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Viability of modern small town life

Dec 31, 2010 6:04 am
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="200" caption="An historic street scene from Greenville, NY, culled from the faux=community sites at Epodunk.com."][/caption]Hats off, this final day of the year, to The Watershed Post for hooking us up with the Daily Yonder, a blog about rural issues, and its recent publication of an interview with three experts on small towns: Bart Finzel, Jane Leonard, and Dave Engstrom -- all based in Minnesota, and brought together by the Center for Small Towns, but striking chords in the WGXC community by addressing small towns' odds for survival and even transcendence these days. This is the sort of discussion we need more of here, in place of the constant bickering about things taking place in capital cities elsewhere. On small town/city viability:
Engstrom: The common thread of the most vibrant and vital small cities I know is a common vision of the future and to preserve the past.

Leonard: Viability also depends on the can-do spirit of the people. A town considered very small—under 500, for example—could be a vibrant regional center if it is in a very rural area with even smaller towns or hamlets around it and has some essential places and services—a post office, church, community center, food, gas and hardware.
On the forces that threaten small towns:
Engstrom: From my observation, the biggest systemic threat is related to population decline, and specifically among younger age groups. As the population in small cities declines and grows older, there is less consumer activity, causing a decline in retail business. Also, school districts with fewer students fuel the local economy less. It’s a vicious cycle once it starts. The decline in retail and business activity leads to a glut of Main Street retail buildings, which drives down property values and eventually leads to a decreased tax base.
On what helps a small town survive:

Leonard: How young people are regarded by a community is key. If enough people hold a mindset that young people don’t have a future in their small town and that belief is instilled from an early age, then the town is on a downward spiral. If kids are embraced, supported and encouraged to be a part of the community’s present and future, then that community is investing in its own future.

On the surprising disconnect between rural and urban places:

Finzel: As a professor in a small town, I find it remarkable to witness students with urban sensibilities truly connect with the realities of rural places. Some students are empowered by the connection. Others go home. Students from urban areas take 24-hour shopping, a Walmart or Target, a cinema multiplex and a variety of dining opportunities for granted. Moreover, as their family ties to rural areas have lessened with each generation, their knowledge of small places and their ability to imagine a life without urban amenities have diminished. After a time, urban students who stick it out find that those in small towns make the most of their limited menu of options: friends cook for one another and create their own entertainment; problems are solved by coming together, rather than making a phone call to a service provider; goods and services are provided by local sole proprietors, barter or not at all. Students learn that nothing can be taken for granted in a small community. Doing for oneself and one’s community is necessary. A sense of shared responsibility is cultivated.

Finzel: I do not necessarily agree that the migration away from small towns is entirely the result of market forces. Although small-town decline is partially the result of limited opportunities, farm programs added to population loss by supporting a limited number of commodities and contributing to larger farms, fewer farmers and less-viable small towns. Other structural issues, such as health insurance being far more expensive for small firms than for large firms, have also contributed to out-migration.

Regarding small-town support, providing assistance to the relatively small economic entities that are the backbone of small towns—rural hospitals, micro enterprise, community banks, cooperatives, small farms benefiting from the local food movement—will be most successful. Regulatory reform and subsidies directed at very small firms in the federal health care reform bill should also enable small firms—and small towns—to retain talented employees who might have migrated to larger firms with a better health insurance plan.

On The outside forces that help small towns survive, currently endangered in New York state and elsewhere:

Engstrom: If we are going to preserve small towns as a way of life, there is an absolute need for some sort of property tax equalization to provide assistance to communities in need. So the loss of state aid payments, such as Local Government Aid, for small cities is a huge problem. Some communities have a very poor tax base, and paying for services like police protection would require a much higher-than-average tax levy [if LGA were cut]. Some small cities do not receive LGA because their tax base or tax capacity is very high—like those in the lakes region with high-end homes.

Leonard: Local leadership is a necessity for long-term survivability, but external resources and external leadership matter a great deal. These days, we face a crisis in confidence in ourselves. We justify decreasing state aid as a way to hunker down until the storm passes. But hunkering down doesn’t work when we are going through dramatic, long-term transformations that require proactive leadership and resource investments coordinated across local, state and national levels.

We made a pledge when this nation was founded out of 13 colonies: e pluribus unum—“out of many, one.” In practice, at national and state levels, it means we strive to contribute equitably to the commonwealth to ensure reliable and consistent levels of basic services and infrastructure across our states and nation. This “commonwealth” is the base upon which further community and economic development can happen.

On whether small towns will ever be popular places to live again in this country.

Finzel: Small towns that exist because they provide essential services are, I suspect, unlikely to make a comeback because major services will continue to migrate to regional centers. But small towns that are built on a set of shared beliefs or aspirations, be it a desire for sustainable communities or the chance to fully engage in all aspects of a community, will be attractive in the future. This depends critically on leaders gathering residents together to articulate a shared vision. It will also depend on whether the town welcomes newcomers, creates opportunities for retirees to return and fosters a degree of promise in the future.

The advantages of small-town life—the cheap and abundant housing stock, the community’s role in child rearing, the relative security of knowing your neighbors, the opportunities for self determination and self-expression—will continue to be attractive to some. My thinking is that we are near bottom in terms of out-migration from small communities.