In a small Kentucky county with a population of just under 5,000 people, a community is coming together to build something beautiful.
Hickman County, Kentucky was deeded a piece of land for “one whole dollar,” according to county judge/executive Kenny Wilson. The three-acre property features an acre-and-half lake, and when the property was handed over to the county, Wilson and other leaders went to work to transform it into a new community park.
“It’s just an excellent place,” Wilson said of the county he has lived in his whole life. “No crime. People care about each other.”
He spent over 34 years as an educator and superintendent of Hickman County Schools, and he and his wife raised their children in the community. He talked about how the area needs to adapt and provide new job opportunities “for all these excellent kids we’re turning out of the schools. We’re trying to work on that.”
Wilson remembers during his youth several nearby manufacturing plants that would provide good-paying jobs for local residents.
“All those are gone now,” he said. “We’ve had to do smaller things with smaller amounts.”
The county’s population has fallen every decade since 1910. To survive, the community is thinking outside the box and exploring new initiatives to stimulate the local economy, which is heavily based in agriculture. Wilson hopes having a community park will be something that can attract more business.
The project is bringing together various local leaders including members of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, 4-H, the Master Gardeners group and the Rotary Club, among others. The lake has been designated as a fishing spot by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife and has been stocked with trout. A farmers market pavilion is also in the works.
Around $400,000 has been raised for the park through Governor’s Office of Agriculture Policy, Purchase Regional Industrial Park and local grants from the economic development authority, chamber of commerce, Rotary Club as well as private donations.
“That’s a pretty neat amount of money for a small community like us,” Wilson said.
He added, “There’s a lot of people involved and a lot of people helping, and of course when you get that happening, that’s when things really occur.”
Projects like this stem from the drive of local leaders who to step up to make things happen. These leaders organize various local organizations, create a vision, get residents behind it and find the financial capital.
Bruce Schwartau of the University of Minnesota Extension service has learned the importance of local leadership as he’s studied and worked with rural areas.
Schwartau’s focus recently has been business succession. Currently, many rural business owners are approaching retirement age, and it takes local leaders to assist with finding the next generation to take the baton. The selling and purchasing of a business may be more of a private matter in bigger cities, but in smaller towns, it’s often a community affair.
“It takes many more people to be involved in order to successfully keep all the business that you have and maybe do a little bit of expansion,” Schwartau said. “You need to have the involvement of the chamber of commerce or the economic development authority of the city or even the city council itself.”
He added local bankers and the lending facilities should also be at the table.
“Everyone needs to be on board and thinking about what are the plans we have for business succession in our own communities, so that we don’t run into these situations where all of a sudden we’ve got a business blank in our city.”
Schwartau pointed to a community not far from Rochester, Minn., which started holding regular business action meetings, not just about succession but other pertinent topics. The community secured a grant to hold these meetings, which give business leaders an ongoing forum to address the needs of the community.
Such efforts allow communities to keep a thumb on trends in their area, stay ahead of change and strengthen economies.
Schwartau said local elected officials play a key role, making sure their governments are friendly to business. Officials can go the extra mile by providing resources to businesses, helping find where owners can get proper valuation services and business advice, accountants and other useful services.
“It is important that city officials really do understand what businesses are in the community and what are the issues that are facing them,” he said.
Visiting the businesses on a regular basis is also a good idea, so officials understand where businesses need support and what policies need adjusting.
“When new businesses come to town, [local leaders] should be some of the first people who are in the door at the business to welcome them to the community, to offer resources on how they can become involved in the community,” Schwartau added. “Because a new business owner is going to be an important asset to the community, and we need the local governments to be very cognizant of that.”
One group involved in assisting local leaders is the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, which offers annual competitive funding to as many as six communities to host a two-and-a-half day community design workshop.
The institute helps communities preserve their architectural heritage, build turn-key operations and developers understand community values and what they can do to enhance an area’s identity. The institute also assists local municipalities assert control over what gets built to foster the long-term health of the community.
Workshops are used to plan projects for public spaces that contribute to character of the community. This includes way finding, trails, main street revitalization, public art, historic buildings and marketing/branding. A stipend of $10,000 is provided for the workshop and four subject matter experts join in.
“We bring in really smart people who know exactly how to address the challenge that community is facing,” said Cynthia Nikitin, the institute’s director.
Nikitin believes a well-thought out community design can go a long way to create a healthy business climate. Leaders can take an expert role on understanding their communities’ needs and strengths, identify the opportunities and work collaboratively to create and execute a plan.
“When you talk about business development and retention, a lot of it is, what are the skills, talents, techniques, resources, history already existing in that community?” Nikitin said. “People used to hunt, fish and make stuff, so let’s bring those back, and let’s find businesses that support, encourage, or provide part of the supply chain to those kinds of local businesses.”
Creating a plan around economic development is key. “It means that complementary businesses are co-located. It means that businesses are put in the right place where they have more visibility. It’s like right plant, right spot. If you want a sun-loving plant, you need to put it in the sun.”
She added when communities don’t have any sort of design plan, they end up with a mishmash of businesses that don’t really fit together, like a trailer repair place next to a historic fire station or a lot of franchise dollar stores that put all the local hardware stores out of business.
To avoid that, it again takes locals leading the way. Nikitin talked about the mayor of Perry, New York, who started an effort to revitalize the historic buildings in the town of 3,600 people. Part of the mayor’s efforts is calling on residents to put up some of the money.
“He’s walking around with his hat out, asking his neighbors to give him money to buy the buildings, renovate them and get that amazing book store cafe that everybody wants,” Nikitin said.
Outside agencies take notice of such locally driven efforts. Federal dollars from the USDA, EPA, DOT, FEMA and HUD are available to municipalities for all kinds of projects, and local leaders have access to federal representatives at the state level.
“Part of the problem is that the applications that a lot of these agencies get are not that compelling, and they would much rather work with an organization that shows partnerships and vision and ability to put together a workshop and some really cool outcomes,” Nikitin said.
“Don’t wait for that magical business to show up and magically transform that beautiful, historic dilapidated building into something fabulous. It’s going to be a nail salon unless you have a voice in it.”
What communities should avoid, according to Nikitin, is sitting on their hands waiting for a silver bullet. Those areas that have relied on single industries, like mining or manufacturing, are going to be disappointed if they think it will ever be like that again.
“That money dried up,” Nikitin said. “Just like the oil money and the tobacco money. Communities are waiting for one big silver bullet. There is no silver bullet. We’ve got to get together and figure out what we’ve got to do. What are our assets?”
She said the communities that do that, that take initiative, and demonstrate this capacity, they’re the ones that get the money. They don’t really need it because they raised it, but because they’re doing such a good job, it snowballs.
“A lot of the obstacles are perception and fear,” Nikitin said. “There’s a lot of fear. But change happens, and you’re either ahead of it or it lands on top of you like a wave.”
She added, “If you don’t invest in your community, don’t expect others to. The first key is for communities and towns to invest in themselves.”
Ben Rowley is a journalist and rural entrepreneur. Find more rural business content at RuralBusinessHQ.com.