The rise and fall of rural communities: Just one of many reasons how and why
A good friend recently forwarded this article to Katy: “The secret to keeping some rural businesses alive” by Chris Farrell (Forbes) with the note, ‘It sounds like you!’
After reading it, we decided it does sound much like things we talk about. And we have a few more thoughts add on keeping small/rural businesses alive.
Picture this: Somebody wants to purchase Bob the Builder’s business. That somebody has ideas. New ideas. Fresh ideas. Ideas to bring in more sales consistently. Ideas that build on the existing business.
Now for the zinger (which, sad to say, we’ve witnessed first-hand more than once): The good town folks get wind of this and start vociferously voicing their opinions on said -- gasp! -- changes. Everything from “You CAN’T change thaaaaaat XYZ….” “It’s ALWAYS been like XYZ,” and “It will NEVER workif you change XYZ.”
How do “they” KNOW? Are they experts? Or are they simply resistant to change, because they’re comfortable with what they have?
By saying making these negative comments, they imply -- whether they mean to or not -- that they won’t support the new business. Not monetarily, and not in spirit.
That is daunting to say the least.
This scene has been played out many times in small and rural communities, as well as in big cities, usually with the same result. The buyer who was so excited to have a business in YOUR town backs out and takes their dreams somewhere else. If they don’t take them somewhere else, they simply give up.
Either way the community loses.
The reality is that, especially in a small town, when that one buyer who came forward decides against the venture, odds are good that building -- which could have continued as a viable business and contributor to the community -- will instead become an empty shell.
The longer it stands empty, the greater likelihood the building will fall into disrepair, discouraging other potential buyers. Plus, other folks who may have considered starting or buying a business see the town won’t support change, and they decide to look elsewhere as well.
And poor Bob the Builder gets unconsciously guilted into delaying well-deserved retirement
But what if those changes had been embraced? What a completely different ending the story has. Now, not only does Bob the Builder get to retire, but he is happy knowing his legacy is still alive. The townfolks are excited to still have tools, and even have opportunities for hands-on “how to” sessions, a wider selection, and/or even a new line of hobby or other equipment and supplies.
Or maybe Bob’s building gets completely transformed into a new type of business the community never even knew it wanted until it was open? Maybe Bob’s becomes Zane the Zebra Tamer and offers all sorts of fun and fanciful items or activities. It could even bring people in from outside the area, and boost the economy.
By embracing change in our rural communities, we foster entrepreneurial spirit, grow the tax base, set an example for others, and attract new families. That’s just a partial list of positive things!
But most important of all, we build community.
~Katy & Annette~
One is a tiny number, right? Like when we hear fire claimed “only one” structure in our county last year, or that “just one” person had to be extricated from a car wreck. In those terms, things don’t sound all that bad.
But what if it was YOUR structure that burned to the ground, or YOUR loved one who was trapped in a vehicle?
Recently, a local family was “the one.” They woke to discover their greenhouse – which contributes a significant part of their livelihood – was on fire. If that wasn’t enough, the building also housed an equipment shed and working mechanic shop, including welding gases, and there were fuel tanks along an outside wall.
Our local volunteer fire department turned out in force, working from a safe distance to protect a calving barn and three homes that are on the property. The welding gases and fuel tanks made it too dangerous to get anywhere near the burning building.
Even though the greenhouse was a total loss, a family member told us, “If the firefighters hadn’t been there, it all would have burned.” They could have lost everything.
Emergency services aren’t something we should take for granted, but we do. When we call 911, we expect whoever is needed to show up and take care of our problem.
But what if they didn’t? What if the firefighters HADN’T been there to protect what was left of this family’s operation, not to mention their homes?
Last year, rural firefighters from across North America came together to talk about how hard it is to keep their doors open. In “larger” rural communities, those with 5,000-9,999 people, almost 45 percent of fire departments are all volunteer. That percentage goes up to 74 percent in communities with 2,500-4,999 people, and in tiny counties like ours, with populations less than 2,500, nearly 93 percent of fire departments rely fully on volunteers.
