Stop on in and set a spell! / by Annette Tait

It’s that time of year again -- time to put on our tourist glasses and take a good hard look at where we live. What are the best things about your rural town? And what do you wish would just disappear? Like mama always used to tell us, put your best foot forward!

One of our nearby cities -- Washburn, N.D. -- is doing just that with “Marketing Hometown America.” It’s a community vitality process developed by three research universities -- North Dakota State University, South Dakota State University, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln -- that serve states full of small, and often struggling, rural towns.

Photo panels and selfie stations are low-cost, effective, and fun ways to keep visitors’ memories alive long after their road trips are over.

Photo panels and selfie stations are low-cost, effective, and fun ways to keep visitors’ memories alive long after their road trips are over.

Everyone’s invited to take part in a step-by-step look into the pretty, the not-so-hot, and the downright ugly, then explores how what we have can be used to help us become what we want to be. And, going a bit further than the norm, it involves our children -- our future -- seeking to learn what they value and what they want their town to be.

Participating in the discussions and hearing what people had to say whet our appetites. We’re readers and researchers -- we love to learn about ways to help bring life into our small towns and rural areas, both in the long and the short run. And what we love even more is to make it happen.

We won’t lie. The process Washburn is taking won’t create change overnight. But, like a nutritionally sound diet and exercise program makes long-term weight loss and maintenance possible, well-planned and methodically executed strategies will bring lasting benefits. The proof can be seen in Neligh, a community of 1,542 in northeast Nebraska, and Kimball, population 2,425 in western Nebraska, two cities that piloted the program in 2013-2014.

But what about now? We need to get the ball rolling!

If you’re looking to pick some low-hanging fruit, one of our favorites is the Kansas Sampler. Look at eight rural cultural elements -- architecture, art, commerce (we like to call this “shopping”), cuisine, customs (aka traditions), geography, history, and people, then use what you’ve got to generate interest and encourage travelers to stop and stay a while.

Every town has at least a few of the Kansas Eight, and they don’t have to be huge, knock-your-socks off attractions -- just something people will remember with a smile.

Where else would you go for “the best food in town” than to Mom’s? Signs don’t have to be fancy -- but they do have to be easy to see and read!

Where else would you go for “the best food in town” than to Mom’s? Signs don’t have to be fancy -- but they do have to be easy to see and read!

Here are a few of our favorites, just to get you started. Any roadside kitsch at all -- painted “photo op” panels with holes for faces, funky statues, and commemorative markers; street fairs and vendors selling local produce, food, and hand-crafted items; hole-in-the-wall museums with local history on display; outdoor music and jam sessions; festivals and fairs; and places to sit down, have a snack, and take a well-deserved break from being on the road.

The key is making sure people “who aren’t from here” can find your hidden gems. Post signs -- with BIG letters -- far enough before the stop or turn so you don’t get passed up. It doesn’t matter how pretty the sign is up close, if people can’t see and read it at a distance, they won’t know to stop.

Then put on your best welcome face, and let visitors know you’re glad they stopped. Help them make great road trip memories they’ll want to return to in the future, and tell their friends and neighbors about.