Friday, November 28, 2008

Black Friday Madness!

I knew that I had to go see for myself, when my son James kept talking about today’s Black Friday sales that were going on at Kohl’s, where he works. James, the night owl of the family, was excited about having to go into work at 3:30 am. James!

So, when I woke up at 4:30 this morning, I slipped on my clothes and drove into Effingham. I had expected to see several cars on the Kohl’s parking lot but not full! And, so full cars had overflowed onto the grass in all directions! Sunrise was still 2 hours away.

The line to check out snaked from the front to the back of the store, with at least 200 people in line. Theresa Schackmann and her daughters Erin & Nichole who were close to the cash registers had been in line for over 30 minutes and my cousin Janie Schultz was at the back, holding a place for her daughter-in-law Michelle who was still out finding bargains. It was “old home week” in the checkout line as I met a host of friends who I hadn’t seen in awhile.

By now my curiosity was piqued so it was over to Wal-Mart. After driving the parking lot for 15 minutes, unable to find a parking spot, I opted for a grassy lot across the road. Absolute bedlam, were the two words that came to my mind as I tried to navigate my way in the store. I gave up trying to get to the electronics department, and judging from the dozens of abandoned shopping carts in the aisles, so had a number of other people. It was difficult enough to get through the aisles just walking!

Menards hadn’t opened yet but the line outside the store of over 100 people obviously wasn’t letting that stand in their way. Stocking hats and camouflage hunting jackets were the fashion choice of those shoppers waiting for the “door busting” bargains.

If you aren’t a “true shopper” and consider Black Friday a day to catch up on projects like I do, take a few minutes to experience the incredible buying power of the American consumer. It is alive and well in Effingham!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Water, Water, Water!

One of my fondest memories of being out on the road, traveling this great country of ours, was a breakfast I had with Leland Speed in January 2005. Leland, a young thinking 70 year old, was head of the MS Development Authority, having taken the job for 2 years at a salary of $1. He had founded and was still chairman of two public REITs headquartered in Jackson, MS, but was asked by Governor Haley Barbour, one of the best governors I’ve seen in creating new jobs for his state, to head up economic development activities in MS.

At that breakfast, Leland laid out a vision of creating multiple lakes in rural MS to serve as an economic development tool for those communities. His thought was that not only would the lakes help to create jobs and tax revenue in these communities, but they would also help to attract entrepreneurs looking for second home locations who might decide to open new businesses. Leland had an “out of the box” idea that was brilliant with little downside.

Jack Moody, who is in charge of developing this lake program in MS, is planning a symposium on the subject in Jackson, MS, on February 4, 2009, that I plan to attend. He is going to have demographers, developers, contractors and economic developers in to lay out Leland’s vision. A PowerPoint on the subject and its economic impact for a community can be seen here.

Moody was also my tour guide of several lakes in the Hattiesburg, MS area. Our first lake was Canebrake, a 250 acre lake that was developed by Dr. Bennett York, a local oral surgeon. Moody called it, “the nicest such development in the state,” and after seeing the clubhouses, golf course, infrastructure and houses, it was easy to see why he saw it as the best.

With Canebrake almost completely built out, York has moved onto Big Bay, a 1,100 acre lake that he hopes to have dammed up by early in 2009.

With 83,500 miles of potential streams that could be developed and five feet of rain each year, most of which flows out of the state, the potential for lakes in MS is incredible. I can’t wait to get back there in February to learn more.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Perseverance or Luck?

Thomas Edison once said, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” He was known for both, often laboring for months on an idea for a new product or process. What I learned in Laurel, MS, is that sometimes that 1 percent can also be luck.

Laurel, MS, (population 18,393) was started as a lumber town in 1882 and became known as the Yellow Pine Capital of the World by the 1920s. Numerous sawmills dominated the industrial base of the community and the piles of sawdust grew into small mountains in the town. One of those sawmill owners wrote to Thomas Edison asking for his assistance in finding a use for those piles. Edison sent a young assistant, William H. Mason, to try to find some use for this sawdust.

