When my community economic development organization, Beans and Rice, Inc., hosts university alternative break volunteer groups we always include an economic tour of Pulaski County. The tour’s goal is to contextualize the students’ service learning experience within a wider geopolitical, historical, cultural, and macro-economic perspective. It provides volunteers with analytic tools to assess how local housing, jobs, education, business, global and national economic trends, and other factors impact the low-to-moderate income children and families they serve.
Tour participants commonly comment on the potential they see in the Town of Pulaski’s historic business district. Despite the obvious signs of economic distress, they appreciate gems like the Pulaski Theatre, the Ratcliffe Museum, and the historic train depot. Those who had the opportunity to visit with existing small businesses such as Linda’s Art Center and Lis De La Valle Boutique are impressed by what they find inside. They are highly complimentary of the stores’ entrepreneurial owners. Many describe downtown as charming.
I share stories from community folks who remember when you couldn’t find parking places downtown on Saturdays. At that time main street businesses from shoe to clothing stores to restaurants were thriving. I also explain the confluence of factors that created present day conditions. Looking back is instructive both to volunteers and community economic developers because it clarifies our forward looking vision. Understanding the conditions that led to downtown’s decline helps us create informed solutions that counteract the economic distress. Of course, I make clear that our town’s economic decline, a story of outside owners of extraction, textile, and furniture industries pulling out of town in search of cheaper labor, is one repeated around Central and Southern Appalachia. We are not alone.
While certainly latent with unique local flare and tales, our story is also ubiquitous. That’s important. Just as small towns like Pulaski have declined, many have implemented tested and true community economic development strategies. They have found their way back to prosperity. Examining what many other small towns have accomplished is absolutely critical. We have to take advantage of and compliment the exciting development and investment taking place at Calfee Park and on West Main Street.
Over recent months as I’ve spoken about downtown development with local government representatives, elected officials, entrepreneurs, and non-profit leaders, I have advocated for a broad-based, inclusive approach that marshals resources from many different sectors, organizations, and people. No single entity is equipped or capable of successfully revitalizing downtown Pulaski by itself. It is an approach echoed by community economic development best practices detailed in a comprehensive case study from the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center at UNC Chapel Hill. The report titled Small Towns, Big Ideas: Case Studies in Small Town Community Economic Development profiles 45 small towns with populations under 10,000. Half the towns are in North Carolina and half are located in other states.
Like Pulaski the small towns profiled by author Will Labme were economically challenged when industries and economic assets controlled by outside interests either downsized or left altogether. Because these assets were highly vulnerable to global economic shifts, the profiled communities learned a valuable lesson. Traditional top-down economic development models had inherent limitations. Staking your future on new multinationals or wealthy investors to replace the dearly departed was not the only answer. Narrow “smoke-stack chasing” and “sugar daddy” approaches overlooked local and regional assets. It did so at the peril of under-appreciated, smaller grassroots economic development activities. These assets were less susceptible to outside forces. They included natural, cultural, recreational, arts, entrepreneurial, infrastructure, and philanthropic capacities.
This is not to say the communities abandoned industrial development. To the contrary, the bottom-up foundation they built over several years often prepared them for success when new, larger industrial development opportunities presented themselves. Previously disregarded community economic development strategies complimented the more traditional approach. Furthermore, these small towns departed from the conventional wisdom that states, “If you build it, they will come.” The goal wasn’t to mindlessly stake your future on a new “they.” Instead the approach was to invest in “we” – our existing people and resources.
Lambe’s interviews produced seven common small town community economic development themes which I discuss further in part two of this series. One overarching quality is that all the profiled communities used solutions that were highly localized and specific to a particular time and place. None of the themes are presented as silver bullets. They offer a framework, not a prescription for success. In all cases making the framework successful required a broad-based coalition of people and organizations.
Many insiders and outsiders alike see downtown Pulaski as a charming little place with lots of potential. I’d like to see that change. I want people to visit downtown Pulaski and see a hustling, successful, and viable downtown district. It’s a change within our reach, but it won’t happen on its own. Downtown Pulaski needs us. We need to apply the lessons from our past and look at what has worked for other small towns. Now is a great opportunity to bring town and county government, small businesses, non-profits, arts and cultural organizations, schools, state level agencies, and citizens together. On Wednesday, April 29th at 9 AM that’s exactly what will happen. 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.
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.