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Saving Small Town South South Dakota

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Let's take a look at rural identity right here in the mid-west. Bloggers Becky McCray and Deb Brown use economic and social trends from communities all over the globe to help small towns build their identities. They return this year to the RuralX Summit in Aberdeen.

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Listen to the full conversation here.

Deb, over the past year, what are some of the themes that folks in small towns are looking to explore? Is it always the same, or are there trends that you're seeing in the past 12 months or so?

Deb Brown: Well, there are trends, but they seem to be evolving trends as they grow. Always filling buildings downtown, getting more people to come into your community, [finding] housing—those are some big ones.

Becky, how about you? Have you seen specific trends that people are asking about questions, or is it the same story, just with new solutions?

 Becky McCray: We just did an update to our survey of rural challenges, and people told us about the things that they've been thinking about over the past 12 months. I found it interesting, because I asked about specifically the future trends, what are you focused on and which of these are most exciting to you? More people picked maker trends than manufacturing trends. More people are interested in the kind of small, local, impactful things that are going on and that we see as our future, instead of looking back to a kind of past that's sort of been defined for us.

All right. What are the advantages of that? You're probably pumping your fist in the air, right? Looking to the future instead of the past.

McCray: I am, because I'm very focused on the trends. I know that our future is not going to look like our past. It's going to have to be something completely different. Anything we can do to make towns more open to new ideas, more idea-friendly, then they will be better equipped to respond to anything that the economy, or the environment throws at them. Any kind of challenge that comes their way, they'll be better able to respond to that and be a prosperous community into the future. I'm always excited to hear that in the small towns, the small trends, the individuals who are going to be the people there pursue opportunities and make things happen.

Deb, how important is it to look at the future, and what are some of those key elements of the past that we specifically need to shake loose a little bit?

Brown: That's a great question. Well first of all, it's very important to look to the future, because it's changing so quickly. We see the things that the internet brings to us and technology brings to us, are important to think about in our town. How are we going to deal with workforce? People are going to be laid off because they're bringing in new technologies to replace them. That's just one issue. It's important, I think, that we concentrate on providing real value for our businesses in our small towns now, and let go of some of that ‘committee of negativity,’ like, "We've never done it that way. We need to do it the old way." That kind of thinking, because that's stopping people from moving forward.

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Deb, let's stay with that theme and ask for those people who are maybe older, are used to having a certain kind of leadership position in a small town—what are the strengths? What's worth keeping that pushes us forward?

Brown: When you talk about values and characters, some of those things are important. Hard work, paying attention to people, and developing relationship-- those are all things we love. It's expecting things to stay the same that needs to be shaken loose. One of the things we do with our ‘committee of negativity’, or with government people or people in leadership positions, is give them a new job that they can do so they can take a look at what different young people are doing in the community and decide if they want to invest in that and be part of that procedure, versus automatically saying, "No."

Sure. Becky, let's talk about maker trends, versus manufacturing. Define that for folks who don't really know what maker trends are, what they're looking like.

McCray: Part of our identity in rural [America] is that there will be manufacturing jobs that provide that good solid job space. Now, that's a view of how we used to be. The view of who we are today is more about-- instead of looking at one single factory with one single kind of job that supports an entire town, and if it ever leaves is a huge disaster, is making it all about individuals. Individual craft people, artists, people who make things by hand. It can be anything from handmade soaps, to metal sculptures, to everything in between. Anything that you can make and all kinds of electronic and technological things that are being made, as well as, raspberry pie, and individual kind of computers, and really cool hacky robotics. Everything is involved in making.

The question is, if instead of relying on that one giant factory to support everyone, what if we just turned it around and made it possible for everyone to have their own teeny tiny factory in their own garage, or a whole group of people took over one of the buildings downtown and they all brought their tools and equipment and they all made stuff together? It's like the very best of tinkering and making.  This is a great market and business opportunity, because with the increased focus of consumers on the handmade, the local, the interesting, and the unique, then we've seen this major consumer shift from consumer goods that are entirely the same for everyone all around the world, to wanting to buy things that have more of hand imprint of craft. That plays into people having a demand for these made and maker kind of goods. It all comes together to go, instead of one big factory, let's have hundreds of little tiny factories, and let's all just get creative.

In theory, a community of entrepreneurs then.

McCray: That would be wonderful. I am all about that.

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Have you seen any examples of towns that are sort of leaning in that direction and finding success?

McCray: Oh, yes. There's lots of this going on. There's lots of small community maker spaces. Sonora California has a wonderful place that actually had a hospital that closed. That's a devastating blow for a small rural community, but they were able to take over one floor of the hospital building and the Small Business Development Center, and the SBA, and some other agencies worked together to help make this happen. There's business support available, and then there's a co-working space where people that work from their laptop from anywhere can work, and then they've added maker stuff. There's an electronics and soldering lab, there's a woodworking space, there's a set of gaming computers where people can come and program games, which is another aspect of making that we haven't even talked about. They have actually made a good success out of this by building slowly, and what a great thing to do with what was a terrible blow for the community to turn it into something positive that everyone can take advantage of!

Becky, is that model sort of reliant on visitors and tourists coming and buying some of these things, or is it that we're talking about the internet here?

McCray: Yeah. Of course if you have visitors, then that is a wonderful thing because you can build that personal connection and that will always help you with sales if you can build that personal connection. This is also something that can be done online. People are seeking things out online that have that kind of imprint of personal connection. They're sites that are just dedicated to finding cool and funky manufacturers that make cool little things. We have all kinds of people who have just taken advantage of the fact that the internet kind of levels the playing field and is really made for the little guy to stand out in a way that just simply was not possible when the entire national market was dominated by just a few consumer goods players.