Mason set up a small laboratory and began experimenting with the product, but was unable to find any solution. Fortunately, he didn’t give up and he discovered Masonite by accident when the stove in his laboratory exploded when he was at lunch. When he returned he found that the pile of sawdust next to the stove had been transformed by the heat. He soon found that by heating the sawdust and then blasting it with steam, he could form them into boards that had a high bending and tensile strength. And, unlike other similar products which used formaldehyde and glues, Masonite, which used only natural products, was also an environmentally friendly “green” product. Although I’m not sure that being “green” was considered a huge plus in 1924.

Mason set up manufacturing operations in the town, eventually hiring over 6,000. The company, now owned by an LBO outfit, still has operations in Laurel.

Do you have any “piles of sawdust” in your town that a young William Mason might be working on?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Millennials Redeveloping a Town

“When we took it over it was a Bill’s Dollar Store that looked like the metal clad building across the street. Before that it was the post office and a theater that dated back to 1901,” Blane Carpenter and Joshua Miller, both 29 years of age, were telling me about the history of the main building in downtown Ellisville, MS, (population 3,900) that they had redone over the past two years.

They went on, “We bought it for $120,000 and now have about $650,000 in it without counting our labor. It took us about six months just to demo and clean it up before we even started doing any build-out.”

Adding a balcony to the building really enhanced its appearance. Blane and Joshua ended up with six commercial units on the first floor and six apartments (4 with 2 bedrooms and 2 with one bedroom) in the 12,600 sf building.

As I toured the building with them, they pointed out that most of the apartments are rented out to 20 year olds, just like them, who are all on entrepreneurial career tracks. It is exactly these young entrepreneurs and professionals that a downtown redevelopment like this can bring to a town like Ellisville.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Dropouts! What are you doing?

“We are losing 14,000 students/year who are dropping out of our schools in Mississippi!” Dr. Hank Bounds, State Superintendent of Education in MS, told the Education Summit in Ellisville, MS. “That is a school bus full of students, each and every day of the year!”

The math on that number of students is staggering. According to the MS Department of Education, the lost lifetime earnings for one year’s worth of dropouts is $4 billion; MS would save more than $121 million in health care costs/class; and an additional $117 million annually in Medicaid savings.

I’m seeing a few communities that are starting to more fully understand the long term impact of the increasing numbers of dropouts, setting up ‘dropout swat teams’ that are both mentoring and intervening to prevent dropouts in their schools. They’ve found that if they can get a dropout back into school within days of dropping out, they have a much better chance of keeping them in school.

Colin Powell’s foundation, America’s Promise Alliance, has taken on dropouts as a major initiative. Earlier this month they developed a 90 page guidebook on what you can do to prevent dropouts in your hometown. You can download this guidebook here.

Are you making plans to prevent your dropout rate from increasing and improving your schools like Jones County, MS? Your economic future depends upon it.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Education--From Good to Great!

“When people think of Mississippi, the first thing that comes to mind is not our educational system. When you look at all of the data, we rank at or near the bottom in virtually every metric that relates to education. But the steps that you are taking here today are excellent ones that can help to turn it around for your children,” stated Dr. Hank Bounds, State Superintendent of Education for MS, as he addressed the Education Summit 2008 in Ellisville, MS.

This eight county summit grew out of the strategic planning process for Jones County, the largest of the eight counties in southeastern MS. According to that plan, “Challenges with education was the biggest obstacle standing in the way of positive economic development in our area.”

When looking at the data for the State of MS, you can see the challenge. The state ranks as the lowest in % of adults over 25 with a high school diploma (72.9%); third lowest in bachelor’s degree or more for adults over 25 (16.9%); and highest in poverty at 21.0%. Dr. Bounds pointed out the direct correlation between high poverty rates and high school dropout rates adding, “And, there are states that are making determinations on how many prisons they are going to need to build by looking at reading scores in the third grade. It all ties back to education.”

