Can small towns be cool? Yes, he says

Researcher to put findings before Carroll officials

November 01, 2007|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

Involved residents. Places to hang out. Safety and security.

Those are among the characteristics of towns that thrive and have established an enduring presence, according to a researcher who has studied what makes some small communities flourish.

Dave Ivan is scheduled to present his findings to Carroll County's municipal leaders tonight, posing the question: Can small towns be cool?

The answer, Ivan says, is yes.

Local officials hope the researcher's insights could serve Carroll, home to eight municipalities with similar challenges and goals: limited resources, economic development aspirations, and creating a place where residents can live and work.

The prospect of fresh ideas motivated Sykesville Mayor Jonathan Herman, who saw Ivan's presentation at a Maryland Municipal League convention, to suggest hosting a session with local leaders.

"We share many of the same problems," Herman said of small towns. "If somebody has already figured out answers to my problems, I'm quite anxious to hear what they are. ... Surely the towns in Carroll County can employ a couple of their ideas."

Small communities might not have the amenities of a big city, Ivan said, but they offer other benefits: They can be safer and often boast higher-achieving school systems.

"In the past, small towns were very quick to kind of throw in the towel, [and say] `We're not a Baltimore, we're not a D.C., we're not a Philadelphia,' and they would just hope their kids would come back," said Ivan, a community and economic development specialist who teaches at Michigan State University.

The successful communities he has studied "aren't throwing in the towel," he said. "What they're saying is, `We can compete. ... We recognize who we are, we are what we are, and we're going to make sure we capitalize on that.'"

Ivan recently conducted a two-year study of about 250 communities - with populations of 20,000 or less - in 10 states. That work, along with his earlier research, led to a list of success strategies for small towns.

In a thriving community, the government reaches out to and engages its citizens, he said, involving them in its plans. Part of fostering such an environment, Ivan wrote in a report on his research, is having "third places," locations outside of home or work where people can meet and interact, ultimately building a sense of identity.

Such places can be particularly important for another key to small-community success: engaging the town's youths, perhaps eventually drawing them back home as adults.

"Many small towns are losing their best and brightest," Ivan said. Keeping them "actually starts when the kids are growing up." A "positive life experience" will have an impact as they grow and move on, he said.

Cultural activities that foster economic development also have helped some communities capitalize on their heritage and traditions, Ivan said. Easton, in Talbot County, has developed such a cultural destination, its historic Avalon Theatre, he said.

The concept is one that, beyond Westminster at least, has not fully developed in Carroll, Herman said.

"We really haven't had a tremendous amount of cultural opportunities," Herman said, adding that the notion of cultural activities spurring economic development can seem counterintuitive. "We have sort of a working-class, agricultural ethos, and culture doesn't necessarily seem to fit in."

Several mayors said they hope the meeting will provide ideas for their communities.

"If somebody has a better way of doing what we're doing, we are interested," said Bret Grossnickle, mayor of Union Bridge.

The more people understand what it takes to be successful, the more residents can help reach that goal, said Brenda Dinne, chief of the county's bureau of comprehensive planning.

"There's a lot to making a successful community," Dinne said. "The entire community is going to need to take ownership."

That observation parallels one of Ivan's findings. Successful small towns, he writes, share a belief that, in the long run, "you have to do it yourself. ... Their destiny is in their own hands."

Ivan's presentation is scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m. tonight in the Scott Center at Carroll Community College, 1601 Washington Road, Westminster. The event is free and open to the public.

10 keys for successful small towns

1. Strong engagement among citizens, community organizations and government.

2. Successful approach to land-use opportunities.

3. Willingness to adapt zoning regulations for new opportunities.

4. Actively pursues cultural economic development opportunities.

5. Deliberate effort to connect with youth and/or younger generation within the community.

6. Attention to natural amenities.

7. Local entrepreneurial investment.

8. Willingness to seek help from the outside.

9. Conviction in the long run that you have to do it yourself.

10. Lessons are learned from setbacks; successes are celebrated.

From "Can Small Towns Be Cool?" by Dave Ivan

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