Friday, February 29, 2008

Citizens Engaged!

“We saw the economic downturn and its impact upon Jackson and decided that we had to try to do something better because we all loved living here so much,” Dr. Salah Huwais was explaining to me how he initiated the setting up of the Jackson Citizens for Economic Growth (JCEG).

Since setting up JCEG in March, 2007, the group has met weekly and initiated a series of talks from experts in the field on what they can do to help turn Jackson around. I was their speaker in February.

Allan Hooper, my favorite MI ED guru with Citizens Energy in Jackson, had this to say, “Dr. Salah Huwais, a Syrian immigrant, is one of the founders of JCEG and its most prominent member. He is also an unlikely economic developer. He is a periodontist specializing in implant surgeries. He teaches and travels the world learning and demonstrating techniques. One wonders how he finds time to be a volunteer economic developer. However, he became concerned about the economic vitality of a community where he chose to set up a practice and raise his family. He wants his young children to have opportunities in this community. His passion for his community and its success quickly wins over those who might otherwise wonder why a foreign-born periodontist is so interested in the future of his community.”

Dr. Huwais told the group of his successful implementation of new technology which allowed him to do the first navigational dental implant surgery in the state. The technology used was from the Far East, Europe, the USA and Israel. It was used by a Syrian immigrant on a Michigan patient.

My two messages from this blog:

1. Community changers can come from any sector of a community. Often the ones who are busiest are also the ones who get more things done.

2. Globalization is transforming our societies and those communities that grasp it the quickest are the ones that are going to set themselves up for the future.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

100(+) Women Who Care

“We started this in 2006 and it has just grown from there.” Karen Dunigan, a Jackson Citizens for Economic Growth (JCEG) board founder and board member and local realtor, was telling me about starting her 100(+) Women Who Care organization.

“We meet four times per year with each member agreeing to donate $100 per meeting to a local charity. We vote on which charity to support at each meeting. It has grown with each meeting.”

The first meeting raised $12,000 for the Center for Family Health and the last $23,700 for the Michigan Theatre.

Several other chapters in MI and IL have been formed. Karen’s idea makes a lot of sense to me and I’m hopeful that others around the USA will follow her example and start similar efforts in their hometowns. If 100 or 200 people work together on a regular basis like 100 Women is doing, you would be amazed at what mountains you can climb.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

State Prison to Incubator for Artists

“This was an old prison cellblock, then it was an armory and now it is going to become an incubator for artists.” Jane Robinson of Armory Arts Village was showing me around the brand new living/working area in Jackson, MI (population 36,316).

The facility sits across the parking lot from Art 634, a wonderful artist facility that I first visited in October, 2005. (See October 26, 2005 blog on Art 634).

I was told that one of the reasons for Jackson’s boom as a manufacturing center early in the 1900s was the large prison population that was viewed as virtually free labor. There was a tunnel that connected the prison to the Art 634 building that allowed prisoners to move back and forth for work each day without notice.

Now that old prison is being converted into an artist’s living/working environment. For a monthly fee of $416 to $680 they will have a new apartment in which to live and a place to work on their artistic interests while in the company of other likeminded people. Opened only a month ago, already half of the 62 units are rented out.

Jackson continues to impress me with its forward looking approach to economic development.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Cheese is Cheese--Right?

One of the fastest growing niche ag businesses that I’m witnessing in my travels around the USA is that of artisanal cheeses, made in limited quantities with a high degree of handcrafting. A Cornell University dairy science professor, Frank Kosikowski, first started the movement in 1983 when he founded the American Cheese Society.

In the first year that someone bothered to count these cheese producers in 1990 there were 75. In the count in 2006 there were over 400.

Each year the Society has a cheese taste off with 200 producers from 30 states and Canada bringing in 1,208 different cheeses in 22 broad groups further subdivided into 88 categories. The largest number of producers were from WI, VT and CA.

The best of class was an aged Raclette made by Leelanau Cheese Company of Suttons Bay, MI (population 589), a small town just north of Traverse City, MI, along the shores of Lake Michigan.

Do you have any potential entrepreneurial cheese makers in your town? They could be on the cutting edge of an industry that is transforming just like wine did 30 years ago.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Come Bank Home

No I didn’t make a mistake, I meant to write Come BANK Home. Hampton State Bank in Franklin County, IA (population 10,708) in the north-central part of the state has developed a special program that both brings former residents back home but also hopefully gets them to bank back there.

The Hampton State Bank has committed $1 million to a program aimed at Franklin County high school graduates who move back home. The bank is offering a special 3.99% home loan as part of its package to get more residents back to this rural county. So far seven families have taken them up on the offer and the bank has committed about ½ of the total.

