Help Isn’t On The Way
HGTV was in my feed quite a lot last week, which I can promise you is unusual. I generally avoid HGTV, not because I am above such things, but I like to avoid seeing how much better people are at home improvement than I am. Last week, was the first I had heard of Hometown Takeover. I am new to these people from Mississippi that fix things up, but apparently they are ready to take on Main Street. I had a chance to watch some of the video submissions and it was a pleasure to see how much passion people have for their communities and how excited they are at the prospect of this show selecting them. At the same time, I also felt a bit of sadness that this is where things stand. There is something unfortunate about present day circumstances when we think that our best chance to improve our community, lies outside of our community. I want to be careful not to make it sound like I think these towns are doing anything wrong. I don’t believe that. I believe that hope matters and people can and should seek out opportunity wherever possible. What I think was getting to me, is that when we overly rely on outside assistance, we diminish the role we play in addressing our own issues. I want so much for every small town. I grew up in a broken town and I know how much that affects everyone and everything. We have to fight to keep more generations from growing up in broken towns.
We have grown so accustomed to the way things are that we have become blind to the way things used to be. Which is fair, because things have been this way for a long time now, but if we just look a little deeper, if we just think back a bit further, we can begin to see that our communities were extremely self-reliant, and for a long time. All of these cities were built by local people, for local people. We didn’t need tourists or national corporations or television personalities to provide us with what we needed. It’s in losing our self-reliance that this situation has arisen. It is exactly because we have grown so dependent on outside forces that we have forgotten the role we play in repairing our own communities. In fact, we have been led to believe we just can’t do it without outside help.
Much of this is due to the two-headed community improvement monster we have embraced over the last few decades. The economic development/tourism approach is pretty much “it” when we think about how we can go about lifting up our towns. We can either attract new corporations to our city or we can attract new people. That’s it, those are our options. No wonder we have adopted the mindset that only outsiders can fix our communities, it’s all we have invested in for decades.
These industries have had their run and it’s time to turn the page. Local chambers, tourism and economic development offices have had plenty of time and money to go about fixing struggling small towns, but it just hasn’t happened. We can’t keep funding them hoping they will finally sort it out. Doing what doesn’t work, even harder, won’t make anything any better. The problem isn’t the people, I applaud passionate people in tourism and economic development for working to make their communities healthy and more resilient. The problem isn’t with the people, it’s with their mission. The missions of all these organizations are externally focused. They are beholden to the idea that someone or something from outside their community is what is needed to make it all better. This logic doesn’t pan out and we are seeing it’s a very unsustainable model that is doing more harm than good.
Economic development works to bring in more commerce and accommodations from out of town. Tourism works to bring in more people from out of town. So when these people get to town they can spend their money with businesses owned by someone out of town. Not enough of the benefit of either of these industries goes towards the community. A decade ago, I was working on a planning project in Aruba and saw this problem exemplified. One corner of the island was basically gated off with all the major hotel chains restaurants and shops. 99% of visitors did not spend time outside this small area of the island. The rest remained impoverished and very few locals benefited from their robust tourism economy. Government officials could talk-up tens of millions in investment, but let’s be honest, no one local had a hand in any of it. This is what a tourism and economic development strategy look like for most towns.
True community improvement can and must come from within. If you have a tourism organization and an economic development organization, but no organization concerned with improving the quality of life, things are not going to get better. The key to community improvement isn’t bringing in more from outside, but keeping more local. Only when locals are the investors and when locals own the real estate and commerce will the economy begin to work for the community. We have retooled everything about our communities with this outward focus and it has resulted in exactly what was intended. It is easy to build a CVS in most towns, but hard to renovate a building. It is easy to develop a strip-mall, but hard to add upper floor housing. It is easy to find money to incentivize national chains and developers, but hard to find any way to help locals invest. It should be easy to see that this is a problem.
We are so accustomed to doing things this way that we don’t see all the problems it has created. It has led us to be entirely too dependent on outsiders and forget that we are entirely capable of addressing our own problems. When thinking about how we can do better, I like to look back at when our towns were healthiest. People always talk about their communities heyday and how great things were back when. I like to think about the town my grandparents lived in. In this town, businesses were all locally owned. The buildings were all locally owned. People were proud and connected and felt a sense of stewardship for what they had built and for those that came before them. They understood that the well-being of their community was in their own hands. The people in my grandparents’ town were no different from people today, but their place was a world away. These conditions are not something to relegate to the past, as these are the exact same conditions I encounter in vibrant communities today. When working with communities that have been successful in their revitalization efforts, this is the shift that takes place. Empty buildings move back into the hands of concerned locals. Local entrepreneurs spring up from everywhere to fill those buildings. Passionate people replace poor leadership, pride swells, people care, apathy fades. The shift that happens is that people become empowered, and in the process they understand that they are the ones they’ve been waiting for. WE ARE THE ONES WE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR. Residents will be the ones to revitalize. This town belongs to the people.
It is our over reliance on people outside of our community that led to rampant decline in the first place. If we would have kept better control of the things we created, we wouldn’t be on the brink of collapse. Those outside forces we invited in to take over what we once ran ourselves, are not concerned with our well-being. Decades of being told tourism and corporate recruitment will save us have lead us all to believe that only outside forces are capable of saving us. We have forgotten who we are and how our towns came to be in the first place. These towns weren’t built by Walmart and subdivision developers. These megahome builders and sprawl developers are the ones causing the damage. These towns were built by our grandparents and it is up to us to rebuild them.
Community transformation only feels insurmountable because it hasn’t been done before. But no one from outside your community can do it, or should do it. Only the people that call your town home have enough vested interest to take on this challenge. But it can be done. It’s bit by bit, block party by block party, building code by building code. Start with creating the organization to tackle the work. Identify the roadblocks. Pick one thing, ANYTHING and see it through to completion. Let’s just survey the facts real quick. There is buying power in your community. There are infinite skills and knowhow in your community. There are vast resources in your community. People are desperate to feel pride in your community. People want to experience a sense of community. There are solutions to all the problems you are facing and every problem you are facing has been overcome somewhere else. There is nothing in your way that you can’t manage. Nothing too great that it can’t be overcome. A group of people once built your town out of trees and rocks, you can certainly go about fixing it back up. All of our hometowns have been taken over, its time we take them back.