SMALL TOWNS, BIG DREAMS: Do you have what it takes?

Small Town 2016-06-02Many small towns want to improve their current condition for a number of reasons. What we often hear from residents and leaders is: “We are tired of our “best and brightest” leaving the area for college and never returning because we have no jobs/careers for them,” or “Our retired residents have to seek appropriate housing in other communities because there isn’t any here,” or “The youth that remain are not “work ready” and opioid use among them has become a real problem.” Some of these towns have existing community or economic development plans that, while they might offer viable solutions, were never fully implemented (the old “the plan sits on the shelf” complaint).

So, what’s a town to do? Here are some suggestions based on my experience working with many communities throughout Ohio:

Overcome fractured goals by building inclusion into your community’s dialogue about the future:

If you are a local leader, have you discovered your residents’ vision of the future? I use the word “discover” because, chances are your residents already have a picture of what they would like your town to be. And, although there may be some divergent views, there is also a core set of beliefs and desires that can lead to consensus to set major goals. The task of local leadership then becomes setting the stage for open and inclusionary dialogue about the future. Inclusion is important. By reaching out to all sectors of the community to include their desires and hopes, a shared vision of the future can be discovered.

Engage a broad range of residents in both planning and implementation:

When residents are engaged in determining their community’s future, they become invested in results and clearly discover their place in making the plan a reality. By taking actions every day through their workplace, community organizations, leadership roles, businesses and their own personal life, they work individually and collectively to achieve success. Time spent engaging residents results in less time spent “selling” the plan to the community, leading to faster implementation. When the community is engaged throughout the process, there develops a much larger base of volunteers to draw upon to move goals forward.

Identify outcomes you want to achieve, and develop indicators of success to use in measuring progress toward reaching these outcomes:

A community plan is a living document. It is important to monitor progress toward reaching goals and modify strategies as needed. Indicators of success developed during planning and goal setting are used to stay on track with plan implementation and make changes as needed. An indicator should be easy to understand, relevant and measurable. It should be widely shared with the community, with progress reported at least annually. Indicators provide a way for residents and organizations to see the results of their contribution toward community goals.

An example of how this inclusionary focus may play out in a community is as follows:

  • Together the community sets a vision and goal of retaining youth that receive post-secondary degrees.
  • During the inclusionary planning process an objective is established to expand job opportunities in the medical field.
  • Using an inclusionary method to establish indicators helps various sectors of the community discover their roles in reaching the shared vision and implementing objectives.

So as an example, perhaps the high school career counselor presents medical careers as possible paths to pursue. Economic developers accept the development of a business park for medical industries. Builders identify construction of senior housing alternatives like condos and assisted living. Medical providers participate in local job fairs.

By building inclusion into community planning at every stage of the process, from development to implementation, big dreams can be achieved by small towns.

(Submitted by Myra Moss, Associate Professor and Extension Educator, Heart of Ohio EERA)

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