America's small towns are doing really big things. They're bypassing traditional methods and finding innovative ways to revitalize. And by and large, they're doing so under the radar of the national media. (James Fallows and Deborah Fallows chronicle many examples of this national trend in their bestseller Our Towns.)
One of the most crucial hidden truths about the community comeback is who's driving it: civic-minded entrepreneurs and private citizens of every stripe.
We the people have decided revitalization is our job. We're taking matters into our own hands. We're asking, How can we make our community the best it can be? How can we reinvent ourselves, attract the right kinds of business, and transform into a great place to work, live, and play?
This mindset has kicked in everywhere: big cities, small towns, communities of every shape and size. No wonder. The chaos and uncertainty of the past few decades have made us crave personal connections with our friends and family. We want our children and grandchildren nearby (with good jobs to keep them there). 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 when they use tactics that are proven to work and when they stick with it over the long haul—it will happen.
Pensacola is a case in point. More than a decade ago, when its revitalization process began, it was feeling the aftermath of several decades of economic decline. There was a huge talent drain, and young people left for better opportunities. Downtown was dotted with many vacant buildings.
Today, much has changed. Downtown is thriving. New businesses are popping up everywhere. More downtown construction is taking place than at any time in modern history. There's a new baseball stadium on the waterfront, and since 2012, the Double-A team the Blue Wahoos have drawn more than 300,000 fans per year to Pensacola. The city is winning awards and showing up in national magazines.
Best of all, property values are soaring: In the past five years, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) went from an assessed property value of $675 million to $850 million, which equates to 25.9 percent growth. Finally, there are projects worth $100 million being built right now that don't even count toward this total.
Pensacola is hardly alone. 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. There's just no other path for long-term job creation and a strong, sustainable tax base. It's important for a community to know where its revenue comes from and, more importantly, know what isn't generating revenue. For example, don't build a beautiful bike path unless you are confident that it's part of a plan that will ultimately spark economic growth.
They're changing the conversation on who drives revitalization. It's important to get citizens engaged in change. They (not government) have to lead the way. Leaders are getting people talking about and looking at the community in a new way. How can we develop and sustain communities that serve all of us and satisfy our human desire to be connected, all without putting unfair liabilities on future generations?
They're getting smart about the psychology of change. It's only human to resist change, even when we know we need it. Someone is going to object to even the best-laid, most well-thought-out plans. That's why leaders go into change initiatives expecting barriers and crafting plans to deal with them. The whole community will never get behind anything, so don't waste energy on trying to convince the unconvinceable.
They're connecting change initiatives to what citizens care about most. For example, it's important not just to throw data at people, but rather to find a "burning platform" that speaks to their emotions.
People make decisions with their hearts, not minds. You have to connect to something they care about. In Pensacola our burning platform was: What can we do to keep our children and grandchildren from leaving town? Once we framed the issues that way, we were able to get momentum behind the change.
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, to identify areas that need improvement, and to gauge progress over time. They need to see all of them together and updated regularly. Think of how the dashboard of a car shows gas, oil, engine performance, temperature, and so forth. It's a way to constantly be asking, How is our community doing on areas that are important to us? Wages? Crime? Education? High school dropout rate?
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. Young people, in particular, want to live, work, and play in the same area. When you start by revitalizing your downtown, it gets people activated and sparks growth in the rest of the community.
They're making education a priority. A strong education system creates a strong talent base and appeals to investors. That's why leaders are doing everything they can to improve theirs.
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. So we started a pilot program with local hospitals to work with new mothers. Now we are on track to become America's first Early Learning City.
They're keeping inclusion top of mind. This improves buy-in and gets everyone engaged, which is necessary to create vibrancy. Smart leaders make sure people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ages, and economic levels are part of the decision-making process and that minorities get a piece of the economic action. Pensacola used a Covenant for the Community to guarantee that contractors would use local minorities in the revitalization of downtown.
Get creative in your efforts to incubate minority-owned small businesses. For instance, you can provide affordable office space, create leases that move up and down based on revenue, and offer business coaching.
They're getting aggressive about attracting investors. Local, organic investment is great. Leaders do everything they can to find, engage, and attract investors who already live in or have ties to the community. But they also know they need to attract external investors. This is both a science and an art. The "science" part is the dashboard, because it gives investors the metrics they need to know. The "art" part is the compelling story you build around that data: Does your community have a high graduation rate? Are there a lot of Millennials? Is the cost of living affordable? Focus on these selling points.
They're managing incentives more thoughtfully. Incentives to attract big businesses tend to be overused. Sometimes they're a good idea. Sometimes they're not. It's crucial for leaders to carefully evaluate these deals before deciding, handle them with transparency and fairness, and insist on clearly defined success metrics. And remember: The best strategy is to create such a dynamic, business-friendly community that incentives won't be necessary. Businesses will want to come anyway.
They're partnering with government the right way. More and more, leaders are realizing they shouldn't depend on local government to drive growth. They likely don't have the budget, nor are elected officials likely to be around to see long-term development projects through. Private investment must lead the way. Government is a wonderful partner and wants the same outcomes citizens do. Elected officials can focus on keeping the community clean and safe, being consistent and fair with guidelines and zoning rules, and enforcing codes.
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. His advice to leaders is to seek citizen feedback on everything. Communicate relentlessly. Connect back to the why behind what you're doing and how it affects them. Once citizens are galvanized, they will turn out, take action, make their voices heard, and applaud leaders for making the community better.
They're galvanizing their small business communities in ways that go beyond "business-friendliness." Community leaders are starting to realize it's not just about starting businesses, but about keeping them growing. Entrepreneurs rarely start out with a strong grasp of basic business skills. This is why Pensacola holds monthly training and development workshops, small business "roundtables," and even an annual business conference (EntreCon).
Once you galvanize the army of citizens who are business owners, they'll be your catalysts for change and your sustainers. They'll keep your growth on track.
They're leveraging small successes to keep the momentum going. Great leaders never declare victory. The work of creating a vibrant community is never done. Use each success to grow more enthusiasm and grow the project base. Once you start having success, everyone starts feeling good about the community, and it becomes easy to keep the less successful projects from bringing down momentum. Community pride has a huge multiplier effect.
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. When individuals come together with a common goal, it creates a synergy that's unstoppable. This is how we'll change America for the better—one community at a time. iBi
Quint Studer is author of Building a Vibrant Community and founder of Pensacola's Studer Community Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the community's quality of life and moving Escambia and Santa Rosa counties forward. For more information, visit vibrantcommunityblueprint.com and studeri.org.