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Small town innovation

What are the strategies that enable small cities and towns to weather economic cycles and shifts in local businesses and industries — to not only survive but thrive? More to the point, what lessons might Salisbury and Rowan County take away from communities that are reinventing themselves in the wake of severe distresses?
We don’t have to speculate on the answer. A few years ago, the University of North Carolina’s School of Government embarked on a yearlong study examining “real stories, from real places that are successfully confronting real challenges similar to those facing small communities everywhere, such as globalization, geographic isolation, urban sprawl, aging populations, and natural disasters.” The project, “Small Towns, Big Ideas: Case Studies in Innovation,” looked at about 50 municipalities in North Carolina and other Southern states.
Like the geography, the stories are diverse. In Brevard, for instance, the community leveraged its retiree population to mentor startup businesses and entrepreneurs. In Edenton, a dilapidated mill village became the catalyst for revitalization. In case after case, however, seven themes emerged. As you read the list, ask yourself how many apply to Salisbury/Rowan, and how many need improvement.
In small towns, community development is economic development. Communities that incorporate economic and broader community development goals gain more than small towns that take a less coordinated approach.
Small towns with the most dramatic outcomes tend to be proactive and future-oriented. They embrace change, confront challenges and assume risk.
Successful economic development strategies are guided by a widely held local vision. The case studies demonstrate that people (as opposed to money or other resources) are the one absolutely necessary ingredient to successful development. A committed group of local residents can propel improvements.
Defining assets and opportunities broadly can yield strategies that capitalize on competitive advantages. In addition to things like low taxes and transportation access, assets for development might include existing businesses, nonprofits, farms, parks, museums, schools or historic architecture.
Innovative local governance, partnerships and organizations significantly enhance the capacity for community economic development. Regionalism and partnerships beyond municipal boundaries can help small towns leverage resources toward shared objectives.
Effective communities identify, measure and celebrate short-term successes to sustain support for long-term economic development. Leaders in small towns must continually strive to maintain momentum, invigorate volunteers and donors, convince skeptics and, most importantly, keep the focus on the vision in a community’s strategic plan.
Viable community economic development involves a comprehensive plan, rather than a piecemeal approach. No single strategy saved any community in this study. Successful development in small towns is always multifaceted.

Find the “Small Towns, Big Ideas” report at www.iog.unc.edu/programs/cednc/stbi/

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