Just because there are fewer people in rural communities doesn’t mean there are fewer fires. When people are more spread out, the proportion actually rises. In big cities, where there are a million or more people, there are only 3.1 fires per 1,000 people, with a national average of 4.5. Which means something has to bring that national average up.
That something is those of us who live rural: there are 10.8 – yes, more than double the national average -- fires per 1,000 people in communities that have fewer than 2,500 people. Is that an eye-opener, or what?
The next question is, how are we going to keep the doors open at our rural fire departments, to make sure there’s a crew there to answer the call? Rural fire volunteers are aging – 42 percent have been with their departments for more than 10 years, and many a lot longer than that. And fewer people are stepping up to fill their shoes.
We get it. It’s hard to work full time, raise a family, take care of a house and yard, and try to get in some downtime when we can.
But if we don’t – if YOU don’t – who will?
Put away the “why nots” and consider the reasons “why to.” Volunteer fire departments need all kinds of volunteers – they need firefighters, drivers, and people to haul water, direct traffic over the radio, feed crews on fire lines, and help with all the details that keep the department running. And most departments provide all the needed training and equipment.
How healthy is your local volunteer fire department? What do they need? And how will you say “yes”?
We love seeking out little cafés when we travel. You know the kind – where locals meet for breakfast, grab a meal with family, or hang out with the coffee crew. Where we get more than a meal -- we get a sense of the place we’re visiting, and the people who live there.
We’re always surprised when people say they want to “see new places and try new things,” but still insist on stopping at the first major chain restaurant they see near an exit. By barely leaving the highway, they miss opportunities to get a feel for the community, and maybe find a few of its hidden treasures before getting back on the road.
That’s why we stop at the places locals gather. Where, by simply smiling at someone or saying “hello,” we can start a conversation that often spreads to include everyone in the room.
In just a few minutes, we find out what’s going on in and around town, learn snippets of local history, and get directions to more than the usual sights – like some of those little gems the locals take for granted. We can find out who’s who, how the crops are, and hear about the guy who restored a muscle car or tractor, all in a good-natured stream of back-and-forth chatter between patrons and employees alike. We get a sense of place. We also get that not everyone’s willing to start talking to people they don’t know. And that’s OK. But think about it. You’re already talking with the waitress – or gas station clerk, or whoever -- anyway. Why not get the scoop on fun stuff to do while you’re at it?
All it takes is a quick question: “What’s going on around here today?”
“Not sure,” they might say, turning to a guy nearby. “Hey, Bob! These folks are looking for something to do – any suggestions?”
BOOM! Conversation started.
It’s the same when we move into a new community -- one of the first things we do is look for somewhere to eat. Somewhere we feel comfortable and the food is good. Somewhere we’re assured of a welcome and camaraderie. A place we can meet our neighbors and become a part of the “family.” Our own personal “Cheers,” even if everybody doesn’t know our names. Yet.
And we’re not alone – there are plenty of folks just like us. Are you ready?
When folks you don’t know walk through the door, remember the value of strangers – a value that may go beyond the price of their meal or their fuel. While some are vacationers, others are looking to relocate or may be traveling through on business. And, unless they say so, you don’t know who’s just passing through, and who might be considering moving in and boosting the local economy.
No matter the reason, they chose to stop and meet you. Your town. Your corner. Your place. They, too, want to feel that sense of community.
It’s a universal feeling. It’s found in small cafés, major chains, corner bistros, and the coffee groups at gas station C-stores. In cities large and small, and everything in between.
We – employees and locals alike – need to be welcoming and friendly. After all, every last one of us represents our local cafés, businesses, and the places we live. Who cares if the unsuspecting visitor sat in your regular spot? Return the smile with one of your own, and say “hey – how’s it going?”
Don’t be the reason they leave forever. Be the reason they come back to visit, or maybe even to stay.
~Katy & Annette~
We love coffee as much as the next guy, but having a Starbucks – or any other nationally recognized franchise -- doesn’t put a town on the map. Some of the best places we know of aren’t much more than wide spots on two-lane roads.
Take Regan, N.D., (pop. 44, plus or minus). Most people driving through this little town miss its many treasures, even though they’re “hidden in plain sight.”
