In part one of this series I introduced a community economic development framework for helping revitalize downtown Pulaski. That framework is well informed by a comprehensive case study called Small Towns, Big Ideas. The study identifies 7 themes in small town community development. Looking at these themes and translating them into our local context is important. I see the themes as valuable guideposts for Pulaski’s efforts. They help us discern a vision for downtown’s rebirth. In many cases we find the seeds are already planted and significant steps have been taken. Our core challenge lies in putting it altogether within a cohesive strategy. Here’s a look at the seven themes, some examples of how they’re working in Pulaski, and suggestions on how a coalition might help foster more economic opportunity in downtown Pulaski.
Lesson One: Community Development is economic development
Community economic development starts with the assumption that developing the long term capacities of people and things exists in order to produce positive, long-term economic benefits for everyone. Economic development is as much about investing in people and community infrastructure as it is in attracting investment. Housing rehab and micro-enterprise development programs are common approaches.
Local examples are plentiful. In recent years the Town of Pulaski completed blight elimination and affordable housing redevelopment projects in downtown. Since 2008 Beans and Rice, Inc. and Pulaski County Schools have partnered to seed entrepreneurship in K-12 afterschool programs. The MicroSociety afterschool educational framework has been used at Pulaski Middle and Dublin Elementary schools.
To further these efforts, I believe existing resources, programs, and organizations need to come together and create a wrap around small business development service plan that benefits entrepreneurs from all age, income, and racial backgrounds. MicroSolutions, the micro enterprise development program operated by Beans and Rice, Inc., can leverage its loan fund, financial, and national service resources to assist new entrepreneurs requiring less than $50,000 in start up funds. Our individualized business development resources can also help existing Pulaski county micro-businesses grow, test new products, and diversify their product lines to take advantage of new tourism, sports and recreational markets. An organization such as The Chamber of Commerce, on the other hand, is well positioned to work with downtown real estate developers, market available properties, attract new ownership, and develop a facade improvement program.
Lesson Two: Successful efforts are proactive and future-oriented, embrace change and assume risk
Successful small towns look inward and clearly define their own economic identity and values. Rather than focusing on outside resources or on the way things have always been, they decide who and what they want to be and then put a proactive vision to work. These communities are versatile. Instead of reacting to change, they embrace it, change with the times, and find ways to reinvent themselves.
Perhaps no better example exists in Pulaski then the rebuilding of the historic Train Depot. A 2008 fire completely devastated a historic and cultural landmark. Town leaders, however, found a way to preserve its historical integrity while also turning into a revenue generating event space. Furthermore, insurance proceeds were used to construct a new, modern facility to house town artifacts. The Raymond F. Ratcliffe Museum now features one of the town’s true assets – Dr. Brockmeyer’s O Gauge Model Train Display.
Additional approaches for embracing change and assuming risk are required. Pulaski must better harvest its artistic and cultural assets. Finding a way to help the Fine Arts Center transform the Rutherford Building into a modern artisan center should top the list. While the project requires considerable financial risk, its completion could broadly impact arts related downtown economic activity. Combined with arts and cultural events at the Pulaski Theatre, downtown Pulaski could become a significant arts destination.
Lesson Three: A Broadly held local vision is essential
Communities come together across sectors and backgrounds in order to name their assets and create a strategic vision. These communities take a broad view of economic assets. Once fully articulated and defined, they creatively leverage those assets to produce tangible “economic, civic, social, and environmental gains.”
In my view this theme is the missing linchpin of our previous efforts. We simply have not come together in a meaningful, broad based coalition to formulate a shared vision and clear plan. As a result many different people and organizations are working toward positive outcomes in a disjointed, sometimes duplicative manner. Bringing the community together over a period of time is the most effective step we can take. We should conduct an asset definition exercise, develop some guiding principals, and assign people and organizations clear, strategic roles and responsibilities.
Lesson Four: Assets and opportunities yield innovative strategies
Competing with larger, economically rich communities means looking for competitive advantages in unexpected places. Small towns can’t stop with traditional economic development incentives. Innovative assets may include leadership development programs, volunteers, nonprofits, green space, recreational facilities, and museums.
