Small Towns Share a Roadmap to Economic Recovery

Communities Find Smart-Growth Principles Prove Successful

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Casey Woods is executive director of Emporia Main Street in Emporia, Kan.

Dena Belzer is president of Strategic Economics, a Berkeley, Calif., consulting firm.

Posted: Wednesday, August 24, 2016 2:22 pm

If you’ve ever driven Interstate 35 north or south through the nation’s mid-section, you’ve probably stopped in Emporia, Kan. - or at least seen the exits. The highway bisects the small, Midwestern city, which lies approximately halfway between Kansas City and Wichita. If you’re familiar with the area as more than just a rest stop, you have likely observed some changes in recent years.

Like many small and mid-sized American cities, Emporia experienced population decline and economic stagnation in recent decades. Rather than resign itself to such a fate, though, the city picked itself up by its bootstraps.

In the last quarter of a century Emporia has taken consistent, incremental steps to revitalize and reinvigorate its economy - starting with the establishment of the non-profit Emporia Main Street.

Between then and now, the city has crept back from 40 percent building vacancy rates to attracting new businesses - including a winery - as well as organizing dozens of events each year and raising tens of thousands of dollars for ongoing projects. From farmer’s markets to beer, wine and food tastings to bike races, Emporia has deployed an approach to its revitalization that has been demonstrative of its resilience but also of the perseverance and passion of its residents.

So, what, exactly, does it take to bring a community back from the brink of extinction? The paths to economic development are about as diverse as the cities themselves. However, certain strategies and guidelines for success - particularly as they pertain to smart growth approaches - have been put forward by organizations like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Main Street Program, the parent organization of Emporia Main Street, which boasts over 2,000 affiliates.

A handful of EPA officials, consultants and representatives from small and mid-sized towns that have successfully reoriented their economic development strategies came together to discuss and share their approaches and their successes at this year's New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Portland, Ore.

Among the participants was Casey Woods, executive director of Emporia Main Street and the city’s designated cheerleader-in-chief. Woods said Emporia’s economic development has been guided by a four-point approach as outlined by the National Main Street Program. They are 1) organization, 2) promotion, 3) design and 4) business enhancement.

Smart growth principles come into particular focus via the design aspect of economic development, Woods said. This means, among other things, paying attention to the aesthetics of the community as well as creating walkable neighborhoods, which results in spending less money on fuel and creates opportunities for unique spaces and a closer community overall.

The overarching key to successful economic development, Woods said, is investment.

“You have a lot of communities that will say, ‘We have these different problems and we want to solve these problems,’ but we’ve always found that if you’re not willing to write a check you’re probably not going to solve the problem,” he said. “Investment usually denotes willingness to effect change. If you’re not willing to write a check then you’re probably not that serious.”

Woods admits it’s not easy though. “You usually start out pretty humbly,” he said. “It ended up being [a budget of] about $35-40,000 a year for the first few years.”

Once citizens and government officials in charge of the purse strings start seeing the return on their investments, he said, successes start to snowball.

“Governments have a hard time communicating the value of tax dollars,” Woods said. “But once you can say ‘Here’s all the things that occurred with the tax dollars and here’s the economic impact and these are not just feelings but these are actual numbers … then you start garnering more public support.”

In addition to investment, Woods said, it takes volunteers - lots of them. It also takes leveraging small wins into bigger ones. It takes patience. For Emporia, it seems the wait has been worth it. Last year, the city got more than a $152 return on every dollar invested in the city, according to Woods. (By contrast, he noted, the average return for a Main Street organization is $26 for every dollar invested.)

Other communities approach development directly via government itself, by applying for grants and pursuing assistance directed toward specific development purposes. This has been the approach taken by Kelso, Wash., a small community on the southern border of the state whose timber and smelt industries had withered away. The town banded together with the regional government entity to apply for funding specifically designated for smart growth strategies.

For communities committed to economic development via smart growth, there exists a number of funding opportunities, namely through the EPA. Dena Belzer, another participant in the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference and president of Strategic Economics, a Berkeley, Calif., consulting firm that has assisted dozens of cities and other government entities with how to manage growth and change, worked with the EPA to develop a plan for Kelso.

Their work resulted in a case study of Kelso as well as a more generalized framework for small cities and towns seeking smart growth economic development strategies. The reports outline five basic steps to developing such a strategy: 1) select a focus area, 2) define the context, 3) set goals, 4) identify existing assets and barriers, and 5) select the right tools.

Successful economic development employing smart growth principles, they say, requires building on existing assets, taking incremental actions and building long-term value to attract a range of investment. To complement this, Belzer said, “Cities should be careful about not trying to reinvent the wheel and look at what resources are available nationally. …Look around and try to capitalize on the experience of other communities and think about how that helps you understand the context of challenges in your own community.”

There is also the constant need to be flexible and responsive. Currently, Emporia Main Street is in the process of relocating its offices in order to put themselves in a position to co-locate with business startups, whereby the organization will take care of overhead costs and pay rent until the businesses can get off their feet. Woods made a sports analogy to relate the experience of working to help a small community to grow.

“If you’re 7’2” and 280 pounds, you can lumber down the court and you’re going to do just fine no matter what,” he said, referencing the advantage possessed by larger cities, “but if you’re 5’4” you better be fast and have good vision and shoot from outside. You have to spot opportunities and capitalize on them quickly.”

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