Friday, August 31, 2007

What I Would Do

If you’ve read my blogs for the past several days, you would know that I think that the current farm bill undermines our rural communities and has some very negative unintended consequences. In addition to the distortions that I’ve written about, I’m concerned that the payment limitations result in otherwise honest farmers, jumping through hoops and setting up shell companies to be able to legally stay within the governmental limitations.

If I were in charge of the farm bill I would reallocate the funds that go into specific crop subsidies for five crops (corn, cotton, rice, soybeans and wheat) into programs for rural entrepreneurship, job creation and the development of niche agricultural production. Just my opinion!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Only Draw Bridge Operators are Older!

The average age of farmers in the 2002 Census was 55.3 years of age. The only other profession that is older is draw bridge operators! They aren’t building many draw bridges today and my guess is that being a draw bridge operator is a pretty cushy job that you don’t want to give up.

But farming? It is also one of the most dangerous professions with machinery accidents being the leading cause of the risk. Why would there be twice as many operators over the age of 75 than under 35 in such a profession?

Before I give you my take on it, let’s look at the data. In the 1974 Census there were 421,471 farmers (18.5% of the total) over the age of 65. Today there are 557,830 (26.2%). At the same time the number of those under 35 has declined from 292,092 (12.8%) down to 123,059 (5.8%).

I believe that farmers continue working far longer than they would in virtually every other profession because constantly improving mechanization and agronomic technology combined with the subsidies paid provide them with no incentive to stop.

The challenge for younger farmers is that subsidies are directly worked into the cost of their major asset…the land. And, typically at a much higher value than is justified economically. In today’s environment those subsidies are done at a price/earnings ratio of 16, so that a $100 subsidy per acre translates into a $1,600 increase in the price of land.

That higher land price and increasing cost of new technologies make the entry cost for new farmers prohibitive and act as a serious disincentive for new farmers to enter the profession.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Purpose of the Farm Bill

The farm bill was set up years ago to ensure a steady supply of cheap food to the American public while maintaining the family farm in rural America. Both are noble goals, but as I’ll try to show today and in the next couple of days, having the government try to legislate with subsidies, has resulted in the “Law of Unintended Consequences” kicking in, often having exactly the opposite affect.

As to the first objective of supplying a steady supply of cheap food to the American public, it can be argued that we have one of the best and lowest cost food supplies in the world. However, if that is a major goal, then why do nearly all of the farm subsidies go to only five crops: corn, cotton, rice, soybeans and wheat? Why can the free market supply us with fruits, vegetables and meat products, without any subsidy but the government feels compelled to pay the producers of those five row crops?

In the late 80s I traveled tens of thousands of miles in rural IL, IA and MN at a time when agriculture was in a deep depression, dwarfed only by the Great Depression of the 30s. I saw no fields that weren’t planted in those areas despite corn at $1/bushel and soybeans at $4. Farmers would plant all of those five crops with or without a subsidy. Why not let the free market work on those five?

A second objective of the farm bill is to maintain family farms in rural America. Despite numerous farm bills, the number of farmers has continued to decline and the farm bills of the past have probably accelerated this decline.

Tomorrow’s blog is on why farmers are the second oldest aged profession in the USA.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Farm Bill Boondoggle

It baffles me that it appears the U. S. Congress is going to pass a subsidy laddaned new farm bill at a time when agriculture in general is the midst of an era of unprecedented prosperity. I’m going to do a series of blogs this week on my observations and research on the subject. In the spirit of full disclosure I receive crop subsidies and annual payments for walnut trees I planted in the 1980s and 1990s under the Conservation Reserve Program.

The graph at the right just amazes me. The Freedom to Farm Bill of 1996 was supposed to force American farmers to compete on the world stage, dramatically cutting subsidies. As you can see from the graphic, exactly the opposite has occurred. Government crop subsidies were two and a half time times as large in 2006 as they were in 1996.

The new farm bill currently being debated in Congress is projected to cost around $300 billion over the next five years. In my opinion it is obscene and creates non-economic distortions that are changing rural America for the worse in the long term.

More of my thoughts on this subject in the next couple of days.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Can Do, Wimbledon!

One of my favorite tours and talks over the past three years was in Wimbledon, ND (population 237). I played tennis in Wimbledon (the only place other than England that you can boost that) and still subscribe to their monthly newsletter. Mary Beth (Simenson) Olombel writes wonderfully newsy stories about the happenings in her small town.

Here is part of her editorial from this month’s edition.