The goals of the summit were fairly simple:

1. Celebrate our many accomplishments in education.

2. Learn why it is essential that ‘together’ we build on those successes NOW!

3. Leave with a sense of purpose and a mission to join together with a goal to helping make our schools second to none.

I related to the summit our own experiences in doing site selection projects for new manufacturing plants in rural America. The educational system and attainment are critical factors that we look at in our many searches. A trend we are seeing is that many new factories require that everyone in the plant have at least a two year, associates degree, and in some cases, a four year degree. Education is becoming the big differentiator and the competition is not just with neighboring towns and states, but rather with countries like China, Korea and others.

My travels around the USA have left me with a very favorable impression of MS. Our company has made multi-million dollar investments in three buildings in the state and I see their future as a very bright one, especially with the passion and enthusiasm that I saw at the summit on education.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Local EBay Auction

Today starts the bidding for a locally run E-Bay auction by one of our local businesses in Effingham. The ‘e’ in this auction stands for ‘eagle’ as in Eaglesoft, a local start-up dental software company which is now part of Patterson Dental. All of the items are donated from local merchants and Patterson suppliers. The proceeds of the auction will go to our local United Way and the Make a Wish Foundation.

This is the third year that they’ve done this auction. Last year they raised over $8,000. This year’s auction will run through December 12th.

If you have a need for an ice cream maker, GPS system, iPod, gift certificates or many other items be sure to get online and bid, bid, bid.

What a great idea to help raise funds for those in need, from a great innovative company here in my hometown.

Housing Off the Grid

The first and only time that I heard of towns being “off the grid” was at a talk in Alaska, to an association of the Aleutian Islands. They told me of their problems with trying to run towns that were “off the grid” of not only highways but also all other services like electricity, water, sewer, etc. Imagine having to have all necessities flown in during half of the year because ships can’t dock because of the weather.

In my talk in Gila County, AZ I met a group that is developing homes “off the grid” in rural AZ. Yes, there are roads that go there and the sun shines all year round there. In fact, sunshine is going to be the key driver for the Climbing Rock Estates, a 204 home subdivision 25 miles south of Globe, AZ.

Randy Gross, the developer of these homes told me, “These homes will be completely solar powered with propane backup to power the swamp coolers and to power the appliances in the house.”

When I go back to Globe in two years, I’m going to go visit this new development to see what it is like to live “off the grid” in AZ.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why City Folk Shouldn't Move to the Country!

Click to enlarge!

Copper Mining Center

From meeting with young agribusiness leaders of the future, I flew to Globe, AZ (population 7,486), a town up in the mountains an hour and a half east of Phoenix. It was very similar to Elko County, NV where I had been earlier in the week, in that it is largely a mining area (in this case copper) that is looking at how they diversify their economic base at a time when mining is booming.

Chris Martin is head of the South Gila County EDC. Gila is pronounced Heela, not Giila, like I mistakenly did. Unfortunately, I seem to make one mispronunciation in every talk that I do. It goes with the territory. I did check out how to pronounce Miami, AZ, a neighboring town in the county, learning that the older folks pronounce it Mi-am-a, whereas the young people pronounce it Mi-am-ee.

Martin has energized his board and has initiatives working on broadband in the rural towns, has helped to set up a tool lending library and is setting up industrial parks and working on cooperative tourism efforts.

One of the projects applauded at the 4th Annual Southern Gila County EDC Summit was how two local women, Sylvia Kerlock and Gloria Ruiz, put together a partnership with the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Power Systems (APS) within a week to build a $60,000 basketball court in Winkelman (population 443). Winkelman last had a basketball court in 1993. The picture on the right is the inauguration of that court earlier this year.