We have to admit that, on first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much to see. But a closer look shows a historic main street, one of the last remaining 2-room stone jails in the state, an event center, a commercial-grade kitchen, manufacturing, and an American Legion Post.
See over there? That’s the old county shop, now the home of JI Fabrication & Welding. JI has two full-time employees, manufactures continuous fence, cattle panels, windbreaks and more, and offers a full array of welding services.
And the historic main street? It could easily be a movie set. The Stonewall has a long and interesting history, from its start as Regan State Bank to becoming a watering hole in the 1970s, with folks coming from all over to wet their whistles. Ask the “old timers”-- they have stories!
The little all-rock building used to belong to Bell Telephone, better known as “Ma Bell.” Any of y’all old enough to remember Ma Bell? We sure do. Back then it was a pretty big deal to go to in to the store and order – yes, order, not buy-and-take-home -- a brand-new telephone.
Regan even has an event center that can be rented for dances, reunions, and other special occasions. The cost is nominal, and it has an upstairs and also a full gym. A full-scale commercial kitchen is available for use, as well as the “new” (grade) school – that gives folks not just one, but two facilities to choose from.
There’s plenty to do for the little ones, too. There’s a fabulous playground and park for the kiddies, with “old school” toys, and a picnic shelter, to boot.
And last but not least, Regan boasts one of the few stone jails left in the state. You can walk right in and sit in a cell and take your picture -- a little taste of history complete with tourism and photo opportunities.
Bonus: Regan has high-speed internet AND a rural water system, too! And, a coffee pot that is always on. It may not be Starbucks, but the company can’t be beat. It’s part of small-town life – no matter who you drop in on, there’ll always be an offer of coffee and conversation.
There’s no denying that Regan may look like a ghost town –by most standards, it practically is – but it still has possibilities.
That’s what we see when we drive through Regan: the possibilities. We see a place for young families and retirees alike to enjoy a quality of life you just don’t find in the suburbs. We see possibilities for a bakery and/or other business endeavors using the commercial kitchen. We see “big city” executives using the event center for day-long retreats, in a setting you just can’t duplicate elsewhere. We see creative space for artists and photographers and … well, you get the picture.
Take a look around your own rural town. And slow down and take a closer look when you pass by that “wide spot in the road” as you drive through.
Peel back the layers. There’s so much more to be found than initially meets the eye.
It’s officially tourist season -- time to put on our “ready for company” faces and get ready for visitors!
Every rural community has at least eight things that, with a little bit of creativity, can tempt travelers to stop and spend some time – and some money – in your town. You may not have all eight, but we’re willing to bet you’ve got most of them: art/culture (think annual celebrations and the like), cuisine (we mostly just call it food), geography, architecture, commerce (shopping!), people, customs, and history.
We wish we came up with “The 8s” ourselves, but we have to give credit to the Kansas Sampler Foundation, which says, “Everything fits into one of these categories. Every town has a story to tell about each one.”
Take Aladdin, Wyo. -- one of our favorite towns on the cut-across from Belle Fourche, S.D., to Sundance, Wyo. It’s also a popular stop for travelers on the way to Devils Tower, Wyo., and Sturgis, S.D. This micro-sized community – around 15 residents -- packs a punch with everything from local foods to cowboys and cattle to history and more.
Let’s take a look at Aladdin’s “eight.”
Geography. Nestled into the hills just to the east of the Bear Lodge Mountains, plateaus and oak and pine covered coulees and draws dominate a landscape punctuated with rolling meadows. Bonus -- there are an average of 226 sunny days a year!
Arts/culture. Brand new this year is the inaugural Aladdin Music and Food Festival June 16. If you’re passing through, drop in at the Aladdin Mercantile for local paintings, jewelry, notecards, photography and more.
Architecture. The Mercantile was built in 1896 and is a prime example of early stores. It’s been in continuous operation for more than 100 years! Just a hop and a skip to the east of town is the Aladdin Tipple, another prime example of early engineering and one of the last existing wooden coal tipples in the west.
Cuisine. Don’t let the petite size of Cindy B’s Café fool you -- portions are generous, the food is tasty, and the prices are great. Or head to the Mercantile for sandwiches, snacks and an assortment of “old-timey” sodas. You can even belly up to the bitty bar tucked into the corner to sample local whiskeys and wine. Can you say “pour me a Chris Ledoux, please?”
