Visionary leadership and shared regional assets are critical for small town success

Small, rural towns that are distanced from large population centers will experience more sustainable economies through creative and effective strategies for regional collaboration and cooperation.

You know the saying, “location, location, location” is everything! However, location is not the only key to community success. Strong, visionary leadership is a decisive factor in the success or failure of small towns. Extreme issues which now challenge our rural communities call for creative solutions, a willingness to take risks, and possible criticism for proposing new ideas. The very people who live and work in our community can provide that creative leadership necessary to make our hometowns vibrant and prosperous. We must think in terms of how to succeed as a region instead of how to compete with our neighboring communities.

To be a successful rural community, our local leaders must consider original solutions, increase regional cooperation and provide new economic opportunities, especially for young people. According to Kent Bushnell, Oregon State University, in Rural Jobs, the biggest barrier that young people often mention to returning to their home community is not that their hometowns are “too small,” but there is a real lack of job and career opportunities.

This out-migration of youth decreases the available labor market in the area. The decreased labor market then contributes to lack of new business that develops. The lack of new jobs then circles back to the labor market leaving to find work. This cycle must be stopped! Young people value their hometowns and many would prefer return there to raise their families.

We need to focus on questions of how we can support our local leaders in working together to move our interdependent rural economies into a 21st century system of place-based opportunities and strategies.

In “A Special Message on Community Development and Local Government Reforms

to the Michigan State Legislature, Gov. Rick Snyder states, “Each community contributes to the overall success of its region. People, companies and talent do not move to specific communities – they move to regions. Being globally competitive as a region requires understanding, mapping and pooling regional resources and assets. Local governments, the private sector, schools, higher education and nongovernmental and civic organizations must collaborate to make Michigan’s economic regions, and ultimately the state, competitive.”

By working together we can accomplish much more than is possible individually. In fact, many solutions to our small-town challenges can be found in some type of regional cooperation. These agreements will often establish a new method to share scarce local resources.

These solutions require a team effort: residents, government and the private sector all working together to help communities and neighboring communities determine and develop their regional competitive advantages. However, regional solutions will work only if they are supported locally.

Michigan State University (MSU) Extension offers leadership programs for both new and experienced youth and adult leaders who would like to develop or improve their leadership skills.

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