Greene County, IA (population 9,809) has developed a $1,000 relocation package available to people who move there.

Worth County, IA (population 7,698) gave each of the 87 students who graduated from county high schools and went onto college a check for $4,391.

These are just three examples of what three counties in rural IA are doing to make themselves more attractive for residents.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Teaching South Koreans English from Rural Wyoming

Who would be better to teach English to foreigners than native born Americans, was an idea that Kent Holiday and his wife had when they met in Seoul, Korea. Marry that idea with the increase in broadband connectivity and you could probably do that from a small town, in say Wyoming.

So the Holidays moved back home to Ten Sleep, WY (population 304) in Washakie County (population 7,819) with a population density of 3.5 per square mile to start their new business, Eleutian Technology LLC. They started the business in the small town of Ten Sleep but quickly opened branch offices in neighboring larger towns of Powell (population 5,373) and Worland (population 5,250).

Within a year Kent has hired over 100 WY teachers at $15/hour to teach 2,000 Korean students at 3 universities and 13 public schools in that country. He estimates that the industry he is inventing could eventually be a $15 billion per year one.

And, it is starting in a tiny town in Wyoming. Got any English teachers with an entrepreneurial bent and connections in one of the 193 countries around the world?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Horray for Good News!

For years I’ve been telling local newspaper editors, “Get the bad news off of your front pages. Put it on page six.” My reasoning was that anyone looking at moving to a town with a new business, new idea or just to call home is going to subscribe to the local newspaper before they move. If all they read on the front page is muggings, shootings and other bad news they are going to believe that is what happens a lot in that town and move on.

Yesterday the Calgary Sun newspaper in Alberta, Canada decided to only print good news in their newspaper. Here is what they said in their editorial announcing it, “Newspapers around the globe are filled with page after page of bad news -- this humble journal included. We make no excuses for it. Sadly, bad news tends to have the biggest and most immediate impact on people's lives.”

They went on, “So with that in mind, we've filled the paper with what we would call good news. Stories and pictures of inspiration and hope, or at the very least, news that doesn't have you fast-forwarding to the horoscope and comics to escape things that upset you.”

George McLean did the same thing every day of the year, choosing to report the good news items that happened in Tupelo, MS on his front pages. Today, Tupelo is one of the boomtowns that I talk about as I travel around the country.

You can surround yourself with all the negatives in life or you can find some good things also. Our hometowns would be well served if our hometown editors chose to find good news items to put on the front pages of our local newspapers.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Giving Up Security for Entrepreneurship

My wife and I rode from Sumter to Hilton Head, SC with Joseph and Anita Tobiere. They were both successful entrepreneurs in Sumter who exhibited a real passion for their hometown.

Anita was born and raised in Sumter while Joseph was born in St. Croix but lived most of his life in St. Lucia, a small island just north of South America.

Anita worked as a speech pathologist in the local school district while Joseph was a team leader in maintaining the F-16 fleet at Shaw AFB. Both had worked for over 10 years in their respective jobs but decided to take the entrepreneurial plunge a couple of years ago.

Anita told me, “Our families thought we were crazy. They told us that we were throwing away all of the years of retirement that we had each accumulated.”

Their first endeavor, a coffee shop, didn’t work out and had to be closed but their computer services shop (Joseph) and financial planning office (Anita) are both growing and adding people.

And, Joseph told me, “It was the best decision that we ever made.”

We need more entrepreneurs in our small towns. Sumter is fortunate to have two like the Topieres.

Friday, February 15, 2008

From 2 1/2 Hours/Day Wasted to Just 2 Minutes/Day

“I’ve got lots of friends who talk about doing what my wife I did, but they don’t seem to be able to make the leap.” George McGregor, head of planning in Sumter, SC was telling me about his move from Prince William County, VA, a Washington, DC suburb.

He went on, “I used to have to drive 2 ½ hours each day and I was only going 28 miles one way and staying in the same county. It was crazy, just crazy. I was only able to have dinner one night a week with my family. It was great to come from there to here. Now I’m only 2 minutes from home and it’s great to be able to be home by 5:05 pm.”

Nine months ago George and his wife Susan moved their three children (six year old twin boys and a 10 year old daughter) to Sumter. He was born in NY, his wife in NC. They met in grad school in SC and moved to VA in 1997. George had worked in Sumter as an assistant planning director right out of Clemson.

While Susan continues to telecommute to her employer in VA, working as a software consultant, George had to take a cut in pay to make the move to SC, “But I didn’t come here just to chill out. I wanted to get back into the public sector where I thought I could help to affect change and in an area that had great upside potential.”

