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Local hardware store with strong appeal

Local hardware store with strong appeal

Is your town serving local needs?  Or must you go to another town to buy a pair of shoes?

These days, many small towns are feeling a sharp economic pinch. First there are job losses.  These stem from having traditional employers, such as mills and factories close, down-size or moved off-shore.  Couple that with aging infrastructure--especially water and sewer systems--and it's just not an easy time for many of our communities.

In desperation, towns often court multi-national companies. To win their business, towns pay these companies bounties in the form of tax incentives. It's also common practice to grant tax benefits to remaining large employers in the hope of keeping them in town.

But often the incentives work for only a short time. In the end, companies close or move anyway, leaving the town in worse economic shape than before.

So what's a town to do?

Local economy building may be the answer. Goods and services that meet local needs—located within a walkable retail hub—are in demand.  Walkable communities are high on agendas these days. Citizens will buy from local store owners when the offerings meet their needs.

Building local economies by utilizing traditional skills of the townspeople to start new business ventures is a smart move, too. These are businesses that can grow, flourish and contribute to the tax base. Locally-based and owned businesses rarely move. They're deeply rooted in the solid growing medium of local ownership, skills and heritage.

The suggestions that follow are for consideration. They may or may not work in your particular small town—or they may work great. Towns that thrive these days seem to be those willing to think outside the box.

1.  Take an inventory of local skills. In my town of Beaufort, North Carolina, we have a tradition of boat-building, decoy-carving and fishing. We already have a well-recognized decoy festival. But what about our heritage of working with wood? There are still boat builders in Down East  North Carolina who construct a craft by laying the boat out in their back yard, and building 'by rack of eye.'

How might these skills be applied to job creation in 2010? Handcrafted custom furniture? Dinghies for larger boats? Development of a wooden boat building school such as found in Brooklin, Maine?  These could all be explored for our town. But what skills are strong—and untapped in your community?

2.  Track the trends and tap them. One trend I've been monitoring and tracking is the avid interest in small homes. Builders are springing up to feed this hunger. These days, many of us are moving from McMansions to affordable McCottages. Web sites are blooming on the topic and books are being written. There are Park models, Katrina-style cottages, even movable cottages from companies such as Tumbleweed Homes.

A small town with empty factories and a history of wood-working, building and construction could form a new industry for their town. Sears & Roebuck used to supply kit homes from their catalogs.  Signs indicate this is about to come full circle.

3.  Survey the citizens. What's missing from the retail mix? What retail or services would people support if it were developed? Maybe a bakery would prove popular, a friendly cafe featuring signature regional dishes created from locally-produced foods, a pet-hotel and dog park, a used-bookstore and coffee bar?

If there are empty spaces on Main Street, 'find a need and fill 'em.' Our town has hung its retail star on tourism. Now that tourism's down due to the economy, the main retail street has taken a hit. New vacancies are showing up.

Offering more shopping to fill local needs might be indicated for year-round patronage. For example, our town lacks a full-fledged shoe store. Why should a resident have to drive to the next town to buy a pair of jogging shoes?

New Bern NC uses public bear art

New Bern NC uses public bear art

4. Use art as an economic driver. What entices new residents and businesses to want to move to a particular small town? What brings in tourists and visitors? What's the lure, the buzz? Some innovative small towns have discovered that artists and other 'cultural creatives' deliver the spark that makes a town vibrant. Take a look at Easton, PA and Paducah, KY as case studies.

Offer town-owned real estate to artists at low rents and structure buying programs for ownership. Allow artists the latitude to create a lively landscape for your town. Public art, including sculpture, fountains, murals and other public art adds color, fun and drama to streets, parks, buildings and public spaces.

5. People are searching for small, affordable homes. There are the starters (young families and singles), and down-sizers (often retirees), who want affordable and easy care housing. Do you have land? Consider building 'green villages?' What's a 'green village?'  Since no one's really doing this yet, you'd be among the innovators.

Think of Katrina-type cottages built around a village park or community garden, using affordable green technologies. Passive solar and solar panels, wind-generation, geo-thermal, roof-mounted water-catchment systems, triple insulation, maybe even composting toilets--all designed to be easy on the infrastructure. If you build it, would they come? The trend seems to say so.

Bear markets take innovation

Bear markets take innovation

6. Design an inclusive community facility. People want and need actual face-time in addition to virtual Facebook time.

Retirees want to leave a legacy, make a difference. Young people want to have activities that bring them together at a reasonable cost. Families with kids need daycare and other programs. Elders have a wish list of services, too.

Why not bring them together under one roof--in  a 'University of Innovation'. Mentoring, business support, classes, skills development: multi-generations coming together for mutual personal growth and support.

Once again, a community survey will reveal unmet needs. A development of this kind could spark and serve all the towns people.

What's lying fallow in your community? What human capital is ready to bloom, given an opportunity?

In our grandparents' day, it was called 'gumption.' Or maybe you've heard it called 'moxie.' Whatever you call it, it's right there ready to make your town vibrant. Think local. Buy local. Build local.

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