During the past three months we’ve seen copper prices fall from over $4/pound by half. Copper is probably one of the most cyclical commodities and the work of groups like Martin’s are so important in helping to build a stronger, more stable base for the future. They’ve already invited me to come back in two years to see how they are doing on their goals.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Agricultural Future

I had a great time with the Agricultural Future of America (AFA) geared toward college students focused upon careers in agriculture and the Agricultural Future of America’s Alliance (AFA Alliance), made up of former AFA students who are employed in agriculture and related businesses. It is a dynamic group of young millennials (ages 12 to 27) who are going to transform this country for the better. They’ve got an incredible amount of energy, enthusiasm and vision for people so young.

Both AFA and the AFA Alliance are supported by the main players in the ag sector, the input suppliers, end users, financial partners and commodity associations. They provide a forum and meeting area for young people in a dynamic and critical industry for the USA.

In my presentation to them, I talked about the great things happening in the agricultural sector with niche products, alternative energy and improving worldwide diets. However, I also talked about the Achilles Heal of ag, which is the rapidly increasing aging of farmers in this country. Only draw bridge operators are older in age than farmers. When your average age is 60+ years, you are not as likely to take as much risk and get a bit set in your ways.

That’s why I’m so excited to see young people engaged in agriculture. Groups like AFA and the Alliance are critical to helping make transitions to this newest generation.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bonneville Salt Flats

As a kid I was enthralled with stories of the Bonneville Salt Flats. I finally got to visit them last week when I was in West Wendover, NV. I remembered the incredible speeds that were attained on the Salt Flats but learned some new things about them on this trip.

Abe Jenkins was the first one to set a new speed record on the Salt Flats in 1910 when he zoomed at 60 mph on a Yale Motorcycle. The next year, a car was finally driven over 50 mph there. Within only three years the new record for a car was set at 141.73 mph!

Records continued to fall until 1970 when Gary Gabelich piloted The Blue Flame at a speed of 622.40 mph, and didn’t leave the ground!

The salt flats were formed on the floor of an ancient lake, which was once over 1,050 feet deep. The lake was 145 miles wide and 346 miles long but has now retreated to what is the Great Salt Lake near Salt Lake City, a hundred miles to the east.

I knew about all of the land speed records that had been set at Bonneville, but wasn’t aware of all of the movies that have been filmed there. The Salt Flats act as a natural “green screen” which allows any background to be added to a film. Blockbuster films like Con Air, Independence Day, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, The Hulk and many others were filmed here.

The old Westover Air Base has been used for several of these films as well, the most memorable of which were Con Air, staring Nicholas Cage, where the concluding scenes were filmed, and Independence Day. That’s a picture of the Con Air plane that still sits on the base and the old hanger is the one that Will Smith as Captain Steven Hiller and Bill Pullman as President Thomas J. Whitmore, use in the last battle with the aliens to save the earth. Both are some of my favorite movies!

Can you tell that I’m having a ball traveling around this great country of ours?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wendover Will

The first thing that grabs you when you drive into West Wendover, NV (population 4,721) is Wendover Will, a 90 foot high mechanical cowboy, the tallest in the world. With over ¼ of mile in neon lighting tubes, I wish that I had been there at night to see him lit up. Will came into existence in 1952 to help pull people off of the Lincoln Highway which ran through town.

As we drove over the Silver Zone Pass at 5,940 feet, the town of West Wendover, NV and Wendover, UT began to come into view. And, just beyond the twin cities lies the Bonneville Salt Flats. More on them tomorrow but what was an incredible site was how the nature of the Great Basin Desert combined with the Salt Flats; one can actually see the curvature of earth. I was told, that the phenomenon is even more pronounced at night when you can see the lineal trail of headlights travelling west on I-80. I’ll have to get back to see that!

West Wendover is a gambling town with charter flights from the Midwest helping to fill its 1,800 motel rooms and six casinos. Recently a 1,000 seat concert hall was constructed at a cost of $21 million, bringing in such acts as Gretchen Wilson, REO, Randy Travis, America, Amy Grant, Bill Engvall, Lee Ann Womack, Smash Mouth, The Guess Who, Sawyer Brown, Gary Allan, David Spade and Willie Nelson.

