By Quint Studer
America’s small towns are doing big things. They’re bypassing traditional methods and finding innovative ways to revitalize. And this “community comeback” is being driven by civic-minded entrepreneurs and private citizens of every stripe.
The chaos and uncertainty of the past few decades have made us crave personal connections. We want good jobs so our children and grandchildren will stay nearby. And we want lively downtowns with great restaurants, funky stores, cool living spaces, and plenty of fun things to do.
Even deeply struggling communities can turn themselves around. It won’t happen overnight. But when leaders take a strategic, intentional approach and stick with it—using tactics that are proven to work—it will happen.
Pensacola is a case in point. More than ten years ago, when its revitalization process began, it was feeling the aftermath of decades of economic decline. There was a huge talent drain, and young people left for better opportunities. Vacant buildings dotted downtown.
Today, much has changed. In the last five years assessed property values have increased 34% and investment in downtown has increased 67%. And the city is winning awards and showing up in national magazines.
Just this year Pensacola was named “World’s Strongest Town” by nonprofit organization Strong Towns. We were number 15 on U.S. News and World Report’s “Most Desirable Places to Live in the US” list. We were 17 on Go.Verizon.com’s “best small city to start a small business” by Go.Verizon.com. And back in 2013, American Planning Association named Palafox Street one of “10 Great Streets in America.”
Similar stories are being played out everywhere. Here are a few strategies community leaders are embracing as they work to create vibrancy:
They’re tying their plans to economic growth. It’s important for a community to know where its revenue comes from and, more importantly, know what isn’t generating revenue.
They’re changing the conversation on who drives revitalization. It’s important to get citizens engaged in change.
They’re getting smart about the psychology of change. It’s only human to resist change, even when we know we need it.
They’re connecting change initiatives to what citizens care about most. It’s important not just to throw data at people, but rather to find a “burning platform” that speaks to their emotions.
They’re using community dashboards to keep critical metrics front and center. Just like a company, a community needs objective metrics to know how healthy they are.
They’re rebuilding their downtowns. To attract businesses and talent to a community, it must have a walkable, livable, vibrant downtown with lots of great restaurants, shops, fun activities, and trendy residential areas.
They’re making education a priority. In 2014 Pensacola had a 66 percent graduation rate and also a 66 percent kindergarten readiness rate. We connected the dots and realized if we focused on early brain development, we could impact graduation rates long-term.
They’re getting aggressive about attracting investors. This is both a science and an art.
They’re going to extraordinary lengths to engage citizens. The more successful leaders are at doing this, the more engaged the community becomes, and the more likely it is to meet its goals.
They’re galvanizing their small business communities in ways that go beyond “business-friendliness.” It’s not just about starting businesses, but about keeping them growing.
They’re leveraging small successes to keep the momentum going. Great leaders never declare victory. They use each success to grow more enthusiasm and grow the project base.
Creating a vibrant community is a journey. It’s not easy. But once you can get some wins under your belt, and get citizens behind you, you’ll start to see what is possible. That’s when the magic happens. That’s how we’ll change America for the better—one community at a time.
Quint Studer is author of Building a Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America. He currently serves as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of West Florida. Quint will be speaking at the Transforming Communities Through New Urbanism Symposium on September 16th.