Deb, let's talk about an idea-friendly town. How do you sort of build a culture that celebrates a diverse array of ideas and kind of helps people move forward with some of this innovation that we're talking about?

Brown: Well, you can simply start with gathering your crowd. Start to look for other people that are like you, that have interesting ideas, that maybe want to do be more involved in working with each other. If you're a store owner and you want to start partnering with somebody, with other businesses in town. Just reach out to the store next to you and start talking about what the two of you can do together. Those are very small steps, but what we've found, is as people start to do things like that, more people are more interested, and so it begins to grow. After you started gathering your crowd, then you want to build your connections and some of those are local, the people you know that you want to bond with, but you can also look to outside sources.

People like the Small Business Development Corporation that will come in and assist. Your city might even have some resources available. Finally, we encourage people to take small steps. You were talking about entrepreneurs in a community. Washington Iowa, that's an old department store and they divided it up into shared spaces. You can start with maybe just a small table with a few items on it. You want to test out something you've made. Will people buy it? To even larger spaces where people are actually saying, "Okay. I got to get both my feet wet and let's try a little bit of this brick and mortar thing." Again, those are small steps. Gather your crowd, build connections, and take small steps.

Becky, tell us a little bit about some of your webinars and resources that you have for small towns and people who are interested in learning more on your website.

McCray: Of course. We do offer regular broadcasts that we call webinars. Sometimes people think that that's going to mean boring, lots of slides with no pictures, but we usually do live videos so you get to see our faces, and we connect directly with you, because that's the small town way. We talk about topics like downtown after 5:00, how can we get more life and activity in our downtown? We talk about the innovative rural business model and the rural job's creation strategies that are ways that we can move from an old view of how we used to grow our towns, to a new view of how do we just make our towns more prosperous starting with the assets that we have already?

We also offer a few courses and some other things that help people to do things, like hold a tour of empty buildings so that they can use that as a tool to fill up more of those downtown vacancies. We [also] have one on holding a pop-up fair, which is a great way for somebody that's not really sure what they can do with their town. Like, "I don't know where to even start with my community". Holding a pop-up fair is a great way to get started by doing something that will make your community idea-friendly. You'll start by gathering a crowd, and you'll build some connections and take small steps, and you'll do it through this opportunity of holding pop-ups and it'll be cool and fun, and it'll draw people to you. Those are some of the resources we have available, and we also have free newsletters that anyone can sign up for and those are available on our website. You hear from Deb and I once a week.

Deb, let's talk a little bit about RuralX in Aberdeen, South Dakota. You were here last year and had a great opportunity to find out what some of the towns in South Dakota were up to and the innovations that were going on, some of those creative ideas. What are you hoping for this year's RuralX? What are you bringing to the event, and who are you hoping to meet?

Brown: Well, I'm really excited to be coming, first of all. Again, both Becky and I are. This year we're doing things a little bit differently. At one point, I'm speaking and I'm actually having the opportunity to talk to three different communities that took ideas from last year home and put them into place. We're going to be sharing a little bit about their successes and what's happened. Becky is going to be speaking on the second day and then together we'll speak at the end of the day. We're shaking things up a little bit. Talking about gathering your crowd, talking about building connections, and then doing a little motivational stuff at the end of the day. Who do I hope to meet? Ah, I love meeting people from small towns. I just want to meet everybody. The majority of people there are looking to really make a difference in their small rural community, so it's very exciting to see them come.

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Deb, gives us a little teaser of who those communities might be and what we might look forward to hearing from them from a success story standpoint.

Brown: Sure. Miller, South Dakota and you'll get to meet a couple of young people that did something last year. Winner, South Dakota, who just went crazy when they got home. Someone from Kimble, South Dakota, she went back and talked to those people, some of them on the committee of negativity, and has found a way to work better with them.

Interesting. All right. Anything else? Becky, what's on your mind today?Tell us another story, if you might, about another small town, not necessarily in South Dakota, that's doing something ... You mentioned a town in California. Another story that you've heard that sort of gives you hope for the future of small towns, rural towns in America.

McCray: I was just on the phone this morning with Julia McCray and her group of folks in Tionesta, Pennsylvania. In Forest County, they have an empty lot where a building burned and it sat empty for 10 years. Finally, the economic development group took it over and put up garden sheds and storage sheds, like you might put in the back of your lot. They picked the bigger ones, and so they're kind of cute. They put little fronts on them so they match the downtown buildings, and they filled them with tiny little businesses of their own, instead of waiting for a developer to come and do one big project. These have turned into a wonderful micro-retail incubator that has just revitalized the downtown of this community of 300 people.

What a great tool to go from empty lot to just full of bustling retail activity. That's one of the stories we told last year and one of the people, the two young men, Camden and Dylan from Miller, South Dakota that Deb mentioned who are going to be featured this year, what they did is they took that idea and they went, "Well, we can't take over a whole lot and put up new sheds, but we can go talk to the guy who already owns a storage shed, the guy who sells storage sheds." Then over Christmas, they put tiny businesses in these sheds that were for sale and made it part of their holiday celebration.

How cool is this? They took the whole idea-friendly [mindset], they did small steps, they did it ... The easiest thing to do was just to borrow somebody else's thing. They built a lot of connections between people that could do different stuff, and what a way to gather their crowd and bring their community together. Absolutely an idea-friendly example, and I love how they took the idea and made it their own and made it work there in South Dakota.