason to revitalize the town and had no interest in creating change."

In this case, a few visionary citizens started a group focused on building new community businesses. The effort worked. Their singular focus gave them purpose, and people joined in.

McCrea writes that "the biggest problem facing many small towns is not believing they can accomplish their goal. Instead, board members only see the negative, and board members only remember everything that went wrong."

"This focus on the negative becomes a barrier that keeps people in a loop of status quo instead of trying new and innovative ideas," said Burton.

According to McCrea, there are some common steps that every thriving town takes toward a total town makeover. Consider the following ideas to get started and keep the ball rolling.

1.    "Does your town have an endowment or a foundation that can provide seed money for projects or matching funds for grants," writes McCrea.

Consider Shickley, Neb., a town of just 300 people. Community leaders didn't want to see their small town dry up and die. A small group began meeting to brainstorm ways to build and keep wealth in their town. They shared their vision for the future and formed a foundation to raise funds. 

The town reached its goal of an endowment of $8 million by the end of 2020. A local foundation can keep local money local for use on projects that improve the community.

2.    "Is there a group leading the way? The right approach is often to have a coordinating group that gets all groups to work toward the same goals," writes McCrea.

Nearly 20 years ago, equipped with experience in home restoration, Ron Drake moved from California to Siloam Springs, Ark. He began buying homes, updating them, and then reselling.    

Drake's success in restoring homes led to an interest in doing the same for old buildings downtown. But he ran into financial roadblocks. While he could readily find financing to restore homes, it was a different story for downtown storefronts. "My banker said, 'If someone gave you these buildings, I couldn't give you the money to restore them,'" said Drake.

So Drake quickly went to work, partnering with others to finance the town's old storefronts' acquisition and restoration. One led to more until he started consulting with other towns to unveil history's gems once again.

Too often, people don't believe they can bring their downtown back to life. Downtown restoration is not brick and mortar. It's the restoration of the mind—believing it's possible.

3.    "Does the community have short and long-term goals? More importantly, do residents and community leaders know the goals and is there agreement," writes McCrea.

4.    "Are you using your community newspaper and social media to provide progress updates, show pictures, and build momentum," writes McCrea. 

"It is important to support local weekly newspapers before they are gone, never to return," said Burton. But the keyword in McCrea's statement may be about the importance of providing "progress updates." 

"If you have a community social media page that is poorly or infrequently moderated and is nothing more than a complaint center, then that is not providing progress updates," said Burton. "You do need local media that can champion the local community and bring people together around common, shared interests."

5.    "Improve the town's culture by committing to smile more, compliment others, build a positive culture, and get to know your neighbors," writes McCrea.

It might be a specific person or group that lead the way in building a positive and proactive culture. MU Extension is working with various groups to offer training and direction for an "engaged neighbor" movement, which is the best place to start.

"But ultimately, creating a culture of neighborliness begins with you. It begins with learning, remembering, and using the names of your immediate neighbors," said Burton.

Beyond your eight immediate neighbors, Burton says each neighborhood needs "connectors." These are people who develop a community directory and help neighbors connect over shared interests.

As associations develop and neighbors work together to improve their neighborhood's safety, cleanliness, and friendliness, people are more active in their community.

"It begins with helping a neighbor. But it could be so much more," said Burton. 

March 20 is "Good Neighbor Day" (and Mister Roger's birthday). Start making a plan now for how you can engage with your neighbors on that day.

If you are interested in new ways to celebrate National Good Neighbor Day on September 28, contact Burton at 417-881-8909 or by email at [email protected]
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Writer: David Burton

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