The move was helped by the much lower cost of living in Sumter compared to VA, “We sold our track house for $590,000 that we had bought for $310,000 in 2001 and bought a wonderful 1896 house that had been completely redone in the early 2000s. And, it is a lot more house than what we had in Virginia. The increase in value of our house there, allowed us to pay off all of our debts and come down here completely debt free.”

The George and Susan McGregors are going to become more of the norm, rather than the exception. Those towns that can make themselves attractive with their quality of life and opportunities will be the winners in the 21st Century.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Retirees as a Strategy

Sumter, SC has developed an explicit strategy of recruiting in retirees. I had dinner with five real estate developers to discuss what they were doing in this area.

Louis Tisdale related to me, “We held a couple of retiree focus group charettes just a couple of weeks ago to try to find out what people liked about our town and what we needed to improve. Some of our main selling points are our central location that allows someone to be able to drive back to their hometown in less than a day; the fact that we are not Florida; our close proximity to both the mountains and the ocean; our climate or as one of the retirees said ‘you don’t have to shovel sunshine’; our lower cost of living; and our very friendly people.”

Louis shared the report from those sessions. Here are some other take home points that I gleaned from it:

Halfbackers—Several of the participants had retired to Florida but moved halfway back home to get away from the weather, overcrowding, wanting more seasonal variation and not liking all of Florida’s hurricanes. This trend will become bigger in the next several years, in my opinion. In 2006 Florida had the first net out-migration of over 75 year olds.

Military Friendly—The presence of the local air force base was a big plus for this segment. Just as I’ve seen towns try to actively recruit back their alumni, a town like Sumter could do the same with the number of military who were once stationed in Sumter and hopefully have fond remembrances of their time there.

Swan Lake & Trails—Becoming much more important as the young retirees want to stay active and continue to exercise. You can’t have too many trails!

And then there were the negatives, most of which looked solvable to me. They included eating options (fresh baked bread, non-chain deli, local restaurants, higher end grocery and Starbucks); news’ stands; SC Blue Laws; and professional sports teams (I said most were solvable—not all!).

Tisdale also told me that one other negative was, “If I was looking for a job in retirement, I wouldn’t come here.” That is a tougher obstacle to overcome, but with the trend toward more entrepreneurs in the retiring age group and the ability to virtually work from everywhere with the proliferation of broadband speeds increasing, that is going to be an argument that fewer retirees are going to be focused upon.

Sumter is at an advantage in being on the cutting edge of actively recruiting in the huge Baby Boomer generation of retirees.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Fabulous Downtown--In the Making

“We gave away our downtown about 30 years ago when everyone moved to the mall. Like a lot of towns, we thought we could revive it by turning it into a pedestrian mall. That didn’t work and so we tried to turn it back into just a regular downtown but by then we’d run everyone away.” Kent Mims, Sumter’s Commercial Development Coordinator, told me as he toured me through the downtown area.

Today, the downtown is like a lot of downtowns that I see. It is down on its luck with too many vacancies, empty buildings and some very unusual shops or as Kent asked me, “How many wig stores do we need downtown?”

But, there are some real gems in Sumter’s downtown; redevelopment is starting with a flourish and most importantly most of the old buildings are still there. Or, as I told them, “You’ve still got all of your teeth! How would it look if I stood up in front of you with two or three teeth missing? You’d wonder what was the matter with me, right? Well, it’s the same with a downtown when you’ve got buildings missing because they’ve fallen down or burned and been turned into parking lots.”

Fortunately virtually all of Sumter’s downtown buildings are still there and starting to come back to life. The city renovated the old opera house into city hall and still holds concerts there. Carolina Technical College is in the process of taking one of the first big box retail projects that has been vacant for a number of years and turning it into a health specialty college, primarily aimed at nursing students. The town’s hospital, Tuomey Healthcare System, anchors the other end of downtown and having nursing students walking from the college to the hospital will put a new vibrancy into the downtown on a daily basis.

Three new buildings have been built recently, not to look like they were built in the 2000s but like they’ve been there for over 100 years. Those new buildings are helping to fill in the few “missing teeth” that every downtown seems to have.

And, Greg Thompson of Thompson Construction Group, a local entrepreneur with 750 employees has completely renovated the 1907 Montgomery Ward store (33,000 sf) into a corporate headquarters and retail shopping area. He has plans to open a new café/bakery and develop a boutique hotel in adjacent property.

After having seen hundreds and hundreds of downtowns in the past couple of years, it was safe for me to tell the Sumter retreat, “That they’ve got the potential to turn their downtown into one of the top five or ten downtowns in the USA.”

