Friday, February 26, 2010

Rural Rules Of Attraction

From shrinking cities to rural outposts, the going is tough. Redeveloping these forsaken places is a tremendous challenge requiring the intrinsic motivation one finds in any successful entrepreneur. Reimagine Rural is a blog equal to the task and today's post offers a few stories of inspiration for small town innovation:

[Sheena Lindahl] described herself as an average high school student who always wanted to go to New York City, despite being afraid of it. Facing her fears (a common theme throughout the day), Sheena enrolled at New York University and hopped on the bus for NYC - even though she didn’t have the money to pay for the semester. Through determination and hard work, she consistently overcame every obstacle put in her path. Today she’s a Gen Y entrepreneur rock star. She’s definitely someone every young person in the audience can aspire to become.

While a symbol herself, what struck me most about her presentation was how NYC served as the symbol that inspired her. She was going to “make it” in New York City, and that thought drove her.

Although unintentional, I’m afraid that young people in the audience may also interpreted NYC as a symbol for success. In other words, they have to go off to the big city to achieve their dreams of entrepreneurial success. Maybe that’s just my interpretation, and I know Sheena didn’t intend it. But as a rural community fanatic, I worry about the constant messaging that preaches this idea.

I think Mike Knutson (the brains behind Reimagine Rural) overlooks the essence of Lindahl's archetypal story. Moving somewhere, not just NYC, to "make it" is fundamentally an entrepreneurial act. It's not the people born and raised in the Big Apple who make it great. It's the people who run through brick walls to get there and stick.

If you want entrepreneurship in your community, then you need more in-migration. Retention is all about making it easier to stay, lowering the barrier. Lindahl would do anything to move to New York. You don't often see the same determination to remain in your hometown. On the contrary, there tends to be a sense of entitlement. I Will Stay If ...

The mantra should be, "I will move there regardless." How many people are moving to your neck of the woods without a job in hand? There are rural outposts that fit that description. They are few and far between, but do exist.

Sticking around is a form of inertia. Ironically, the Rust Belt is home to some of the most inert populations in the entire United States. It's also a source of this country's most dynamic talent. People stopped coming to the Midwest to make it big. That's the biggest reason for the mega-region's dramatic decline.


Unknown said...

Nicely put. You raise much good advice in your post. I especially agree with your statement that communities need immigration (foreign and domestic) as a means of developing entrepreneurial economies.

I would, however, disagree that “retention is all about making it easier to stay, lowering the barrier.” To me, retention and attraction are both about making our communities places where people want to live; places, as you put it, where people want to move regardless of whether they have a job or not. Sadly, I know the “rural outposts” meeting that definition are few and far between. That’s partly why it’s an area of community development where we seek to work.

For me entrepreneurship is about recognizing opportunities and taking advantage of them. We need to lift up examples of entrepreneurs who are successful in rural communities as means of helping people (especially young people) recognize that opportunities do exist here. And I do worry that too much emphasis is placed on having to “make it” somewhere else. Based on what I heard from the panel of young entrepreneurs (mentioned in my original post) who were making it in small towns, I think they would agree.

And that is largely the point I wanted to make. NYC shouldn’t be any more the symbol for success than small towns. We’ve got a responsibility for transforming our communities into places where young people want to live. And then we need to lift up the stories of young people who do succeed, so that future generations are better prepared to recognize the opportunities that exist here. I don’t think the first become successful without the second.

Again, thanks for your comments. I stop by our blog periodically because you’ve got good stuff to share.

Jim Russell said...


Thanks for stopping by and offering your thoughts on my post. I greatly appreciate it.

Concerning my perspective on retention, I have numerous initiatives in mind. I agree that an attractive place can have benefits on both ends of migration. But I'm still searching for a good example of place-making policy that results in better rates of retention. In fact, many prototypical "livable communities" have relatively high out-migration rates. Communities where people want to live suffer from brain drain.

I've seen this firsthand along the Front Range of Colorado. I've also resided in a number of boomtowns and cool cities. Natives don't appreciate the deluge of outsiders. Many leave because they think their hometown is being destroyed. Others leave because that's a fact of life anywhere in the United States.

That said, we seem to agree on promoting small towns as a place where enterprising adults can "make it". What's lacking, in my opinion, is an effective attraction strategy.

Cat said...

In all the retention/attraction initiatives I've seen (and I'm fairly new to this conversation, and not employed or educated in the field at all), the emphasis is changing the town to make it more attractive. Bike lanes, breweries, arts councils, historic preservation are all really cool. But they make you pretty much like everyone else.

What I don't see is much discussion/celebration of what these towns already are. Every town has its odd culture or stories. To me, those are the things that make it extra cool and should be played up.

You lived on the Front Range, right? Remember the moth blooms? Why didn't we have traditions/art/tongue-in-cheek celebrations around that? Remember the Swetsville Zoo? Why didn't the whole state go apoplectic when Wal-Mart went in across the street and pretty much put an end to it?

I think you need the renewal, for sure. But I'm hoping the key to success also includes keeping a strong sense of cultural identity for these communities.

Jim Russell said...


The authenticity of place is central to the brain drain concern. Read "Hollowing Out the Middle". The issue isn't really population decline so much as it is reclaiming the glory years. No doubt, the in-migration of outsiders threatens the soul of the community.

I live in Longmont, a city struggling to reconcile its past (agriculture) and future (clean tech). For now, there is an interesting balance. There remains significant pockets of indigenous character, but it won't last. Something unique will emerge, but the natives don't much care for the change.

I find the tension fascinating. Some Pittsburgh context:

Cat said...

Hi Jim,

Thanks for the pointer to Hollowing out the Middle. I'll go look.

"Authenticity" is a trick word. It's hard to explicate. And you're right, the indigenous don't have a chance of lasting in Longmont. Up until I left Fort Collins 2 weeks ago, I was driving through there every day on my commute to Boulder.

But how sure are you that a unique culture will spring from the change? To me, everyone is following the same bicycles/breweries formula and will all end up with the same brick brewpubs and "Ignite" nights whether you're in Pittsburgh, Portland, or Boulder.

A "me too" strategy for development ensures you're always following New York and Los Angeles. That's why I think the things Michael is exploring are so worthwhile.

Jim Russell said...


Some people like the cookie cutter built environment. Some don't. For the record, count me among the don't crowd. My point is that places are always changing. It is a hallmark of vitality.

To employ some hyperbole: If you want to preserve your town, then stop educating your kids. The places stuck in time have low educational attainment and moribund economies.

We can save the geographic Heartland, but we can't save the cultural Heartland. The same goes for the Front Range of Colorado. SW Nebraska is undergoing a dramatic transformation. Those towns and small cities will never be the same.

The history of these communities is one of immigration. The lack of in-migration is an aberration. Concerns about Vietnamese in Garden City, KS is no different than the concern about the Japanese in Longmont a century ago. Today it is Latinos. No one seems to mind the cricket pitch on 21st street where the South Asians play. Ironically, the Latinos have much more in common with "Real Longmont" than the Pakis do.

Just as newcomers change Longmont, so will all that history change the newcomers. It is a two-way street. Even the breweries and bikepaths take on a distinctive meaning here.

Cat said...

Interesting points. I'd agree with all of them, based on my experience. Thanks for the attention, Jim!