Small town growth and vitality

Boothbay Harbor: One of Maine’s 10 prettiest villages.

Last week I gave a talk on community branding. My presentation touched on economic growth and vitality in small town Maine, and I also managed to wax semi-poetic (coherent?) on workforce development, something I’ve acquired a fairly extensive knowledge base about. More than mere knowledge, I have developed initiatives and programming that have been successful.

Whenever I give a talk, whether it’s to a large group, or a really small one, like the one last week, I put my heart and soul into it and I always over-prepare. If you give enough talks and constantly work at preparing, before you know it, you’ll have acquired a bit of knowledge and wherewithal about what works and what doesn’t.  For instance, partnership and collaboration works; hiding what you know under your hat doesn’t.

I also read, ruminate, and as a result, I’m very comfortable with what I know and confident in what I have to say. I also regularly check what I know against other available information and sources.

It frustrates me when I run up against people, like one of the individuals at last week’s presentation who thought he knew more than he actually did about most of what I was talking about. Merely owning a bunch of businesses doesn’t make you an expert in everything—it just means you know how to run a business and perhaps, you are a risk-taker.

Granted, business leaders have always been afforded a certain place of prominence by business boosters, like the Chambers of Commerce, Rotary, and other civic organizations. Being able to manage a bottom line, and minimize labor costs carries a great deal of cred with some.

Here’s the thing; there are good businessmen and there are bad businessmen. There are ethical business leaders, and then, there are those schmucks that seek to screw everyone who crosses their path. Being in business doesn’t mean you get a free pass from scrutiny.

In the case of my “friend” from last week, he thought he knew more than he did merely because of his own personal experiences and he wasn’t open to any new ideas, especially not from me and especially not once he found out I used to work for one of Maine’s four workforce investment boards. Oh, I forgot to tell you he sits on the new Statewide Workforce Investment Board and has accepted the LePage administration’s blather, propaganda and misinformation about the work that these four organizations have done, hook, line, and sinker.

Before I turn this post into a screed about ass-clowns, I’m going to step away from personal opinions and move back towards my initial topic, economic growth and vitality.

I’m convinced that small towns are best-served by embracing a different kind of approach to economic growth than the kind that’s been practiced in Maine and elsewhere for the past fifty years. All the talk about “job creators” by Republicans is just a subterfuge for rolling back regulation, cutting taxes, and carrying out more of the same old neoliberal (or trickle-down) policies of the past 30 years that have hollowed out America’s middle class. And relying on TIFs and business parks are approaches that belong in a museum.

To be successful, towns need to take an accurate snapshot of their assets and advantages. I’d also go a step further and say that for a community to have some long-term success in becoming a worthwhile place where growth is going to occur and be sustained, they need to figure out who they are, where they want to be in 5, 10, or 15 years down the road, and begin moving in that direction. It also helps if you can create an environment and town culture where the naysayers are mitigated, which isn’t always easy to do.

There are a bunch of marketers that will sell you all kinds of branding plans and schemes that give you a nice website and a presence on Facebook, but having a sense of your cultural identity is just as important.

Beyond that there are some great ideas that I’ve found from people like Michael Porter, Jack Schultz, and others. Those communities with commitments to real growth and economic self-sufficiency will embrace these ideas and some other time-tested ones and become places that survive and even thrive in the new economy.

On the topic of ideas, Ben Hewitt’s coming to town on Thursday night. Actually, he’s not coming to my town, but to the neighboring town of Brunswick.  I’m anxious to hear him talk and hear some of his insights beyond The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food, although if all he talks about is the concept of local food its role in rural economic development, I’ll be fine.

Hewitt’s ideas and his worldview is one that I can get my head around. There are others in Maine that appreciates the vision of someone like Hewitt and it will be good to gather with them on Thursday night at Bowdoin College.

One thought on “Small town growth and vitality

  1. You are especially right that there are many marketers who will sell schemes and plans for success; alas, there is still no silver bullet for sustained long term small town vitality short of a town knowing what they’re good at and what they’re not good at. In my experience, a small army of passionate, organized volunteers trumps the vanilla scheme any day.

    Thank you for reminding me (for the 10th time) that I haven’t read Ben Hewitt’s book yet. I ordered it yesterday at indie River Run Books in Portsmouth and I can’t wait for it to arrive.

Comments are closed.