There’s a spirit of optimism: The corps look good; prices are decent; gas prices at least haven’t shot up any higher. The local grocery store (a coop of
local members) is operating in the black; a new school year in the consolidated Barnes County North District is about to begin and new curricula emphasizing
math and science skills will be in place. The prospect of new jobs in Valley City(manufacturing) and Spiritwood (ethanol plant) hints at survival and maybe even prosperity.

So Why have I climbed up on my soapbox again?

I want more.

We could be doing more to put Wimbledon on the map.

She went on

Towns the size of Wimbledon and smaller have created events that bring people (and money) to their communities:

Page—population 235: Over 100 participated in the annual 5K run in June.

Pekin—population 80: Their juried art show was established in 1994 and is the largest in ND.

Dazey—population 87: Dazey Days bring many to the town 14 miles east of Wimbledon for the buffalo barbeque, pie social, parade and races.

And while we’re planning a festival, let’s plant some more flowers.
Kensal—population 161—has 20 hanging flower baskets and new flower
gardens planted by volunteers this year.

I just love the spirit of places like Wimbledon, that refuse to give up and are looking for ways to make themselves better.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Sculptures on the Square

The Auburn Arts Commission aspires to showcase local artists of NE IN. Some of their activities include: Snowbound Writers’ Contest every January; the Auburn Jazz Fest; an outdoor jazz ensemble; children’s theater and other projects.

In 2007 the Arts Commission brought in a twenty piece exhibit of life-like bronze sculptures of J. Seward Johnson. The town was alive on a Tuesday afternoon with tourists walking from sculpture to sculpture and hopefully also shopping in the downtown stores.

The arts are becoming an increasingly important factor in branding a community. Auburn gets it!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Internet of the 1920s

I didn’t realize how many companies were involved in the production of automobiles until I visited the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, IN (population 12,074) on my way to do some talks in Michigan. Auburn was a hotbed of luxury automobile manufacturing from 1900 until its closing in 1937.

Auburn was one of only 43 towns in Indiana that produced over 150 models of cars. In fact 12 different auto brands were made in Auburn in the early part of the 20th Century. Indianapolis has had 38 brands, including the American, Duesenberg, Hoosier Scout, Marmon, Stutz and others. South Bend made nine brands (Avanti, Erskine, Packard and Studebaker), Elkhart sixteen, Anderson nine and Richmond ten.

In those days, every young man with any mechanical aptitude dreamed of building a fast, cool car just as today many a young person dreams of developing the next Google.

One of those young men was E. L. Cord, a Missouri farm boy who worked as a car salesman in Chicago. The Auburn Automobile Company, which started out of a horse carriage business in 1900 had been bought by a group from Chicago that included William Wrigley. When the firm floundered the group approached Cord, who cut a sweet deal for himself….if he returned the money they had invested, the company would be his. Within a year, at the age of 31, E. L. Cord owned the Auburn Automobile Company outright and quickly turned it into a major auto phenomena with styling and marketing. His cars were sought by movie and sports stars and Cord’s photo graced the cover of Time magazine twice within a two year period.

Cord expanded his corporate reach into over sixty businesses including the production of airplanes, airlines and department stores. Overexpansion and the Great Depression eventually hobbled Cord and he was forced to sell out in 1937 to a group which quickly closed the company.

Today, luxury automobiles are still associated with Auburn, IN. Kruse International, started by Russell Kruse in 1952 and still run by his son and daughter-in-law annually sells over 13,000 classic cars each year during the Labor Day Weekend Festival held each year in Auburn.

Few of the early automobile manufacturers survived, but the clustering impact and its affect upon the economy in Indiana and other places still has an impact today.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Glass Half Empty? Or Half Full?

Twenty-five miles to the south of wonderful Frankenmuth, MI is Flint, MI. I drove through it because it has always intrigued me that the filmmaker Michael Moore grew up in Flint, sat on the city council and did his first movie, “Roger & Me” about his hometown. I thought that someone as passionate as Michael has surely returned, reinvested some of his multi-millions in the town and tried to make his hometown a better place in which to live.

In speaking with several people in Flint, I learned that once Moore hit the big-time, he never looked back and has not tried to help. In fact there is deep resentment that Moore’s first movie painted Flint in a horrible light, one that has been difficult for the town to overcome.

Today in Flint 20% of its houses sit vacant with 33% of the population living below the poverty level. The town could sure use some help, but appears to have been abandoned by former citizen Moore.

