All small towns have the potential to thrive — but success doesn’t just happen. It takes coordinated action and creativity from local people.
Becky McCray knows this well. As the founder of SaveYour.Town and Small Biz Survival, she speaks to rural audiences around North America about how to make things happen in their communities. (You can listen to her talk about her “Idea friendly method” of rural development on our podcast).
Big changes are happening, and the pandemic accelerated many. McCray spoke to us about some emerging trends that small towns can use to their advantage. So if you’re looking for ways to give your community a boost, here are some of the most significant recent trends that could work in your favour:
People want a rural lifestyle — and now they can have it
One thing we’ve learned recently is that a lot of people with office jobs don’t really need to work in an office. Instead, people are happy and productive working from home and connecting with their colleagues and clients through Zoom and other platforms. So if you can do your job from home, does it matter where home is?
A lot of people who would prefer a rural lifestyle have felt tied to the city for work. Now, they can rethink their situation. McCray said if small towns want to make themselves more attractive to these newly-flexible workers, they should identify ways to support them.
“That includes your internet service, places where people can sit down and work that aren’t an office, and opportunities for people to connect with your community in a meaningful way, even though they’re not built into an employer,” she said. “That used to be the way we set up our socialization. So find ways to involve people in your community.”
More support of local retails — when it matters
Not only has how we work changed – how we buy things has shifted as well. But this doesn’t mean people buy everything on Amazon. In fact, McCray said, consumers’ buying habits have split. People might buy the stuff that doesn’t matter to them from an online retailer, but they will seek out a local source when it matters.
“If you care about having organic granola that was raised by small farmers with great care, close by, then you will arrange your life to make sure that you get that,” she said. “…Stuff that doesn’t matter goes online and efficient. Stuff that does matter you want to be personally involved in. That’s where the opportunities are in the future of retail.”
Rural is a destination holiday
These days, people need vacations and crave more time in nature, but they are much more likely to drive than fly. They also want authentic local experiences. Small towns can capitalize on these travel trends.
“This definitely means it’s an opportunity to shine locally with just who you are without trying to be something you are not,” McCray said. “So talking about your parade, talking about your local rodeo, talking about the opportunity to connect with farmers are all compelling tourism draws right now.”
What’s the best way to get the word out about what your town offers tourists? Get online. Get your family, friends, and former visitors talking about their experiences in your town on social media. Be, as McCray calls it “very talkable”.
Your town might not have a symphony orchestra or a 5-star resort, but we bet it has fun, unique experiences people will want to have on their next road trip. So be friendly and enthusiastic about what your area has to offer and be loud about it on social media, and people will want to check it out.
Appreciation of natural surroundings
Access to nature makes rural places appealing travel destinations but also attractive places to live. Take advantage and make better use of your local, natural assets to not only make life more enjoyable for residents but to use as a selling point for people who might like to relocate to your community.
“This trend of natural recreation goes all the way back to over 100 studies that have shown being in nature is good for us,” McCray said, “so this is a great trend for rural areas because nature is so much a part of what we have to offer.”
Tiny things can result in something big
There’s a good chance your town has an unused or underused building that someone could transform into something unique. McCray’s go-to suggestion for many communities is to divide a building or other space into something people can use.
“Create more opportunities for people to do little, tiny things that generate commerce, and that gets people to talk to each other,” she said. “So that can be the big, shared building full of little, tiny businesses selling things, or it can be the festival and fair in a parking lot where everyone has an opportunity to share and spread the thing that they’re doing for the community.”
By providing a bit of simple infrastructure, your town can allow people with small business ideas to try it out without taking on too much risk or making a giant leap.
Now what? Start small
So you have some ideas for how your town can use these trends – but where to start? And what of the nay-sayers who might stand in your way? According to McCray’s idea-friendly method of community building, start small enough that you don’t need to ask permission to try something.
“There’s always those same 10 people who tell you no, and that ‘you need to go through channels’, and ‘that’s not how we do things’, and ‘you’re going to need to get our approval’, and ‘we’re going to need to see proof that it’s going to work’,” she said.
Instead, come up with an idea, put the word out on social media or through a message thread, and get people to show up. Try it small first, so you can show that it’s a good idea when you do scale up.
“We have a parade, we have a speakeasy, we have a community dinner, and it happens because we can do those things together,” said McCray. “…I promise you the direction we’re heading is less formality. More just doing things together, and creating that sense of community.”
Have an idea for a rural business or project? Talk to us about whether it could be a co-op.