They’re on the right track with their plans and I hope to return in a couple of years to see the progress.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Locals Engaged

I had never seen anything quite like what I witnessed in Sumter, SC. I’ve seen other towns that have been able to get a few of their citizens to convene for retreats, but never like this. The Chamber has an annual weekend retreat, away from the town. This year’s location was Hilton Head, SC about a 3 hours south of the town. And, 300+ people drove there to discuss such issues as increasing the local sales tax, Shaw AFB expansion, economic development, etc. Talk about engaged!

One of Sumter’s jewels is Swan Lake which draws 400,000 people per year to visit. This 120 acre park features numerous small islands, all eight species of swans (including the Black Australian shown here) and incredible flower gardens.

Deron McCormick, City Manager of Sumter, told me, “That area of town was just a swamp that ran through our city. Hamilton Bland, our local Ford car dealer was also an avid horticulturist. He tried to grow Japanese iris but couldn’t get them to grow so he dug them up and pitched them into that swamp where they thrived. The Heath family, the local Coca Cola bottler, owned the other side of the swamp. Both of those families donated their land to the city for Swan Lake. Another family, the McDuffy family, gave us the big crosswalk over the road.”

Towns either develop or don’t depending upon the involvement of local citizens. Sumter was blessed when the Bland, Heath and McDuffy families did that years ago. Today, those 300+ on the annual Chamber retreat seemed just as engaged. Sumter will be better for it.

Monday, February 11, 2008

No State Capitol, Air Force Academy nor Interstate

I almost called today’s blog “The Patriot”, which is one of my favorite all-time movies and one that I’ve watched numerous times. In it, Mel Gibson starred as a South Carolina patriot in rousting the British in the Revolutionary War. One of the heroes he modeled his character after was General Thomas Sumter, nicknamed the Fighting Gamecock for his fighting prowess despite his small stature. He founded Sumter, SC (population 39,643) where I was for a full day of tours and the Chamber’s very unique retreat.

Sumter has had some very near misses over the years, missing out on becoming the state capitol (it is in the geographic center of SC) by one vote in the state legislature and being a finalist for home of the U. S. Air Force Academy. It did win an air force base in WWII, Shaw AFB, that has grown into the major economic driver in the area. Shaw has survived each of the BRAC closing commissions, grown each time and was chosen as the new headquarters for the 3rd Army which is moving from Ft. McPherson, GA (Atlanta).

With 15,582 personnel at Shaw and an estimated 6,000 military retirees, the economic impact of a base like Shaw is impressive for a community. Counting in those retirees that impact is estimated to have grown from about $400 million per year in 1990 to $1.1 billion in 2006 and should grow to over $1.3 billion with the new army headquarters.

Sumter took a number of hits in the 2000s after having great economic success during the 90s. Mayor Joseph McElveen told me, “We were flying high in the 90s and were a star in the state, averaging 1 new industrial job/day. Our manufacturing jobs grew to 30% of the workforce. We added not just one, but two Caterpillar plants. But our lower end jobs, especially in the furniture industry started to leave and now we are down to only 22% of our jobs in manufacturing.”

Several local citizens recently began putting a push on turning around the slide in industrial jobs and my talks with them left me with a very good impression of both their plan of attack and their determination to succeed.

A common lament that I heard from a number of people that I interviewed was, “If only the interstate had come closer to the town rather than being 15 miles away.” One of the points that I tried to make in my talk the next day was that not only wasn’t there anything that they could do about the routing of the interstates in 2008, but that they had to work around that perceived negative. I also pointed out that, even though I thought that interstates were going to be critical factors in success, when we finished our research on BoomtownUSA, we found that 59 of our top 100 agurbs® were over 25 miles from an interstate.

It’s all state of mind and finding what your positives are and then leveraging them to your advantage. I’ll explore a number of those positives in Sumter all this week in my blogs.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Can't Create Jobs by Being Business Unfriendly!

Next week the only dairy on the Hawaiian island of Oahu will shut down, forcing the islands 900,000+ residents the only alternative of importing their milk. As I was researching this story I was amazed to learn that Hawaii will only have two operating dairies, both on the Big Island. However, those two dairies only produce enough for that island so the rest of Hawaii’s milk consumption is imported. As you would expect milk in Honolulu is a bit more expensive than what you are probably paying, with the price ranging from $6.50 to $8.00/gallon in local stores. Yet, despite these prices seven dairies (four on Oahu and three on the Big Island) have closed since 2000.