I love to find people like Wally Bronner who I blogged on yesterday, people who see the glass as half full and find ways to help their hometown with enthusiasm and love. I’m glad that I don’t have to deal much with the “half-empty” Michael Moores of this world.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

World’s Largest Christmas Store

Wally Bronner was born and raised in Frankenmuth, MI. His father was a skilled mason and contractor who spoke German to his children at home. After high school Wally started a sign and display company that grew into doing outdoor Christmas decorations and eventually into a Christmas store on Main Street.

From that small store Bronner’s Christmas store has grown to over 300,000 square feet, the size of 5.5 football fields. In that building you will find over 50,000 trims and gifts and 250 full time employees. The business has grown into a wholesale operation to over 1,000 other Christmas shops, a catalog sent to over 5 million people and a rapidly growing internet operation.

It is a sight to see!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Branding at its Best!

“We have become one of the top three tourist attractions in the state. And, we are a great place to live, unless you are a chicken,” Gary Rupprecht, the Mayor of Frankenmuth, MI (population 4,838) told the Michigan Association of Mayors which was meeting in his hometown. I was there to speak to the group. Mayor Rupprecht was referring to the battle of the Bavarian Inn and Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth restaurants, which sit across the street from each other, both featuring chicken dinners.

Zehnder’s was ranked as the 43rd highest sales independent restaurant in the USA by Restaurants and Institutions in 2006 with $13 million in sales. But it serves the highest number of meals of any other restaurant with 948,675 meals served in 2006, quite a feat for a small town restaurant. People have got to really like your chicken!

The competition of those two restaurants and another local resident’s fascination with Christmas kept Frankenmuth “on the map” even when the town was by-passed by I-75. As Mayor Rupprecht said, “Wally Bronner became the king of billboards when the interstate put us 10 miles off the road.” I’ll have more on Wally in tomorrow’s blog.

Frankenmuth is one of those very, very unique towns that you’ll occasionally find as you travel around the country. It has leveraged what other towns would consider a rather ordinary German heritage into the recreation of a German village, enhancing the experience with numerous festivals, a river walk, 830 hotel rooms and wonderful shopping. As a result 2 million people visit the town on an annual basis.

And, unlike many other tourist towns, Frankenmuth also has a very strong commercial and industrial base. Frankenmuth Mutual Insurance with 600 employees, Star of the West Milling (17th largest miller in the USA), and other employers match 4,800 jobs with the population of 4,838, another very unique statistic! And, 8 of the top 10 employers are locally owned!

In 2004, the town did a $15 million renovation of its downtown, playing upon the German-Bavarian theme. Irrigated flower pots, fountains, complete sound system and other amenities resulted. The flowers are incredible and it didn’t surprise me when Sheila Stamiris, head of the downtown development authority told me, “We employ a full time horticulturist and a crew of five just to take care of our flowers.”

All of the stats on Frankenmuth impressed me, with the exception of their average age of 47.6 years compared to a national average of 35.3 years. Frankenmuth has to figure out a way to encourage young people to move there.

Great town…great brand….and a Must See town!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Christmas in Ida, MI

What began 25 years ago as a small town’s first attempt at doing something special at Christmas, has today grown into a mega production. The first Christmas in Ida Festival in 1982 had three floats, a small craft show and a children’s lunch with Santa. The agricultural community got involved, initiating a parade of lights with all sorts of farm tractors, combines, wagons and other farm implements decorated in lights for a nighttime parade.

Today Ida’s (population 4,949) has grown to include craft shows, ice and wood sculpturing, ethnic foods, international entertainment, Santa’s Zoo, ice skating, Christmas fireworks and of course, the Children’s Lunch with Santa. Even Disney has gotten involved sending in some of their recording artists and assisting in the parade.

Last year’s event attracted over 30,000 visitors and this year’s anniversary edition is expected to attract even more on the first weekend of December.

Sometimes all it takes is someone to try something different in a town. Then watch it grow!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Quaint Town on Great Lake…..River Running Through

Paul Livernois of Michigan Gas Utilities described his hometown of Monroe, MI (population 22,076) as, “A quaint town that sits on a Great Lake, not just a good lake. And, it has a beautiful river running right through the middle of it.” I couldn’t wait to visit and wasn’t disappointed when I did.

The town, which lies midway between Detroit and Toledo, OH, sits on the shores of Lake Erie. The town’s early economy was driven by paper mills, with five big ones dominating the industrial scene. Paul continued, “The last one closed in the early 1990s but Monroe has converted most of those old mills into new housing areas. We’ve had the largest number of successful brownfield sites in the state.”

