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7 Smaller Towns With Unusual Growth Strategies

It has been a grim year in many ways, but according to community revitalization expert Quint Studer, some small and midsized communities are showing remarkable resourcefulness in the face not only of the coronavirus pandemic but also longer-term economic forces.

The Studer Community Institute, a Pensacola-based organization that Studer founded and heads, recently recognized seven such places with Community Resiliency Awards. 

"Over the years, small and midsized cities have lost their talent to larger metros," Studer said. "Capital follows talent and talent follows place. Talent wants to be in a vibrant, healthy place. Creating healthier communities isn't something that takes a year or two. It's 10 years or more, and we were looking for communities that just got started and are trying to get some traction when it comes to their own improvement."

Downtown Palatka, Florida

It has been too easy for smaller communities to simply think of themselves as victims when talent leaves, Studer said. In giving out the awards, the organization wants to recognize places trying to take control of their own destinies. Some workers, and the companies who employ them, are more open than before to locating away from larger, more expensive metros and working remotely. Resourceful communities might be able to capture some of that exodus.

The organization solicited communities nationwide to share their best practices for promoting resiliency, both in the face of the pandemic, but more broadly, the economic drain that smaller U.S. communities have suffered for years. The winners were selected from a pool of about 80 submissions, Studer said. 

Studer previously ran the Studer Group, a health care consulting firm he founded in Pensacola, but in 2016 he sold the company to focus his attention full time on the institute, which specializes in germinating and spreading economic development ideas in smaller places.

The following places received Community Resiliency Awards for a variety of initiatives to spur economic growth or to simply be a better place to live or work.

Hot Springs, Arkansas

Hot Springs, Arkansas, home of the national park of the same name and about 37,000 residents, created a “Will You Be My Neighbor?” campaign to engage citizens in selecting what type of business should fill an empty space Downtown. In the end, the citizens voted for a boutique grocery store as the winning idea.

The vote got people engaged in the future of downtown, and also created interest in the store from the get-go, Studer said. It was also a way to be purposeful about what kind of business went into the space, Studer said, since sometimes landlords get what they can get to fill space, whether it is a good fit with the rest of the neighborhood.

"Hot Springs retailers have a particular challenge, in that on the main street, retail is on one side, and the national park buildings are on the other," Studer said. "Most communities want retail on both sides, but since it wasn't possible, they needed to be careful about how to fill each vacancy."

Palatka, Florida

Palatka, Florida, a town of about 10,000 that is 50 miles south of Jacksonville, held a community feedback contest, asking residents what needed to be done to make downtown Palatka “the place to be,” and offering a $1K prize for a randomly drawn entry. The survey, which got about 300 responses, became the basis for a strategic plan to improve the town's Downtown.

Columbia, Mississippi

Columbia, Mississippi, in the far southern part of the state, created Downtown Holiday Celebration in 2018, including Christmas decor, a light show, music and fireworks in the town center. Last year, the event attracted more than 60,000 visitors to the town whose total population is one-tenth that, and the event is running again this year with pandemic-oriented precautions.

The celebration started as the initiative of a local businessman, one of whose businesses is seasonal decor, Marion County Development Partnership Executive Director Lori Watts said. He volunteered to decorate a number of Downtown buildings for a few years.

"We were blown away by the number of people who came to see the lights, and we realized that if the city and business community provided things for them to do, that would draw even more people — and they would stay and shop," Watts said, adding that a recent study found a $7.1M impact on the community by the event in 2019.

Studer Community Institute founder Quint Studer, who is also a commercial property owner and developer in Pensacola, Florida.

Chillicothe, Ohio

Chillicothe, Ohio, a city of about 21,000 people roughly 50 miles south of Columbus, won its award for its Community Response Team, created at the start of the pandemic and consisting of city employees, government agencies, nonprofits, schools, mental health providers and housing authorities. 

The purpose of the team is to coordinate local efforts to tackle emerging local problems without worrying about who gets credit. It evaluated gaps in city services during pandemic-related closures and helped develop a response, curated local, state and federal resources and information, and communicated with residents in need on how to access the information and support.

It was good that the Community Response Team has been recognized for recent efforts, Chillicothe-Ross Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mike Throne said, but more importantly the group will last beyond the current crisis.

“We’ve built a framework for our community to find solutions to the problems we face beyond COVID,” Throne said.

Martin County, Florida

Martin County, Florida, which is immediately north of Palm Beach County on the Atlantic coast, won its award for conducting a quality-of-life survey and making the information readily accessible to residents.

Based on its findings, the county created a Community Dashboard where citizens can see the town's most critical issues described in detail, including proposed actions and the thinking behind them. When people understand why changes have been proposed, they are more likely to support them, Studer said.

Springfield, Ohio

Springfield, Ohio, the largest of the seven award winners with just fewer than 60,000 residents, has focused recently on training and workforce development, and attracted funding from community sponsors by specifying its training needs. 

"Springfield has really been hit," Studer said. The town lost a sizable part of its population in recent decades — as recently as 1970, there were more than 80,000 residents.

"The town focuses on training people on the basics of how to start and how to run a small business. That's because most jobs come from the local people running local businesses. If you can train people how to succeed in running their businesses, there will be more jobs."  

Local businesses attract more talent, which in turn creates more demand for local business, Studer said. Business training helps get that positive cycle going.

Stillwater, Oklahoma

Stillwater, Oklahoma, a town of about 45,000 in the northeast part of the state, created the Stillwater Day of Gratitude to get people focused on the better aspects of the place, asking residents to thank others — publicly and privately — who are making Stillwater better. 

The Love STW group, a community organization whose goal is to revitalize Stillwater, established Nov. 13 as the day of gratitude, to coincide with World Kindness Day. The thinking is that people live up to (or down to) their expectations, and by focusing on positives, the community can be strengthened.

This kind of intangible initiative is more valuable than one might think, Studer said. 

"The city is very dependent on Oklahoma State University," he said. "Now the university can't support the community like it once did, it's easy for people to get down. Rather that dwelling on what's wrong, the idea is to consider what is right. That's a key part of self-confidence for a community."