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10 Things You Need To Rebuild a Dying Town

Posted on Thursday August 16, 2018 at 01:04PM

It can be done. There are economical reasons why it should be done. There are lots of ways other communities are doing it. But, and its a big but (see what I did there?) a community cannot be saved if there is no "community" to rebuild.

Community starts with the people who live there. Here are some things I've observed, learned, been taught and paid attention to:

1. It takes good people on Council who are willing to make changes.
Being on Council is a tough, tough job, when you do it right. For some, however, they are disengaged, put upon, burned out and beat up by the constant complaints from the ever entitled who want their community to be different, and who are not willing to do anymore than stomp their feet and pound the desk at the Town Office, at coffee row and on social media. It takes a tough Council to take a look at the difference between revenue and projected costs and to bravely charge the community what it costs to provide services. The backlash for any tax increases is brutal, immediate, and often very, very personal. It takes a Council with a skin like a ball glove, and the ability to manage this conflict through a combination of revenue growth, reduced expenditures, and debt elimination. If the way you've always done it in your community leaves you with not enough money to meet your basic needs folks, you are in an unsustainable position. Changes are coming, and you might as well lead the change...it is possible. There are others doing it. You can too.

2. It takes a good Administrator who is trained and supported by that Council.
The basic training does not equip Administration to lead the community by themselves, in fact, they are the voice of Council. We are living in a transitional time for these communities as more and more of them become aware that their current way of life is no longer sustainable, and the way forward is unclear. Yet, for some reason, Councils are loathe to take the training available to them, will not pay to train their Administration or their staff and remain around the table, with their arms crossed, and their brows lowered complaining how they never get a break. If you want to rebuild your town, communities need to learn how to work together to do that. Councils need to re-engage their communities. The people in the board room cannot do it alone, and should not do it alone. Send your Administrator to training, to go to conventions, and to bring back those ideas. And if you don't want to do that, then YOU go, and meet with your Council. Learn different ways of doing things...find a fit and do it. Many do. You can too.

3. It takes a few good people, willing to be champions for the community.
Somewhere along the line, we the people of the community have become a little bit of an entitled bunch, expecting Council to do what we think is right, without turning up to vote. We go about our day, expecting everything will move along with us...and then we find out much too late, that we are all in trouble balancing the community books and we look for someone to blame. Start with the mirror. We all have a role here. If you want to rebuild a dying town, you need to get actively involved in a positive way. Man, I love that "Why Not Whitewood" thang as a concept...championed by a few local folks. Do you remember how Manor built that rink? If you took that same moxy and applied it to community development there is nothing, I mean nothing, those folks couldn't get off the ground. There are examples everywhere, you can too.

4. It takes people willing to put some back into it.
Depending on where your community is at, it may take more than attending a few community meetings. For some, whose revenue is way out of whack with the expenses looming on the horizon, it may take a lot of work. For some, the community won't have enough breath in it to sustain the effort, but for others...well, in the old days, if a community needed a blacksmith, they built a shop and hired a black smith. If they needed a livery, they built a livery and hired people to run it. Little by little they built their community up from a few people. Now, we point at the next town and (insert whine here) cry "why do they always get stuff?". Well, because someone built it. Often, someone in the community invested in their own community by building what was needed, and creating jobs. There are co-operative models, and all kinds of ways and means for a committed group to grow their communities. You just have to put some back into it. You can too.

5. It takes a welcoming community, open to new ideas and new people.
You may think your community is a welcoming open place, but if you want to see how you look to the rest of the world, google your community. (Sounds weird, right?) But seriously, google it. If there is nothing there that shows something you are doing that is innovative, diverse, inclusive, welcoming, chances are your message is not getting out there. If you don't have a website, some presence on social media, you do not exist to the outside world. The way our communities are built, are like a ponzi scheme, needing the constant cash of new development and population growth in order to pay for the expenses of the past 20 to 50 years. None of us are having the number of kids we used to have, and so our populations are not growing organically. If Saskatchewan's death rate doesn't already exceed its birth rate, it will soon. A recent article noted that Saskatchewan is now losing more people than its gaining through province to province migration, and the only reason we still have population growth is due to immigration. Unless you are willing to start having the huge families that drove the population during the good old days, you are going to have to be open to people moving into your community, and not just tolerating diversity, but celebrating it. Lots do. You can too.

6. It takes a willingness to invest in your community, by supporting local business.
Most people think I mean shop locally, when I'm saying this, and I do think you should when you can. However, there have been all kinds of examples where local businesses count on their unique position to take the place of good prices and friendly competent service. I think as much as community needs to shop locally, and support local business, local business needs to understand that especially now, being a great place to shop goes a long way to getting customer loyalty. When business owners are surly because they feel entitled to your business, it puts a stank on the whole operation. It works both ways. The nature of my business is that most local people don't know I have one, and so I'm seldom hit up for donations, but boy, if I was the same kind of business where people ask for donations and then go buy their goodies somewhere else, I'd be so miffed. If you want to rebuild your dying town, be aware that every dollar you spend in another town goes to that other town and it matters. If you want to rebuild your dying town be aware that every customer you chase away is dollars spent somewhere else, for you and sometimes a lot of other businesses as well, and that matters. We all have a role. Business retention and expansion plans help. They work. It can work in your community too. 

7. It takes a commitment to long term planning.
Your community did not get in trouble over night, and you are not going to bail it out over night. It takes a long term commitment, and either doing some hard community planning, or implementing that planning you have already paid to have done. That's right...those plans that are sitting on the shelf are part of the keys to your survival. Why would you leave it on the shelf, secure in the knowledge that you met the legislated requirements? If you didn't implement the plan then you wasted the money and you missed the point. Apathy people? Too busy? Then hire someone. Move. Forward. Lots are, and you can too.

8. It takes a plan to raise your own revenue.
Very, very, very few communities are able to get grants in comparison to those that really need them. Learn how to write them, but don't count on them. Designate someone in the community to be the official grant writer and then support them to get it done. Do your asset management plan, and then come up with a plan to raise the money to do the fixing. Do NOT wait for someone to come and save you, because there is nobody coming. If your community finally gets to the point where the costs outstrip the community's ability to pay its own bills, there is no government program waiting to bail you out. Your RM does not have to bail you out. You. Can. Die. In Saskatchewan. But you don't have too. Lots are trying new things and making their way. You can too.

9. It takes being business friendly.
I am moving my business out of my home office soon and to downtown Carlyle, because I live there, I like the office space I found, and I feel like I'm getting a good deal from the people who I will be renting it from. Me moving out of my home office is step one. Step two is finding a person who shares the vision to share the work. Step 3 is building my team, and making my succession plan. If it works, (and why shouldn't it?) I should have created a sustainable business and maybe a half a dozen new jobs, as well as inspired the creation and support of many others. Everything I need to gear up is right here. Maybe eventually I will set up a second location, in a small town in Manitoba, and a third location in a small town in Alberta. I will pick communities who are ready to welcome me in. You can build a business friendly community too.  Lots are, and you can too.

10. It takes a willingness to change, not who you are, but the way you do things.
If what we always did still worked, it would make sense to romanticize the good old days and keep doing it that way. But the reality is that most of our communities need to change how they do things in order to continue to function in the world today. The ideal would be to keep that wonder years charm your community had--the ethnicity, the charm, the community identity.  If you have a few committed people, I strongly believe you can turn it around. Others are doing it. You can too.

Author: Solomon Matthewson Consulting

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