Two farm boys, Edwin Shoemaker and Edward Knabusch, started La-Z-Boy in Monroe, where it is still headquartered. And, three McIntyre brothers started a tire pump manufacturer that evolved into Monroe Shock Absorbers, which is still headquartered in Monroe even after being sold to Tenneco.

Many automotive parts and related industries have located in Monroe with two Ford part’s plants being the largest. The establishing of the Monroe County Industrial Development Corporation, a private, non-profit in 1982 has continued the manufacturing tradition in Monroe. During those 25 years, Bill Morris and his team have helped to create over 11,000 jobs with nearly $3 billion of investment. The county ranks as the 85th best in the country (out of 3,141) with an average of $64,806 in average wage per manufacturing job, representing 18.95 of their workforce.

The power of local banks was reinforced to me with a program that Monroe Bank & Trust instituted over 20 years ago. ENLIST is a volunteer service organization that 82% of the bank’s 430 employees participate in. Over 200 organizations have benefited from the 120,000 man-hours contributed since inception. The bank really lives up to their motto of, “Community Service from Your Community Bank.”

….and, a river runs through it…..

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Generation E

“We have a special curriculum in the high school on entrepreneurism. Right now we have about 150 students taking part,” Hillary Eley explained to me on my tour of Coldwater, MI. One of those students, Nate Johnson, was at my talk that night. Nate is entering college this fall, started his first business at the age of nine and projects a very entrepreneurial spirit.

Cheryl Peters and April Katz of the Generation E Institute which set up the entrepreneurship program were also at my talk. Cheryl explained to me, “We started this program three years ago, aiming it at high school students and those going for a GED. We’ve expanded it into the grade school and also begun a 7th grade camp this summer. Today, we are in 58 schools.”

Their program includes starting a business because as Cheryl said, “They’ve got to walk the walk. It can’t just be something learned in the classroom.” They’ve had businesses started selling art, jewelry, car care, wake boarding, a golf tournament and many other new endeavors.

They related the story of one of their summer campers this summer, “Jordan came to the camp as a very shy, quiet kid but by the end of it had blossomed into the leader of his team. He was the one who did their final presentation. When he got home he came up with an idea for a defensive mechanism for the police force. Today we are assisting him with a patent search and figuring out how to begin marketing his new invention.”

Not bad for a 12 year old. How many Jordan’s are their in your town?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Lakes Aplenty!

“We’ve got two chain-of-lakes in the county, with over 100 lakes in total,” Hillary Eley, the Branch County Chamber of Commerce President told me as she toured me through Coldwater, MI (population 12,697). Coldwater was one of the many agurbs® we found in our research for BoomtownUSA. And, lakes and recreational land are becoming key drivers in where people want to live and raise a family. Coldwater has both in excess….an undiscovered jewel that sits exactly halfway between Chicago and Detroit on the old Sauk Trail.

The town dates back to the 1830s and its early industries were cigars and cement. Today it still has a strong manufacturing base with 21% of its jobs in the sector.

The town has many historic districts of old Victorian homes and a very historical and picturesque downtown. Barbara Rosene who heads up the downtown association implemented a wireless downtown broadband capability in 2004 and is starting to bring back housing to the upper floors of the historic downtown buildings. The Tibbitts Opera House, built in 1882, is the second oldest, continuously running theatre in the state.

On the outskirts of town sits Capri Drive-In Theatre, still run by the same family that started it in the 50s. According to the website, MI had 110 theaters in 1958 but only 10 today.

Last week’s blogs included a number of mentions of people who had come back to assist their hometowns. Coldwater has a number of examples including Ed Callahan, an ex-CEO who moved back home; Robert Brown who has donated over $7 million to local churches and a new city hall; and Max Larsen, who set up a trust fund which has funded a new school shown here, a gym, library and literacy program.

Coldwater is a gem with huge potential.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Invite Them Back Home to Nebraska

George Garlick grew up in Quick, NE which is today a ghost town. But the lessons of hard work, honesty and integrity stuck with him and he never forgot his hometown in SW NE. Garlick founded Advanced Imaging Technologies in Richland, WA, a company that has developed into a leader in dense breast imaging technology.

Last year he returned home to nearby Curtis, NE (population 832) where he attended high school to give the town $1 million for a new community center. Last month he returned to set up a subsidiary company, Frontier Technologies, in the town along with a technology initiative focused upon meat inspection technology in conjunction with the local Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture. Garlick’s father worked as a janitor at the college when he was growing up.