West Wendover has made history a number of times. On June 17, 1914, AT&T erected the last of 130,000 telephone poles that finally allowed a transcontinental telephone conversation. In the first call ever, Alexander Graham Bell was in NYC, his one-time assistant Thomas Watson was in San Francisco, the president of AT&T was on Jekyll Island, GA and President Woodrow Wilson was at the White House. Bell picked up the phone and asked Watson, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you,” repeating his very first phone call. Watson, in SF, responded, “It would take me a week now.”

The Wendover Air Base was constructed at the start of WWII and trained over 1,000 bomber crews during the war. The most famous of those was the crew of the Engola Gay and Bock’s Car which dropped the only nuclear bombs in history. That’s my tour guides in Elko County, Elaine Barkdull Spencer and Stacy Sawyer in front of a replica of that first atomic bomb.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Rebuilding After a 6.0!

“I was down in the basement working on the computer and thought that my husband Zach was dribbling a basketball upstairs very quickly. Then the room started to move and I knew that it couldn’t possibly be a basketball.” Elaine Barkdull Spencer was explaining to me her initial reaction to the 6.0 earthquake that hit Northeast Nevada on February 21, 2008.

Even though Nevada is in a seismic area, it is uncommon for them to have earthquakes of this magnitude. The epicenter was six miles outside of Wells, NV, an oasis of water wells on the California trail. The town dates from Christmas Day, 1869 and the old historic downtown still has most of its buildings standing, or at least they were until the 6.0er hit the town.
We stopped by Wells (population 1,346) on our way to West Wendover, NV (tomorrow’s blog) to survey the damage. I was hoping that several of the residents from Wells would make the trek to my talk in West Wendover, because I told several stories of the revitalization of towns like Greensburg, KS which was wiped out by an EF-5 tornado and the MS Gulf Coast which suffered from the incredible force of Hurricane Katrina.

But Elko County is a B-I-G county, with over 17,000 square miles of land area. You could fit the states of MA, DE, CT and RI within the borders of the county and still have room left over to put in all of the Florida Keys. And, no one from Wells made the 60 mile trip over to West Wendover.

Wells has some incredibly historical buildings in its old downtown area. I hope that they find the funds and the will to rebuild them to their past glory.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Diversifying Elko

“I’m Jack Schultz and I approve this message,” was how I started my talk after the introduction. I was in Elko County, NV (population 47,010) the day after the election and the response to my intro got a good laugh. The good citizens of Elko were glad that the election was over. Being a battleground state, they got inundated with advertising and campaigning. I was amazed when I learned that during the presidential campaign season this rural Northeast NV county had three visits from Sen. Obama, one from Sen. McCain and a late visit the night before the election from Gov. Palin. Talk about the critical importance of certain regions and states!

I had been in Elko two years ago today, when I was there to help them inaugurate Frontier Telephone’s first-in-the-nation wireless broadband service in the town of Elko (population 16,708). Elko had immediately jumped at the chance to install the new technology as a way to help diversify their economy. They also were in the early stages of setting up a major rail-park as part of that diversification strategy. At that time, Elaine Barkdull Spencer, the dynamic Executive Director of the Elko County Economic Diversification Authority (ECEDA), passionately told me of her desire to diversify away from its dependence upon the notoriously cyclical mining industry.

Frontier’s broadband service has resulted in a number of new businesses starting up and the rail-park is almost operational. The county purchased an 810-acre ranch that ran along the main line of the UP Railroad from San Francisco to Chicago, turning 60 acres of into a multimodal transload facility and warehousing yard and industrial park. Already land has been sold in the park to Pacific Steel, SAS Global, Spirit Minerals and Ormaza Group. Pacific’s project is now under construction.

Elaine told me of ECEDA’s goals, “Even though we’ve got 37 mines here in northeastern Nevada that pay incredibly well, we know that we’ve got to look at how we diversify. We’ve identified five areas for development: Small manufacturing to use our skilled workforce; food processing for our abundant water; distribution with our rail and road assets; construction companies; and mining support companies.”

