Small Towns Must Discover Themselves

Small Towns Must Discover Themselves

By Chuck Roy

You could call it, “Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps,” but small towns that have chosen not to die have looked to themselves to find ways to succeed. Among other things, they ask, “What have we got that no one else has? What makes us different and worth knowing?”

Some towns may use marketing tools like: “Empty storefronts? That equals “exciting retail opportunities.” “Abandoned homes mean “low-cost housing.” Nothing nearby? Then sell yourself as “blessed with peace and solitude.” This mechanism is a juxtapositioning of reality and perception.

Winnsboro does not have to translate reality into a perception, it has already been done. And both the reality, and the perception of that reality, is that Winnsboro is unique in the landscape of the area. Winnsboro is, and should be, the worst kept secret on the planet. It is a city open to ideas, concepts, and wholesome growth. It is open for business.

There is an old saying that goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” 

Citizen leaders and stakeholders in high-achieving communities know where they are going.  They understand that an era of rapid social, cultural, and technological change requires a proactive approach to addressing current and future problems.  They engage in a strategic planning process to identify what makes their place special and to decide how to cultivate and promote their unique assets – e.g., a river, a lake, or a unique history.  The result of this process is a strategic plan that identifies community priorities and outlines specific strategies to make best use of available assets and to address local challenges. It becomes a road map for the future and a benchmark for community progress.

The benefits of strategic planning are not limited to the final product.  In fact, one of the most beneficial aspects of strategic planning is the process itself.  A successful strategic planning process brings together a diverse group of stakeholders, who address basic questions for the community:  “Where are we now?” “Where do we want to go?” and “How do we get there?” There are few other occasions when representatives from throughout the community come together for an extended period of time to discuss shared hopes, dreams, knowledge, perspectives, ideas, and concerns.  Broad-based strategic planning is a “mega-crossroad” and one of the best tools available for building and strengthening community connections.

The process must not end with the creation of a strategic plan.  If so, it would resemble most other community planning efforts.  The result would be a plan that looks good on paper, but ends up collecting dust on a shelf.  To prevent this, the community should create an entity responsible for seeing that the major objectives in the plan are actually implemented.  This group, which should include representatives from government, business, education, and faith-based institutions, should meet regularly to monitor the community’s progress on the plan and make needed modifications to ensure that the plan remains relevant to community priorities and needs.

The value of the group is not just that it checks items off of the list of community objectives.  It can serve as an important community “crossroad” where key community stakeholders have the opportunity to think, work, and act together.  Most communities have many excellent people, programs, and projects.  All communities have at least some institutional assets – city government, churches, schools, civic clubs, and Chambers of Commerce.  But far too often, individuals and organizations work independently, rather than in concert with one another.  The truly high-achieving communities are those that create crossroads where leaders from all of these community organizations and institutions can come together to accomplish shared community objectives.

Because small towns and rural areas are sparsely populated, they lack a critical mass – of taxpayers, leadership, financial capacity, infrastructure, and skilled labor.  So if small towns are to survive, they must join forces and work together.  Small towns must learn to see their neighboring community as a competitor only for the Friday night football game. So the question may be, “can we all work together and become a hyper-successful Micropolitan community?”