Customs. Aladdin is in the heart of cowboy country, where rural values abound. A man’s -- or woman’s -- word is bond and a handshake means something. Men will always treat women like ladies, and friendliness is the order of the day.
History. Founded in the late 1880s on logging and coal production, coal mined in Aladdin was shipped by rail to smelters in Lead and Deadwood, and Colonel Custer stopped by in 1874 during his Black Hills expedition.
People. Folks in Aladdin are a hearty bunch, deeply committed to the land, their faith, community, and country –- always friendly and ready to help in a pinch. Want to know how the West really was? Ask a local – many are descendants of the original settlers.
Commerce. Just like during the days of the Old West, the Mercantile has just about anything you could want — you name it, you’ll probably find it. Sit a spell on the porch to write out that postcard you bought, then mail it from the little post office tucked inside.
See? If tiny little Aladdin can show off its “eight,” so can your town. Get creative, put on your “company face,” and invite the world in for a visit!
~Katy & Annette~
With this year’s RuralX Summit right around the corner — mark your calendars for June 27 & 28 in Mitchell, S.D. — it's time to think about how being present can change your community. What can you learn? Who can you meet? What inspiration can you get?
The RuralX Summit is organized by Dakota Resources in South Dakota, and brings rural champions and community leaders together across several states for learning and networking. The last two years, champions from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa were in attendance.
So, besides the regular reasons — like networking and national speakers — here are 5 reasons to attend:
Rural success stories. Hear first-hand from other communities what they are doing, how it’s working and how they learned to be idea friendly. When we talk to others struggling with the same small-town problems, we discover new ideas and ways of achieving our goals and dreams for our communities.
Visibility. Just because you or community may be “way out there” doesn’t mean you have to subscribe the old adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Being seen and telling your stories keeps you in people’s minds. This is an ideal way to showcase your assets and build new outlets. You may doing a whiz-bang job with your digital marketing, but nothing beats the connections you can make in person.
Community Connections. By “community,” we mean small towns in general. Rural and small towns have a unique way of forming their own “communities” outside of their own city’s boundaries -- many are connected over vast distances through commerce and family ties. Attending events strengthens those ties, makes us stronger, more resilient and better able to weather whatever storms come our way. It’s true: “Where people gather, community happens.”
The energy of like-minded people. Small town leaders and advocates often feel they are going it alone. The energy of being in a room full of people — people willing to take time away to be there, too — is undeniable. They, too, attend conferences, seminars, and networking sessions to better themselves and their communities, and also to support each other. When you are at these events and conferences, you realize that you are not alone in wanting to make a difference, and that your vision really is within reach.
New ideas. A hundred people can all hear the same expert, and each one will take away a little something different. By being present at these events, we talk to each other, learn, and expand our creative process. The speakers are fabulous, and bring relevant, affordable, doable ideas. We become excited again about what we love about our communities and what we want to accomplish.
BONUS: Have fun! For many of us, attending a conference is equal to a vacation — visiting a new town, a new state and/or new anything is exciting! Take some time to explore and enjoy before or after the days’ events.
We can it hear it now… all the reasons why not to go. “We can’t afford it.” “Aren’t we too small?” “We don’t have a Chamber/Job Development Association.”
How can you not afford to go? Ask local banks, businesses or community groups to help with costs — your participation is in their best interest, too. You will bring back valuable knowledge on creative housing options, marketing your hometown, public spaces, filling empty buildings, pop-up-shops, funding sources and more. These are important to the community as whole!
Or get together with neighboring cities or counties. Several small towns or counties can easily band together and send a representative who can then report back to everyone involved.
Or do you think your town is too small? There is No. Such. Thing. Every single community has something of value. Events like Rural X can help you discover hidden assets and how to leverage them.
It doesn’t matter one bit if you don’t have a Chamber of Commerce or a Visitors Bureau.
What truly matters is that you care.
Annette & Kate
If it involves small towns, rural, business or people, we write about it. Both the good and the bad. Part of our passion is helping you be the best you can be.