On one of my trips to Hawaii I visited an abandoned shrimp farm that closed due to local regulations. I was shocked to learn that virtually all of the fish, shrimp, etc. consumed on the islands was imported despite the fact that there is obviously a great deal of water and fishing grounds that surround the state.

When are politicians going to learn that you can’t create jobs and economic opportunity by being anti-business?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Valentine Cookies

Two of the nicest ladies that I’ve met in my travels were starting a business in Enderlin, ND when I did a tour/talk there in 2005. Elise Nylander and Julie Ussatis both had a passion for baking, opening Bless My Bloomin’ Cookies in a storefront in Enderlin. Their specialty is baking cookies on a stick which they’ll ship to you in bouquet.

If you haven’t bought your Valentine that special present yet, give Elise or Julie a call.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Renewable Energy Requirements

Michigan recently established a 10% renewable energy goal as part of their “Michigan’s 21st Century Electric Energy Plan.” I found what it would take in new wind turbines to be incredibly tiny when compared to the land area of a state like MI.

The 10% goal would require building 1,250 new wind turbines, which would take up 313 acres of land for construction and 49,966 acres of land for wind flow. While the 313 acres would be taken out of crop production, the 49,966 acres could still be used for farming, grazing and other related uses.

Michigan’s land area of 37,361,780 acres should be plenty of land to accomplish a 10% goal. And, at 0.13% of total land, one has to wonder why they (and other states) can’t achieve 100% renewable in the long term.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Don't Mess with North Dakota

While I love Texas’ “Don’t mess with Texas” slogan for their long term anti-littering campaign, I now think that North Dakota should take up the slogan. Last month, National Geographic magazine featured a story on the abandoned towns of the state. I thought that the piece was very one-sided against ND and said so on their website. However, my message is lost among the several hundred there with over 90% solidly against the story. North Dakotans are obviously very passionate about their home state.

Here’s what I wrote:

In the past three years I’ve been invited to tour over 300 towns in 44 states as a result of my book on small towns, BoomtownUSA, including about a dozen in North Dakota. I found the people of the state incredibly friendly, innovative and focused upon the future. You missed some great stories like the citizens of Wimbledon rescuing their grocery store; the growing technology business of lasers in Crosby; the world-wide reach of a quilt store in Hettinger; entrepreneurial education at DSU and NDS; or the many other wonderful economic successes emanating from the plains of the state.

I was very disappointed in your one-sided view of the state of North Dakota. Some of my favorite memories are of the trips that I’ve had there from my home in Illinois.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Software for Seeds

One of the highlights of the SARL Conference was getting a chance to tour Monsanto’s main research facility in St. Louis, its headquarters. I’d see a demonstration of their cutting-edge technology at the Farm Progress Show this summer in Decatur, IL and wanted to learn more about what they have in the pipeline.

The St. Louis facility is one of only 14 that they have in the world. It was built in 1984 as a pharmaceutical center but when Monsanto exited that area 7 years ago they kept part of the facility for their ag research. They sold the pharmaceutical part of the business to Searle which eventually sold to Pfizer.

With 8.5 million farmers using Monsanto products on 220 million acres, the impact of Monsanto’s biotech research is being widely felt, especially when you realize that in 1995 there were zero acres planted with biotech seeds.

Our tour guide stressed that Monsanto’s focus is upon improving the “software for seeds” and that each gene that it inserts into a seed to improve it is not unlike what happens with computers. Some of those genes will fight drought, use less fertilizer, improve cold tolerance for quicker germination and provide for nutrients. An example of the latter is the development of Omega 3 (from algae) from soybeans and lessening transfats with its new Vistive soybean.

The St. Louis research facility boosts 125 PhDs out of 400 employees. They have more growth chambers in that one building than all of the U. S. Land Grants Colleges have combined! With an R&D budget of $780 million, Monsanto is spending about 10% of their annual sales on research, 95% of which is spent in the area of seeds and biotech and only 5% on chemicals. Half of that budget is focused upon one crop: corn.

A new trait typically takes from 8 to 10 years to reach market at a cost of from $50 to $100 million. The one that I’m anxiously awaiting is their drought resistant one that is going to revolutionize where crops are grown and at a major economy for irrigation water.

One of the most interesting comments made was that China is Monsanto’s biggest competitor, rather than other seed companies like Syngenta or Pioneer (DuPont). That competition is government based and concerns them a great deal.

As to higher commodity (and food) prices, Monsanto’s take is that it is demand led from China and India and not from energy (ethanol), “China is adding the equivalent to the entire population of Germany to its middle class each year.”

It is a fun time to be in agriculture. Hopefully, this rally will last for many years into the future.