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— Recently there has been much discussion in the public arena about the effectiveness and viability of small towns. At both the national and state level there has been discussion of closing towns, abandoning towns and cutting losses to merge communities into larger population centers in order to create an economy of scale. It is a hot topic and one that can stir a lot of fury, depending where you stand on the issue. It has been my experience that most of these discussions are beneficial because they require exploration, consideration and they typically lead to creative advancements.

In the course of Arkansas history, municipalities have on occasion disbanded, died, merged with other municipalities or, in some cases, just faded away. Many places that once thrived because of a previous industry or the railroad or because of the lack of automobile transportation are now little more than a shadow of their former selves. Prior to the automobile and developed road systems, populations gathered around small, isolated areas of trade. The automobile and highways allowed populations to merge into their trade centers. This change resulted in many ghost towns in Arkansas.Such change brings benefits and disadvantages, often determined by individual perspective.

There is no “one size fits all” solution for the future of small Arkansas municipalities. In reality, the current discussion should make everyone sit down at the table, begin to think a little and collaborate. Thereare some cities that in reality may no longer be able to serve their citizens effectively or must realize that time has washed away the city they once served. Each community must make an honest assessment as to its future course. All options should be on the table. The most important item for consideration is how to best serve. This is always the quest of true leadership. Solutions should certainly include broad levels of regional collaboration. Municipalities must utilize the strategic partnerships available to them in their region. These include nearby cities, educational institutions, corporations and other partners with a common interest in community advancement.

Above all, these challenging times call for creativity. Small cities can have extraordinary success, but it requires a vast amount of creativity, strategy, determination and diligence. Before we put up the out-of-business sign in our small towns, we should look at the creative successes that emerge. Adversity either kills us or strengthens us. The current adversities of shifting economics, rural population decline and a changing tax base can either deal a death blow to the small town or, conversely, it can inspire creativity.

Creativity is new bailout and stimulus package for small towns.

This will include developing a knowledge-based economy. Knowledgebased jobs can operate from anywhere in the world as long as the appropriate infrastructure exists. We’re no longer talking just about roads to plants and industrial parks, butabout broadband and T-1 Internet lines. Small communities must aggressively seek long-term partners. Don’t be so afraid of losing autonomy that you fail to partner with others for the things you simply cannot achieve on your own. Communities can never again fly by the seat of their pants. Success rarely happens by chance. Small cities and towns must be strategic, deliberate, purposeful and thoughtful in their every action.

Cultivate local entrepreneurship. You are much more likely to get those from your community to stay and invest there than you are to recruit new industries. Small cities must create an environment of opportunity. Become a seedbed for small business development. In addition, communities must see quality of life as a trueasset in the marketplace. Develop this trait and market it.

Singer John Mellencamp and I agree: There’s just something special about a small town. Small towns have a quality that is not quantifiable and hardly understood until you’ve lived in one. Until you’ve enjoyed life there and gone through sorrows there, it is difficult to appreciate the simplicity and shared life in small cities and towns. The current discussion about viability is a valid one and it should be a wake-up call to small cities. This moment in the discussion offers the chance to inspire motivation to reevaluate and become the architect of a better tomorrow.

(Chad Gallagher is principal of Legacy Consulting and a former mayor of DeQueen. Contact him at 501-480-6358 )

News, Pages 9 on 10/21/2009

Print Headline: Many Challenges Face Small Towns In Today’s Economy

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