The town recently used its Calfee park asset to spur investment and help attract a global brand – the New York Yankees. By selling that asset to a private owner, the town will reap a several million dollar investment impact between Calfee Park and the extended stay hotel. Additionally that impact can produce broad-based ancillary economic activity over coming years. Other opportunities for Pulaski to develop innovative assets may be found in its size and proximity to Blacksburg. West Main Development group’s efforts may help develop Pulaski as a mini-hub for technology entrepreneurs. These tech start-ups may need to be near the corporate research center but could thrive away from it thanks to Pulaski’s lower cost of doing business.
Lesson Five: Innovative local governance, partnerships, and organizations help
A second innovative aspect Lambe discussed related to organization and governance. These towns embrace regionalism, find creative revenue and financing strategies, foster public-private (including nonprofit) partnerships, and involve state level policy makers and resources. One innovative financing structure I’ve been a part of launched MicroSolutions. The Town of Pulaski, Pulaski County, GPA, the RU Small Business Development Center, and the NRV Development Corporation all played a program development role with Beans and Rice, Inc. As a result town, county, and state financial resources helped create a local micro loan fund that today has $200,000 in available capital. Additionally, the entrepreneurship training and counseling services are partially funded by federal AmeriCorps dollars.
A possibility for stoking the local arts and cultural economy would be organizations such as the Fine Arts Center, Pulaski Theatre, and Ratcliffe Museum working closely with Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce. A tightly crafted marketing and branding strategy could help establish downtown Pulaski as an arts and cultural destination. A second innovative public-private partnership might involve working with the Community Foundation of the New River Valley to establish a community and economic development endowment. Interest earned on the endowment could fund revitalization projects that fit a yet to be established comprehensive strategy.
Lesson Six: Identify, measure and celebrate short-term successes
Short-term wins lead to long-term, sustained success. Many of the towns profiled choose strategically “doable” projects to kick off their efforts. Once citizens and organizations became invested and saw their involvement could produce tangible results, they were ready to tackle larger strategic initiatives. They also developed adept public relations operations. They constantly communicated and celebrated theirs successes so that impacts were documented for both internal and external users.
This is an area where town government can take the lead. After the strategy and vision are created, the town could fund a revitalization mini-grant program. Let’s say the vacancy rate for downtown retail space is identified as a clear objective. The town could award a marketing mini-grant to an organization(s) such as the chamber or GPA. The goals would be to recruit new businesses and real estate investors. Through a specific RFP process, goals, objectives, targets, measures, outputs, and outcomes would be established. Town PR resources could promote interim success stories. Using a post grant evaluation report, measurable results would be collected and shared with stakeholders such as the media, economic development staff, and partners.
Lesson Seven: There must be a comprehensive package of strategies and tools
Finally, communities Lambe interviewed overturned every single economic development stone. All strategies were kept in play and helped move the effort forward. Successful communities always avoided a piecemeal approach. The many parts and players acted together in concert. Their actions were aligned to an overall strategy, core assets, and a regional context. In my opinion this lesson is critically important for Pulaski. Lots of great things have happened and are happening in and around downtown Pulaski. However, the parts have lacked cohesion and alignment. Our mandate should be clear. We need a broad coalition working toward a shared vision.
The need for that broad-based coalition to gather around core principles is the reason town and county government, elected officials, small businesses, entrepreneurs, non-profits, state level agencies, educators, and citizens are convening on Wednesday, April 29th at 9 AM. Beans and Rice, Inc. will host a community economic development forum at the Pulaski Railway Station. I’ll provide an in depth profile of a successful peer community. The forum will also feature a panel of community development leaders. We’ll end with an interactive discussion of the seven themes and their local application. The event is open to the public but space is limited.
Please register online at www.beansandrice.org.
All the information provided above is for knowledge sharing purposes only and is the expressed opinion of myself, Eric Bucey and not others. This includes (but is not limited to) my membership organizations and/or employers.