Why Change Comes Slow to Small Towns and What To Do About That

by Joanne Steele on October 18, 2010

Who are your community leaders?

We have a big city council election in my town this year, with 12 candidates running for 5 seats. Ideas are flying around like cottonwood seeds, and most of them are interesting and innovative.

And, on November 3rd, when the new council is seated, most if not all of those ideas will be forgotten. Why!!

They represent change, and change is a problem for many small town residents.

Here’s why I think locals resist those innovative revitalization ideas.

1. Using Outside Experts from the beginning sets up resistance.

The normal process toward change is for some organization to get a grant.

They hire experts, usually from afar, to come in and assess the current situation and create the plan.

They present the community with a picture of how bad things are, with statistics to prove it, and offer a solution that is often brilliant, expensive and a little hard for locals to wrap their thinking around.

Then they leave… and the plan is shelved, never to be seen again.

Several years, another organization gets some money for a study and the process starts all over again. Locals get a little jaded, and after about the third round of studies, only a few people with their own agenda show up to the visioning sessions and SWOT analyses.

2. The wrong townspeople are involved in the planning process from the beginning.

In small towns, and by this I mean towns under population 10,000, run on volunteerism. The only way to get stuff done is to organize a group of volunteers to do it.

So, many residents feel directly responsible for some part of their towns current success. The thriving Rotary Club puts on a scholarship dinner. The garden club maintains the park entrance to town. The city council members are unpaid volunteers. The chamber of commerce has volunteers who do the newsletter and keep the visitor center doors open.

When a workshop is announced to evaluate what’s wrong and what needs to be done to make it right, often those volunteers are missing. They’re out working hard making their little piece of their town work right already!

Too often, the ideas and views of the people with the most influence and understanding of the town’s current situation aren’t heard. Those residents are too busy making the best of the current situation to attend yet another visioning session.

How Can a Town Create and Implement a Revitalization Plan?

It’s about getting the input and ideas from the people who have the influence to move the town to take action.

This generally can’t happen in a public meeting. As I’ve said, the people who have the respect and influence in the town probably won’t participate. Their attitude is “been there, done that.”

What Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, US, discovered is that the best ideas were gathered by talking to people one on one. Ideas could be generated without pushback from someone with a differing view, and buy-in to the process was much better.

Yes, one-on-one interviews seem to be the slow way to progress, but in 10 years, using that process, Phoenixville has generated and implemented a solid plan for their town. Their efforts working one by one led to a plan, grants for funds to get the work done, and volunteers to keep all sorts of projects going. No plans collecting dust on shelves in Phoenixville.

How to have one-on-one talks with the RIGHT people in your town.

There are a number of people in your town that have the respect of a broad cross section of your population. They are listened to and have influence. These are who you want involved in developing your revitalization plan.

To find these influencial people takes a little hunting. Go to your organized clubs, churches and informal citizen gatherings and ask the same question:

“If you were working on a project to make our town better, name three people who would have to be on your team.”

Have everyone write down their answers. To keep straight where you are getting your answers, use different colors of paper for each group, or some kind of a symbol you’ll recognize.

You’ll end up with a big stack of papers with people’s names on them. As you analyze the results, you’ll find the influential people within each group or organization.

More importantly, you’ll see names popping up in several groups. These are the people who have the ability to help you generate ideas that will fly in your town and build support for them.

Enlisting the support and involvement of these people spreads the word and the good work faster that lightning. You’ll avoid the usual resistance and bring in workers and volunteers who don’t usually step up, because they have been asked to participate by someone they respect.

How well networked is your town?

Here are several more posts about networking your town:

When Building Your Regional Flavor Strategy, “Network Weaving” is the Craft, Your Small Town is the Loom.

One More Idea for Weaving Your Small Town Regional Flavor Network

1 Paul Koch October 20, 2010 at 9:53 am

Great article and thanks. I do a lot of rural community work and use a variety of methods to get the community together and set them up to be successful. I have used individual meetings and sessions, large group sessions with a “Turn out Task Force” helping get people out, even stayed in the community for up to 2 years to show and help. I have been called into communities that will have 8-9 previous efforts/plans, none of them even acted on, except the community has spent a lot of money, raised the hopes only to drop the ball. Sometime I have the City create a Steering Committee to oversee and help me with the work. In the final documents I always provide a step by step Road Map to help them get started. I have also recommended that they keep the document in a draft form and then go to meetings with every group in town, before finalizing the plan of action.

Thanks again.


2 Joanne Steele October 21, 2010 at 11:35 am

Thanks Paul, I figured that you would be invested in the success of the project you help a town create, just from the passion of your writing. I am always dismayed to visit small town city halls and tour their libraries of forgotten plans. You and I need to meet!

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