Strategic Planning for Small Rural Towns, Internal, Organic and Locally Driven

by Joanne Steele on August 27, 2009

Not every rural town is taking advantage of rich opportunities for tourism development in their region. Okanogan, Washington is one such town.

I stopped in at The Bike Shop on the main street expecting to find the tourism anchor activity for this area. Cycling seemed a perfect match for the rolling country roads. SchalowBldgBut, owner Sarin Molnar set me straight. His combination bicycle and ski sales and repair, and soon to be band instrument sales and rental shop has been supporting his family in the downtown location since 1993. They expand and diversify to maintain, to help keep the doors open and serve the public’s needs.

As we talked about the tourism potential of his town, which sits on the banks of a river that has been used for commerce and transportation for over a hundred years, he points out the rich history waiting to be discovered here.

“Anyone willing to do some exploring will find the story of the mining in the mountains that supported this area,” he explained as he pointed to the western peaks nearby. “Okanogan was the place where supply boats unloaded and reloaded with metals from those mines.”

The town’s buildings, though not from that era show a definite style. The Schalow Building, home to the Bike Shop is a great example of the wonderful 1920’s to 40’s architecture of the town. During that time, the old wooden buildings were replace with sturdier brick. But all along the main street, facades have replaced the old stylish fronts leaving the town without a definite historic statement.

The tourism map of the area showcases the history, river recreation, and ag tourism opportunities. But in reality, none of that is available in town.

What went wrong for Okanogan and towns like it all over the world?

It is the story of many rural communities all over the world. Without a common vision, the townspeople covered their historic buildings, focused on their own “private property” sometimes at the expense of the whole town, buried their history, and made it challenging for new ideas to grow and flourish.

But all is not lost, for Okanogan or any other town with a will to make a few changes. The reality is that tourism is one of the top three industries IN THE WORLD. Urban visitors everywhere are seeking out authentic experiences. I read daily about the time, money and effort India is putting into making their rural communities more accessible to visitors anxious to return to the countryside, the roots of their culture. So why not in Okanogan!?!

Here’s what Okanogan needs to do.

1. Take it slow.

They have some real talent and energy to start moving in a different direction, but any attempts to move too quickly will bring out fear and resistance from the folks who like the town just the way it is, regardless of the fact that businesses are leaving in droves.

SarinMolnarI met an example of that talent. Sarin Molnar is young and dedicated to his town. His parents have lived in Okanagan for years, so there are two generations in that family and business, dedicated to reasonable, well thought out change. Sarin  has joined the planning commission. This is a good place to start his political career in the town, building trust among residents in a vision of a better future for Okanogan. It’s the towns with no young energy leading the change that are in real trouble.

2. Pick one thing to start with and do it well.

In Okanogan, they have a marvelous story of their past to tell. And, Sarin has a partner for this activity at the local museum. Starting a project to rediscover the local history and creating a way for everyone who has old photos and personal stories to share will bring people from every faction together. New Internet technology makes it easy to create a web site to house the collected material. Sarin’s brother, Nik is an Internet expert. For the cost of a scanner, old photos can be preserved on CD and the originals returned to the owners. Check out as an example.

It can be anything that the majority of the town can get behind. In McCloud, CA, new residents came to town and started to renovate the old condemned hotel. They did the work, but the activity helped to change the whole town’s attitude toward their historic district and the town’s tourism potential.

3. When you have built a team of people ready to take the next step, get together to plan.

I recommend that you don’t have a town-wide public meeting to do this. To get buy-in later, this planning group needs to be diverse, but a public meeting at this point attracts naysayers who don’t want to do anything but bring down the process. Doing this as a committee of your chamber of commerce is a good way to create standing for the process. Introduce your results at a chamber of commerce meeting and invite the press. Ask for input. Invite participation. Update and amend where necessary to get the most buy-in.

And, with no outside money or experts, you’ve created a strategic plan for your town!!

4. Implement it!

I can’t tell you the number of towns I’ve visited that have paid big bucks for professional strategic plans they never open.

By doing this organically and internally, you create something with a built-in constituency for implementation. That first project gives a group of townspeople something to be proud of and to build on. Afterward, the strategic planning process is much easier – a team has been built that knows how to get something done.

5. Tell the world about it!

There are small towns everywhere trying to figure out how to do this. Publish what you are up to on your town’s web site so others can find it and learn from your success.

Okanogan, you have all the pieces in place to create a new tourism economy for yourself. Good Luck!

1 Sarin September 17, 2009 at 1:06 pm


I don’t remember if I mentioned the community X-Country ski trail that I started last winter. it was a pleasant success and I have plans to expand it this winter.

Also the local ski hill Loup Loup Ski Bowl has been awarded a grant to conduct a feasibility study to be done by Gravity Logic from Whistler B.C. on Downhill Mountain Biking.

2 Sarin September 17, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Hi Joanne,

This is a really good article. everything is accurate. the language is very constructive. I have forwarded a link to our city planner and the rest of the Planning commissioners.

Thank you for visiting Okanogan and taking interest,


3 Sally in WA August 28, 2009 at 7:37 am

As a future resident of Okanogan, I agree with many of your comments. Okanogan is a wonderful little town with good potential to retain and attract more businesses. I would love to see the downtown area become more vital. It just looks more and more like a ghost town which is a shame. Practically nothing is done to show off the river.

The people of Okanogan are warm and friendly and the area is beautiful. Hopefully something soon will happen to revitalize this little gem.

BTW, they have a wonderful farmers market on Saturday mornings.

4 Joanne Steele August 28, 2009 at 4:45 pm

Hello Sally,
Lucky you! I could tell in a very short time that Okanogan would be a great place to live. Be sure to stop in at the Bike Shop and say “hello” to Sarin. You might even offer to help him implement some of his ideas for the downtown.

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