The dean of the college, Dr. Weldon Sleight said, “Rural Nebraska is dying. We’ve got to come up with methods to build and revitalize these communities. One way is to go to those who have made great contributions to science and other professions and invite them back home.”

Curtis is the largest town in Frontier County, NE (population 2,729). The 272 students at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture help to drop the medium age in the town to 32.1 compared to the county average of 43.4 and a national average of 36.2. The county has lost a quarter of its population in the past 30 years and with a density of only 2.8 people/square mile (think about that for a minute) it is one of the most rural counties in the country.

If you aren’t reaching out to your former residents, you might be missing an opportunity to transform your community just as Curtis is doing.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Come Back Home & Entrepreneurship

Two of my favorite subjects are “Come Back Home” or enticing former residents to return and the power of entrepreneurship. Putting those two concepts together can be very, very powerful.

In BoomtownUSA I wrote about Bart Holaday’s Dakota Foundation, a foundation that the retired venture capitalist, who was originally from North Dakota, set up in the late 90s. Recently, the Dakota Foundation funded the Dakota Venture Group, the first Venture Capital fund totally run by students at the University of North Dakota (UND). Bruce Gjovig is the enthusiastic head of the entrepreneurial UND Center for Innovation which oversees this endeavor.

Holaday related, “My wife Lynn and I want to give students the opportunity for hands-on learning from investing in startup ventures to train both aspiring venture capitalist and emerging entrepreneurs who need to know what it takes to attract equity investment.”

The fund is focused upon businesses in ND and MN, with a special interest in students and alumni of UND The five student managers have backgrounds in finance, accounting, consulting, risk management and marketing. Their first investment was in Grand Forks, ND based

What could you do to entice a former resident(s) back home?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Another Food Incubator

I have been intrigued with the idea of incubators and in particular food incubators for sometime. My travels around the country have let me visit ones in NY, OH and OK. It has always struck me at the incredible entrepreneurial spirit in our rural areas and leveraging the natural resources of our agricultural products has always seemed logical to me.

When researching yesterday’s blog on Thomas, OK I found an interesting food incubator in Taos, NM, one of my golden eagle Agurbs®. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association put out an excellent book “The Power of Partnering”, which highlights successful stories of rural coops partnering with other local entities to affect positive change in their communities. You can order a copy by emailing

The Taos Business Incubator started in the shell of an abandoned supermarket but today occupies 24,000 sf in a modern adobe building. One of the early backers of the incubator was the Kit Carson Electric Coop which invested $40,000. Within the incubator is a 5,000 sf 24/7 commercial food center that is used by over 30 local entrepreneurs developing commercial food products. The incubator has spawned over 150 small businesses with over 500 jobs in its twenty year history.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Thomas Gang

Thomas, OK (population 1,238), located in west-central OK, would be like a lot of towns that I’ve visited in the Great Plains. These towns are struggling with an out migration of residents and struggling to keep their schools, churches and downtown businesses viable primarily because they don’t have the job opportunities to keep people home.

Thomas instead has created almost 200 jobs since 2000 through the efforts of what Dennis Krueger, Manager of the Kiwash Electric Coop calls, “The Thomas Gang.” As he wrote in his coop newsletter, “Are you old enough to remember the ‘Thrilling Days of Yester’ Year? Those were the early days of TV when Marshall Dillon, The Long Ranger and Tonto, The Cisco Kid, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans patrolled the silver screen cleaning up the Wild West. The good guys always wore white hats and rode off into the sunset after bringing law and order into each town they visited.”

This modern day gang, The Thomas Gang, is a group of volunteers who decided in the 80’s to not let their town suffer the fate of so many other towns that they saw slowly declining. For the first ten years, they met with no success but didn’t give up. Their hard work and continuing efforts to lay the groundwork for what “might be” has paid off in the past couple of years.

Since 2000 they’ve brought in a number of diversified firms such as J&C Aviation (refurbishes crop dusters); Hamm & Phillips (oil well servicing); Danlin Industries (chemical production); W&W Livestock Systems (manufacturing of livestock pens and corrals); and Ventura Refining (reopened shuttered oil refinery and adding bio-diesel production).

Dennis told me, “They are probably the leader in west-central Oklahoma in creating jobs on a per-capita basis but few recognize their accomplishments.”

Who says it can’t be done? Not the Thomas Gang!

