Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
As I've often said, the word "community" applies to so much more than an address or zip code. My favorite application of the word is to any grouping of people with similar goals.
Here in predominantly rural central Minnesota, we are on the verge of extinction as communities. I know that sounds severe, but hear me out.
A hundred years ago, everyone lived, worked, learned, worshipped, shopped and played right here at home. Saturday in Kimball was shopping day, when kids could be dropped off at city hall for movies and fun while parents shopped downtown. And everyone went to church Sunday morning, then home for family dinner. That's just how it was done back then.
But increasingly in the age of jets and computers, that's just not how it is anymore.
If we need a few groceries, or some nails and a screwdriver, off we drive to St. Cloud. (And then we wonder why small-town stores wither and disappear.)
We live in one town, work in another, while our kids may go to school in yet another.
Our dreamy little towns in central Minnesota are becoming nothing more than a place for people to come home to sleep, while they do everything else somewhere else.
We've recognized this for awhile, and we've hired consultants and had meetings. Yet we haven't "saved" our towns yet.
Ask just about anyone on the street, or at any of these meetings, what our communities need and they'll blurt out more businesses. Some big warehouse operation or factory will bring jobs and taxes, and they'll save the day - they may as well ride into town on a white horse.
I've done some research on this, though, and the painful reality is that we're just not ready yet.
a) No established company is going to take seriously an offer of tax benefits or land or ready workforce in our small towns until every group and layer in our communities can speak and act as one. There can't be a division of thinking or goals or responsibility between local government, schools, businesses, churches, and residents. There just can't be.
b) If some company were to come in now, before we're ready, it would be to exploit us and then pack up and leave after they've used us up.
Nope. Bringing in more business right now would be putting the cart before the horse, and it could be disastrous. There is a lot of groundwork that has to be done first.
The very first step is that we have to stop blaming each other, or waiting for the other guy (or group) to do something.
Then we need to work some more on breaking down all the "walls" we've built up around ourselves. No more "that's a chamber thing," or "the city should do more about ...." And no "if only the schools ...." The geographic walls we've created have got to go too.
We're all in a fragile boat trying to survive stormy seas. This is not the time to refuse to help the port side of the boat because you're on the starboard side. That kind of thinking will sink us all even more quickly.
I'm always amazed at the variety and extent of human resources we have right here in our small towns. We have those who are well educated, some who have incredible talent, many with great passion, and others with energy and drive. Not everyone with passion and drive has the talent needed to move us forward. Not everyone educated or talented has the motivation.
To use the boat analogy again, TOGETHER we can row this boat to a safe harbor where we can all live and thrive for many years to come. With separate interests and in-fighting, we become bedroom suburbs of Saint Cloud, nothing more.
There is hope
I like to think of myself as an optimist, sometimes sickeningly so (despite what you've read here so far). There is hope. I wouldn't invest myself here if I didn't believe we can come together for the future.
In 2008, I completed a leadership program geared for editors and publishers through the Minnesota Newspaper Foundation and the Blandin Foundation. I've learned a lot, some of which is still filtering down into my brain. Perhaps the best news is that we can learn from other communities; we don't have to re-invent ourselves, or fumble our way through the dark to find hope.
The city of Tupelo, Miss., is an example of how the poorest city in the poorest region in the poorest state in America could re-create itself, through much cohesive effort, into a thriving city that is the economic hub of 16 counties. And it only took 80-or-so years to get there.
What started it all was a forward-thinking man who bought the local newspaper. He capitalized on his connections with various groups in town and encouraged them to think and act together. He and the newspaper saw the bigger picture, and they were in a unique position to orchestrate the concert that has made Tupelo such a success.
I will continue to research both Tupelo and examples of smaller towns to see what specifically we can learn and adapt from their successes. I welcome your feedback on this, too. There is lots of energy, talent, good will, and drive out there. We need to focus it onto community goals, then recognize and encourage each positive action so that it can be replicated and repeated. That's my job and responsibility.
"What's good for one is good for all," is a sort of motto in Tupelo. It's one we need to take on here, especially now.
Forget about differences in age, income, address, occupation, denomination, education, and all the other things we use to divide us into little groups and sub-groups.
Instead, remember that we're on a ship floundering into oblivion. We've got to get our act together, now more than ever before, and move forward before we sink.
We can do it. I know we can. Just watch us do it!