Carolyn Orr edits a wonderful weekly compilation of news article from around the world focused upon agriculture and rural issues called Ag Clips for State Agricultural and Rural Leaders, an association of the agriculture and state ED committees of the 50 state legislatures in the USA. She also puts on an annual conference for those legislative leaders and I was honored to be asked to give my BoomtownUSA talk to them last weekend in St. Louis.
St. Louis was an action packed event with a very engaged group of rural leaders who were obviously very passionate about their rural districts and states. The Q&A was the most engaged that I’ve experienced in doing 300+ talks around the country.
One of the co-presenters was Milan Wall, Co-Director of the Heartland Center for Leadership Development in Lincoln, NE. His organization is well known for having had great success in working with small towns starting in Nebraska but expanding out around the country.
Part of Milan’s talk dealt with the Five Myths of Small Towns.
Myth One: Towns that ‘too small’ have no future. Some have questioned whether towns of less than 300 or even 2,500 have any future but Milan cited the example of Nenzel, NE (up close to the SD border) that only has a population of 12 but was able to build a community and heritage center. Of course they used the 150 people in the surrounding farms and ranches to help them! Milan, “It is all about attitude!”
Myth Two: A community’s location is key to its survival. “Some will argue that it is location, location, location but don’t tell that to Wray, CO where 11 leaders got together and started to set some priorities for their town of 2,000. They raised money to build a recreational and rehabilitation center and then a new hospital. Today, they are doing a reverse migration, bringing doctors out of Denver to practice medicine in Wray.
Myth Three: Industrial recruitment is the best strategy for economic development. “When the key leaders in Jackson, MN were in Chicago calling on potential companies they learned that their largest industrial employer was closing its doors. They rushed back, decided to turn their ED efforts upside down and started concentrating on their own backyard businesses. In one year they replaced the 300 jobs that were lost but spread it around 10 different companies, not just one.
Myth Four: Small towns can’t compete in the global economy. Milan cited Cabela’s which is today selling products in over 140 countries around the globe. Cheyenne County, NE, where they are headquartered, is the fastest growing county in the entire Great Plains in terms of growth in per capita income.
Myth Five: The ‘best people’ leave small towns as soon as they can. Milan argued that in a post-9/11 world, young people are more security seeking. He cited a study that showed that more than 50% of high school students want to eventually return home, while 50% want to own their own business. And, this same study showed that 15% already own their own business while in high school!
The Heartland Center is on the cutting edge of revitalization in rural America. I’m glad that I was on the program with Milan.