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An old storefront in downtown Chippewa Falls now houses the new House Blend Lighting and Design Studio and Max's Bistro and Bar.

RICE LAKE — Can small towns be cool?

Yes, absolutely, keynote speaker David Ivan of Michigan State University told those attending the Wisconsin Rural Summit held April 24-25 in Rice Lake. “Can Small Towns Be Cool?” was the theme of this year’s conference, which drew dozens of community leaders from across the state.

Despite aging populations and economic decline, many small, rural towns nationwide — from the tiny ranching town of Ord, Neb., to Sparta, N.C., which has developed a successful workforce education effort leading to new jobs and 12 percent productivity growth — have reinvigorated themselves in recent years, according to Ivan, who has a Ph.D. in community sustainability and vitality.

One common thread among thriving small towns is the engagement of young people in designing their hometowns and a focus on strong social capital, with networks that link and bond community members. Young professionals clubs are crucial, no matter the size of the community, according to Ivan.

“Provide opportunities for (young people) to offer their voice in community decision-making. Leadership in rural places often is the same that’s been in place for 15 to 20 years. People sometimes feel that there’s not a pathway for them to contribute to what’s happening in the community,” he said.

Typically, people won’t work for goals they don’t “own,” Ivan said, but small towns often just expect people to “wash their rental cars,” so to speak; they must feel like they’re part of the community and will benefit from its success.

Reach out to youth

Reviving a small town begins with creating hope and marrying that hope with a vision for the future, Ivan said. Sometimes, the culture in rural towns if one of jealousy and being judgmental of another person’s success, he said. However, successful entrepreneurial communities have just the opposite attitude, propelling people higher in a meaningful, purposeful way through a range of business support tools, networking, options for accessing capital and youth engagement.

“They drill down to the youth,” Ivan said. “They recognize that they have to plant seeds with the next generation of entrepreneurs in their communities. ... Reach out to young adults. Get them to believe in their community.”

Fairfield, Iowa, is the “poster child” of community-based entrepreneurship, he said. The weekly newspaper features entrepreneurs in a weekly column, and the local high school has an entrepreneur hall of fame, as well as an extensive mentoring program. A local “angel” offers venture funds to complement traditional resources.

As a result of these efforts, Fairfield has gained 3,000 new jobs in recent years and tripled average personal income, Ivan said, and the community has repositioned itself from a regional perspective.

Columbus, Ind., also has created an “ecosystem” in which entrepreneurs who want to connect with others like them can thrive, with new networks, mentoring and online business resources accessible any time of the day. Most people starting a business get their information between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., Ivan said. They like to “fly under the radar” to avoid having others ask them what they’re up to. Columbus also has a high school business planning competition focused on viability and innovation.

Wisconsin’s Juneau County, a very rural area with a population of about 25,000, has launched a countywide club for entrepreneurship and innovation, using a “big-city approach” to connect people and promote synergy, Ivan said. Viroqua has done a holiday pop-up shop and “54665” podcast about small businesses.

“It’s a tremendous tool in terms of pushing any button we can push to help emerging entrepreneurs get started,” Ivan said.

Janesville has hosted a “Shark Tank” style competition with 40 contestants. The winner received free rent for a year, and all participants received follow-up assistance. Dave Armstrong, executive director of the Barron County Economic Development Corp., said many entrepreneurs build their companies to the level of their expertise and education, then get “stuck,” so ongoing training is key.

Often, a downtown is the face of the community: “People will judge the vitality of a community based on the health of that downtown,” Ivan said.

As a way to boost its struggling downtown, Marion, Va., population 8,500, started a small business boot camp for aspiring entrepreneurs. A $5,000 grant is offered to new businesses in targeted sectors. Jonesville, Mich., assists businesses with market data research and negotiation of lease arrangements.

As a way to help fund community economic development initiatives, Ord, Neb., population 1,200, tapped into some of the money that changes hands when farms pass from one generation to the next. Many times, that money is lost to the community forever, so Ord developed a wealth transfer plan so families can commit a certain percentage, such as 5 percent, to the town.

As a result of this effort, Ord has built a “war chest” of $10 million, Ivan said. Much of the endowment has been funneled into a youth entrepreneurship program. Often in small towns, graduates get the message that they have to leave after high school; communities must work to encourage them to “boomerang back.”

“It’s all about enhancing long-term vitality,” he said.

A sense of place

The next generation is the first to identify more strongly with “quality of place” and place attachment than with their employers, Ivan said. A recent Michigan State survey of 40,000 graduates over 4½ years revealed that 35 percent, while they expected to launch their careers in a large city, could see themselves returning to smaller towns.

Westphalia, Mich., in the heart of an agricultural area and a “one-church town” with 500 residents, engaged the faith community and local youth groups to build a student-run business in an empty storefront downtown. The sandwich and ice cream shop, in business for eight years, has become a gathering place for local young people, with a line out the door most weekdays after 3 p.m., Ivan said.

“It sends a great message to the youth,” he said.

Dubuque, Iowa, has completely changed its trajectory after the struggles of the 1980s, according to Ivan. The community is engaging area talent from universities and colleges and better connecting with the region at large. Dubuque has established a young professionals college chapter to connect with the chamber of commerce and developed an internship academy and loan forgiveness program.

“If you have a positive internship experience, you’re more likely to pick that company and therefore, that community as a future place to work and live,” he said.

YouTube videos have worked to change the general perception of the community among young people, Ivan said, adding that the next five years may define the next 50 for this city of 60,000 people.

Ivan said it’s important for rural communities to build their local talent and workforce infrastructure; to that end, they must seek to enhance broadband connectivity, education systems, medical facilities, downtowns, access to affordable housing and childcare, and renewable-energy initiatives.

Pella, Iowa, perhaps best known as the home to Vermeer Manufacturing and Pella Windows, developed a 21st-century version of the “welcome wagon” in an effort to try to retain talented young professionals. Many workers stay a year and a half or less, but the “Positively Pella” campaign weaves young professionals into the fabric of the community and has led to a “marked” improvement in talent retention at both companies, Ivan said.

“As you look at your small towns, think about ‘What are we doing to welcome newcomers?’ “ he said. Key to young professional engagement is the “third place” factor, or a place to hang out outside of work and home.

Ivan said it’s important for community leaders to set the narrative in their communities, as people tend to move in the direction of their conversations. Part of this is creating positive memories for young people as they grow up. For example, Bothel, Wash., hangs banners celebrating youth. Jonesville, Mich., built a rock wall in response to the requests of children.

“We tend to discount the youth voice,” Ivan said. “Create economic and career choices that are appealing to youth to combat brain drain.”

He encourages small towns to build on their unique history, culture and assets to foster a sense of community pride and increase social interaction.

Finally, Ivan said, “successful towns have a conviction that they have to make things happen themselves” instead of waiting for outsiders to provide direction or funding.

Community members in Argonia, Kan., for example, built their own grocery store/convenience store after the local shop closed, and they’re pursuing a housing development through which they would offer homes at cost to new families; closing costs would be paid for families with children.

“They’re not waiting for things to happen to them,” Ivan said. “They’re being proactive.”

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