A Local Graduation: How Small Towns Can Come Back


Pick anytown, USA. You were born there; went to school there; made your living there; had your children and grandchildren and ended your life there. Headstones, like many, tell the story of who came and who went and they helped make the town a unique place.

And so, for a moment, I lamented at how much of that we had lost in the changes we have witnessed over the decades. Here we are in the biggest financial crisis in history, or at least since the Great Depression. What do we do?

Towns not on interstates cannot make it we are told, towns that are not hip and exciting are dead. And so, our young people leave --- with at least a casual observance that those left behind are falling to the drug culture. In a recent focus group of young males in one eastern Kentucky town one participant stated, “Sure I sell drugs --- it’s easy money and I don’t have the connections to get a job even at Wal-Mart.”

How can we recapture that faith in ourselves in American communities? We must if we are going to move forward in a global economy.

Maybe the solution lies in focusing on ourselves. “Localism” has been linked with everything from economic development to environmentalism, but at its core and at its best, it reflects a desire to make the best with what you’ve got.

What you need to build is an intentional city. The intentional city is the middle way --- where both the need to attract creative people and the need to sustain traditional economic and social bases co-exist.

It’s okay, after all, not to be the coolest place ever. Why? Well, because most of us aren’t all that cool. But the majority of us still need jobs, fun things to do, people we like and ways to be successful. We need what ‘bell curve’ mixed communities --- with the whole spectrum of skills and talents --- can give.

Take Newton, Iowa. The closure of the Maytag plant and the loss of 1,800 jobs attracted attention from Presidential candidates. But, as is so often the case, only part of the story was told. Though the loss of Maytag was a severe setback, Newton prepared itself for a successful rebound. The town collaborated with state and other nearby cities to attract several wind-turbine manufacturers. Maytag’s previous facilities already possessed the machinery needed for large-scale turbine manufacturing. The available facilities also were situated adjacent to interstate rail lines.

This economic recovery was possible because the town’s people (many of them former Maytag employees) were interested in more than just their own jobs. They cared about Newton. These engaged citizens took a more active role in planning for their city’s future. They knew change had to come from the grassroots and move up from there.

I believe this form of American ingenuity is at work in many small towns and cities. This requires a focus not only on high-tech and “creative” jobs but maintaining more traditional types of work that is equally important to a city’s health.

This kind of effort requires more than sounding off online. Covert citizenship – yelling across the internet --- isn’t real. Sustaining communities requires involvement.

Like the people in Newton, we need to take interest in our own community and intentionally helping it flourish with its own best assets. Just as communities in tropical climates are recovering from hurricanes so can tired and waning cities recovery from malaise and a sense of inferiority.

We need to embrace what we’ve got and not try so hard to be something we’re not. We need to graduate to the current reality but understand also that our greatest advantage lies with what we had to start with.

Sylvia L. Lovely is the Executive Director/CEO of the Kentucky League of Cities and president of the NewCities Institute. She currently serves as chair of the Morehead State University Board of Regents.

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Moving to the information economy

I fully agree that active community involvement is needed and should be applauded. However, a great majority of these small towns are dying because they were based on the American agricultural and manufacturing economies of yesteryear. Today's information economy requires towns to move forward in order to still be vibrant - to keep and attract businesses and citizens. Until high speed internet reaches some of these communities and they are willing to embrace the change there isn't a lot of hope for them. There just isn't enough manufacturing opportunities like Newton took for the all of the small towns to take advantage of.

Change is difficult, but necessary.

Rochester MN