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13 June 2011 - What Makes a Small Town Thrive?

Every week it seems, I have more questions than answers. That is why I like to turn to you, from time to time, to get your thoughts and ideas on subjects discussed on Samuelson Sez. The subject this week is the ‘Health of Small Towns in Rural America’.

“Why do some small towns,” as one e-mail writer recently put it, “simply dry up and blow away, while other small towns seem to survive and in many cases thrive, in rural America?” It is an interesting question. I have heard many theories why small towns “have dried up and blown away”. The interstate highway system gets blamed often because it allows people in the country easy access to shopping centers in bigger cities so they abandon the businesses on Main Street. Then, farms are getting larger, small farms are disappearing, and that leaves fewer people to support Main Street. There is also the Walmart argument. Walmart comes to town and businesses on Main Street give up and close their doors.

That does happen in some rural towns, but as I travel the country I find many exceptions. I can attest personally to the Walmart story because it happened in the city of Viroqua, the county seat where I grew up in Wisconsin. That community made the front page of the Wall Street Journal several years ago because of its success competing with Walmart, simply because Main Street businesses refused to give up.

So, what is the difference? I think it is a combination of pride, spirit, people working together, a strong agricultural economy and a refusal to accept defeat. I saw all of that a week ago when I spent a weekend in West Point, Nebraska, a town of 3,660 people, about a 90-minute drive northwest of Omaha. This year it staged the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Ball, a major annual event to raise money to fight cancer that attracted nearly 5,000 people for the day-and-half program. The planning started three years ago and when the Executive Committee asked for volunteers to work on the project, more than 800 of the 3,600 people in the community stepped forward to serve on more than 20 committees. The work paid off with a program that came off without a hitch and raised more than $1-million for the Eppley Cancer Research Center, a record amount for the 13-year history of the Ball.

I saw and felt all of the ingredients I mentioned earlier in the short time I spent in the community with its very proud (and friendly) residents. The citizens of West Point, Nebraska have good reason to be proud of their community!

If you live in a small town that is thriving, let me hear from you at orion@agbizweek.com and tell me why, so I can share it with my readers.

My thoughts on Samuelson Sez.