Monday, August 06, 2007

UAW-GM Program

We recently ran a series of Agurbans on the issue of worker education and training, receiving a number of excellent responses. Here is one from Greg DuMars in southern Michigan where I am this week doing a series of talks.

Let me tell you about a program I used to be involved with when I was
working at the General Motors plant in Adrian, MI. The program was called
Partners in Education Program (PEP). This was a joint UAW-GM program
organized and supervised the the UAW-GM Center for Human Resources in
Flint, MI (Region 1-C).

Because of the distance from Adrian and Flint and the early successes in our program we had much autonomy in running our program. My UAW counterpart and myself promoted this program in all the school districts in our county (Lenawee, MI) and usually had 2 to 3 times the applicants as openings. We selected the educators (they ranged from teachers, guidance counselors and administrators) to work in our plant for an 8 week period. We selected non-traditional projects that did not take work away from anyone but provided a service to the plant.

My counterpart and myself worked daily with the educators to help them complete there projects. The program concluded with a presentation to management and union leadership to explain what they accomplished and how it would benefit the plant and then most importantly what they will do differently in the classroom (or school).

This was always an eye opener for these educators and they always went back to school with an entirely new outlook on the education process and what the students needed to learn to be successful when entering the "real world."

Unfortunately this program was discontinued due to lack of funding, but we had many success stories and a lot of good publicity about it when it was functioning.

We need more programs like this in today’s economy.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Delta Blues & Ducks

If you say, “Dockery, Mississippi” to a blues fan, it’s likely that they will recognize the town as where the blues began. Dockery, the site of an old plantation, sits 3 miles west of Ruleville. Indianola, MS, the hometown of B. B. King is twenty miles to the south. A $10 million museum is going to be built on the gin site where B. B. King worked until as he said, “I got into trouble and had to leave town.”

There is a major effort underway to publicize sites like Dockery and Indianola with nine such sites located in Sunflower County. Fred Carl of Viking Grill fame in nearby Greenwood, MS has started efforts to develop a Blues Trail in the Delta to hopefully encourage more tourism.

Drew bills itself as the “Waterfowl Capital of Mississippi” with several million dollar hunting lodges in the nearby delta. Hunting enthusiasts fly in from all over the country every year.

It is those tourists and hunters that Ruleville and Drew have an opportunity to sell for new businesses, plants and residents. They’ve got some wonderful assets that I hope they can turn into more and better jobs.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Back Home From Hollywood

He was born in a shotgun house in the Mississippi Delta in 1937, was captain of the local football team in 1955, was offered a scholarship to a state college but instead followed a friend out to Hollywood where he got into costume design. A friendship with John Wayne that began on the set of True Grit ultimately resulted in his setting up his own costume company, American Costume Company. However, Luster Bayless, never forgot where he grew up, returning often from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood to visit his hometown of Ruleville, MS.

When the local clothing store was offered for sale, he bought it “lock, stock and barrel”, shipping the clothes in inventory out to his 40,000 sf facility in Hollywood. He turned the empty storefront into a cafĂ©/Hollywood museum with a focus upon John Wayne. He also purchased an old plantation on the outskirts of town, turning it into The Old Place Bed and Breakfast. My wife and I stayed there on our trip to Ruleville.

Luster came back home to reinvest in his hometown. How many Luster’s does each of your towns have? How can you get them to also come back home?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Developing Drew

Just a few miles north of Ruleville, MS is the small town of Drew, MS (population 2,434) and it would be just like a lot of Delta towns but for a small group of eight people who decided to start turning their hometown around, starting in the old, historic downtown.

Steve Shurden), one of those eight and recently appointed to head up ED efforts for Sunflower County told me how it started, “About twelve years ago we had a crazy pyromaniac in the town who burned out many of the downtown buildings and 30 houses in Drew. We started out trying to save the facades of those buildings and turning the ones we couldn’t into parks rather than letting them sit in neglect. We set up a non-profit organization called Drew Enterprises.”

Southern Bancorp, a development bank holding company that is the largest Rural Development Bank in the USA, liked what they saw and funded Drew Enterprises with over $500,000 in grants to continue to renovate the historic Main Street. Those efforts have led to the formation of six new businesses which created over 100 jobs.

In addition, Mississippi Delta Community College agreed to set up a satellite facility in Drew’s downtown. Over 140 students are taking college and GED courses to improve their odds of exiting from a cycle of poverty.

I’ve often observed that real change happens when one or a handful of passionate people get involved. Chalk up another one!