Mining is still in a boom phase, even though the main product of gold (Elko County is the largest producer of gold in the USA and fourth largest in the world!) has fallen from over $1,000/ounce earlier this year to $700. It will have to fall a great deal more to fall below the estimated break-even price of $400/ounce and even then production would not stop because of the ten year time period to re-permit a mine that is closed down. The “Carlin Trend” gold vein which runs from Carlin, NV (population 2,161) where I did my talk, over to Elko, is 50 miles long and about five miles wide. There is plenty of gold in “them thar hills!”

Elaine spoke of her own two sons, both of whom work in the mining industry, “I never wanted them to go into the industry because of its notorious boom and bust cycles. However, the money is so good that they both ended up there. My oldest son who is 27 makes over $100,000 per year as an electrician in the mines and the other is 26 making just shy of $100,000 per year, supervising a crew of 32, all of whom are older than him.”

I was impressed with her efforts to find other jobs for the communities in Elko County.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Top Historic Destination in the USA!

One of the agurbs® that I probably write about more than any other is Columbus, IN (population 39,059), a very unique, well-diversified community in southern IN. Imagine my surprise when I picked up National Geographic’s Traveler magazine and found Columbus ranked as the top historical destination in the USA and eleventh in the world out of the 109 ranked.

Here’s what they said about Columbus:

Although it’s surprising to see a Midwestern burg (wish they had used the term agurb®!) in the company of Dijon and Stockholm, this “jewel in the region” boasts “world-class” mid-century modern architecture. The “charming downtown historic district” adds to the attraction, but the countryside’s “unchecked growth” makes for a “terrible gateway.”

Other towns and agurbs® that I’ve visited and are mentioned in the Traveler article are:

Ashland, OH (19); Red Wing, MN (23); Port Townsend, WA (24); Asheville, NC (33); Natchez, MS (40); Galena, IL (45); Lexington, KY (46); Sitka, AK (48); and Santa Fe, NM (75).

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Small Banks Thrive

There was a great article in the NY Times yesterday on the advantages of small banks. Cited as an example is the First National Bank of Orwell, a $36 million bank in Orwell, VT. Founded in 1832, it is Vermont’s smallest bank. Loans are up 22.6% from last year while deposits are up 7%. The picture on the right is Mark Young, president of the bank, with a customer.

The Federal Reserve wants small banks like this to go away, hoping that their TARP program will help to eliminate over 1,000 small banks. Bad decision!
Look at the graphic below which shows returns and charge-offs for banks in the USA by size. Returns are highest and charge-offs lowest for small banks! Why would you want to eliminate them? What are the Feds thinking?

Friday, November 07, 2008

Football Helmets

If you watch football this weekend and pay particular attention to the backs of the football helmets, you’ll see the name Schutt. Schutt Sports makes helmets along with other athletic equipment in Litchfield, IL (population 6,815). The company dates to 1918 when Bill Schutt started making basketball goals in his hometown. From very modest beginnings, the company has grown to several hundred jobs in the town, with other plants in IL and PA.

I was in Montgomery County, IL (population 29,810) for their first ever Summit to discuss economic development last week. Litchfield is the largest town in the county.

Schutt is looking at consolidating their various operations in Litchfield, wanting to do a 100,000 sf expansion onto their main plant. Litchfield is looking at various options on how to assist Schutt in their expansion. One of the graphics that they asked me to send was the following, which shows the impact of a 100 manufacturing jobs like Schutt on a community:

The Impact of 100 Manufacturing Jobs

* 415 more jobs
* $12,700,000 more personal income/year
* $5,000,000 more bank deposits
* 7 more retail establishments
* $7,700,000 more retail sales
* $540,000 increased tax revenue
* $2,000,000 more service receipts

Information provided by Illinois Chamber of Commerce

You can’t have enough good paying manufacturing jobs in a town. I hope that Schutt expands and continues to grow in Litchfield.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Miner to Publisher

Some people and many athletes have an incredible desire to succeed/win. I met one of those people at my talk in Sesser. “I want you to meet Jim Muir,” Mayor Mitchell introduced, “one of those miners I told you about who lost their job when all of the mines here closed their doors. Unlike a lot of them, Jim went back to college got a degree in journalism and started his own magazine last year.”

