In December, The New York Times published an article about rural America that painted a bleak picture of declining populations, declining employment, increasing opioid addiction and death. The article suggested that the decline is inevitable and perhaps irreversible. “This is the inescapable reality of agglomeration, one of the most powerful forces shaping the American economy over the last three decades. Innovative companies choose to locate where other successful, innovative companies are,” author Eduardo Porter said.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, I think the rumors of the death of rural economies are greatly exaggerated. It is undoubtedly true that some small communities are vanishing, having to close their schools due to lack of enrollment, and eventually losing their post offices, local governments and local businesses. And, I have met folks from across the country who are proud that they have fought off any development efforts from anyone with outside capital.
On the other hand, all across this country, I’ve visited (and lived in) small towns from Maine to Indiana to Virginia to Colorado to New Mexico that are flourishing. Sometimes the ones that are flourishing are just miles away from those that aren’t, providing a natural experiment to determine what makes a difference and what works. There are quite a few commonalities among the towns that are doing well.
One that stands out is that these thriving places have high-speed internet service and reliable cell service. What seemed like a “nice to have” only 20 years ago is absolutely a baseline requirement these days to attract and retain citizens and businesses.
Another commonality is what some people call “placemaking.” Most of these towns have invested in themselves. They spruced up downtowns with new sidewalks and street lights. They helped landlords repair and enhance storefront facades. They supported the real estate investors who come in and rehabilitated signature, historical buildings, like old textile mills in New England, tobacco warehouses in North Carolina, Victorian-era houses in Colorado mining towns and adobe buildings in New Mexico. Most of all, these towns celebrate their history, rather than tear it all down.
A third commonality is civic engagement. In many of these places, a major anchor entity – Colby College in Waterville; Corning Glass in Corning, New York; the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana – makes a commitment that goes beyond enlightened self-interest and starts to invest in the community and takes a leadership role, bringing others along with them. Often, these moments of civic engagement occur because of a crisis, or a generational change in leadership – a base closure; a weather-related disaster like a flood or tornado; a major plant closing. Smart leaders know the value of a good crisis – it’s a window of opportunity when resistance to change is lowest, and the willingness to try something new is highest.
But the most important thing that all of these thriving small towns have is an entrepreneurial spirit. There are entrepreneurs who are thriving in Maine’s small towns and in small towns across the country. In these places, you will meet intrepid entrepreneurs who have seen a need and created a product to meet it. Visit most any small town with a thriving downtown, and you are highly likely to find a great coffee shop that’s locally owned, a co-working space or a maker’s space, restaurants serving food from India, Thailand and Greece, as well as locally sourced, farm-to-table meals with micro-brewed beer.
Talk to folks in these places and you will probably meet young, well-educated people, who have moved home with their families because it’s affordable, they can find interesting work, and be part of a community. No, these rural places aren’t dead, not by a long shot.
Catherine Searle Renault is the owner and principal of innovation Policyworks, in Brunswick. She is the former director of the Office of Innovation and science advisor to then-Gov. John Baldacci.