After Jim and I chatted for a few minutes, he went out to his car and returned with three of his latest issues of
Southern Illinois Sports Connection, a four-color 50 to 60 page monthly magazine that is chock full of interesting information on high school, college and community sports in the southern ¼ of IL. From his first issue in August, 2007 it looks as though the magazine has grown each month.

It continues to inspire me, when I meet new entrepreneurs like the Jim Muir’s of the world who when are handed lemons of losing their job, take those lemons and make something better for themselves.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Rebuilding, Diversifying

One of the most painful changes that I’ve reported on in my travels around the country, is the gut-wrenching changes that towns which are virtually dependent upon one firm or industry for their jobs goes through when structural changes occur wiping out those jobs. I was in such a town last week.

Mayor Ned Mitchell, of Sesser, IL (population 2,128) was telling me a bit about the history of his community, “We had five coal mines in the county and had 12 within 25 miles of Sesser. Each employed between 500 and 800 miners who got not only great wages but excellent benefits because all of them were United Mine Workers mines. They all shut down soon after the passage of the Clean Air Act.”

One of his aldermen, an ex-miner piped up, “When I went to the mines in 1964 I was taking home $24.25/shift and when I was let go in 1992 I was up to $135/shift.”

Sesser has yet to recover from that downturn with unemployment still topping 12%, but Mayor Mitchell and the town aren’t giving up. They are hoping to develop more amenities to lure more visitors from nearby Rend Lake, which has 3 million people visit each year. And, they are improving the community in many ways. Four new baseball fields, one of which is being done by the St. Louis Cardinals at a cost of over $200,000, are in the works along with a new soccer field. A new 2007 TIF district is facilitating the tearing down of old, abandoned houses, replacing them with modern ones. And an old 1914 Vaudeville Theater/Opera House and adjacent cafĂ© where I did my talk, is helping to revitalize the downtown.

New scrubber technology is leading to a resurgence of Illinois coal and several of the old mines are slowly reopening, but coal is probably never going to be the economic powerhouse that it was in the past. Towns like Sesser realize that and are getting on with a new, more diversified future.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Small Town Promise

You’ve probably heard of the Kalamazoo Promise which promises a four year college education to anyone who graduates from the local high school. The promise has created a boom in Kalamazoo, MI which had been spiraling downward prior to announcing its promise.

I learned of a similar promise in a small town of 1,000 near my hometown, but this town’s promise is not well publicized and as a result it hasn’t had the economic impact that I would like to see. The town is dormant, with a population that is aging in place.

Several years ago, a local farm family left several thousand acres of farmland and cash in trust for students of this farming town. With todays land values, that trust is today well north of $10 million. At a 5% spend ratio, the IRS formula for most trusts, the trust must spend over $500,000/year in scholarships. With only 30 students/year graduating from the local high school, the trust not only pays for undergraduate school but also for most of graduate school.

Imagine what could happen in your town with a promise like this! All it takes is one, very forward-thinking family to change a community for generations and centuries into the future.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Extreme Fairbanks

Historically, Fairbanks, AK (population 86,754) has been known for its extremes. It was always the hottest, the coldest, the darkest and also most remote. North Star, a community branding firm, set out to find what people in Fairbanks loved about their community, using that passion to rebrand Fairbanks. The ad that I love best is on the right. Don’t you love the copy, “Once you’ve been here, you understand their determination to return?”

North Star found that locals loved the Northern Lights, midnight sun, hot springs, Arctic Circle and other wonders of nature. And from those wonders of nature, those extreme conditions have created an unmatched light, energy and warmth.

What is your brand?