These rural towns have renewed their appeal.
In 2001, the lumber mill in Cascade, Idaho, shut down. Cascade, population 1,000, was on its way to being another casualty of the shrinking timber industry. But locals refused to let their town die.
Today, money is still tight for many Cascade families, but their community is dedicated to making the town a great place to live. There’s a Cultural Arts Center with after-school programs, makers’ Mondays, and volunteer-led lessons that range from ceramics to canning. Local kids get free kayaking lessons at the whitewater park at the edge of town. There are clubs for stargazers and birdwatchers, garden plots at the food bank, and dedicated volunteers who steer a 501(c)3 nonprofit that serves as an umbrella for emerging community projects.
Guided by a local study of the state highway that runs through town, the city built new crossings to make it easier for kids and older people to cross the busy road. The result: Cascade is safer and more walkable for locals and visitors, which is good for business.
Filling storefronts. The symbol of a town’s decline is boarded-up storefronts. Fifteen years ago, Greenville, Kentucky’s Main Street was lined with them.
In 2007, mayor Eddie DeArmond and city manager Ben van Hooser spearheaded a “Let’s Paint the Town” campaign. About 100 locals spent a few Saturdays pulling old siding off vacant storefronts, painting their facades, and cleaning up Main Street, says current mayor Jan Yonts.
Locals formed a tourism commission to attract visitors. They started planning events that have evolved into a series of Saturday concerts that now draw as many as 8,000 fans to the town’s square.
Yonts says city leaders cobbled together a budget from federal Transportation Alternatives Program grants, conservation funds, and a Safe Routes to School program. They rebuilt streets and sidewalks, funded the development of a nature park a few blocks from the courthouse, and dressed up Main Street. Almost overnight, Greenville became an inviting place to visit, shop, eat, and stroll.
In Ontario’s Upper Huron town of Clinton, business boosters held an innovative Win This Space Contest last May. They invited aspiring business owners to pitch judges on backing their ventures with a year of free rent downtown.
Thanks to local contributors, all five entrepreneurs who entered the competition received free rent for a year. Now, downtown Clinton is filling up. It has a jewelry boutique, children’s bookstore, bridal shop, wellness center, and an artsy learn-to-paint business.
“Their full idea was if you could get businesses established in downtown, businesses behind them have families. These families have children, children go to school, and they shop at the grocery store,” says Cathy Lennon, executive director of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA).
Similarly, OFA’s Producing Prosperity initiative aims to convince food processors to move out of congested, expensive urban areas, and relocate to rural communities. Processors would be closer to their inputs and an eager workforce, Lennon says, and could help attract infrastructure funds to the countryside.
People-focused. A key first step in revitalizing a community is to focus on the people who live there. Jon Barrett, executive director of the Idaho Rural Partnership—whose website (irp.idaho.gov) features profiles of community revitalization efforts—says Cascade is a great example.
“Cascade is not trying to do things to attract others from outside the community,” Barrett explains. “They’re saying, ‘what do we want to create for ourselves? If that attracts other people, great, but what do we want now?’”
Theresa Perry, who helps lead the Horizons’ Lifestyle and Education Team in Cascade—the umbrella group for clubs and community projects—points out that the planning process needed to account for all residents regardless of economic status. The resulting conversations delved into relieving physical and social isolation and addressing food insecurity while also drawing in well-heeled neighbors and visitors to the whitewater park or local motels.
Thirty miles north of Cascade in McCall, Idaho, Chamber of Commerce director Lindsey Harris says tourism took the economic lead after the city’s lumber mill closed in the 1970s.
She adds that Main Street businesses there have learned that locals can help reduce deep seasonal slumps when tourists go home. That helps maintain cash flow and allows businesses to offer more steady, full-time jobs, attracting workers, and keeping money flowing through town.
“Catering to locals in down times has been successful for many businesses,” she says. “Salmon River Brewing does $2 Tuesdays and BOGO Wednesdays. McCall Brewing does $1 beers in fall and spring, and the places are packed. The staff is still making money, and ideally, our businesses don’t have to lay people off in the shoulder seasons.”
Vital infrastructure. McCall is making its downtown more pedestrian-friendly, trying to zone affordable housing, and improving a road that leads to lake houses near town. But “infrastructure” means even more now.
“One in five people telecommute in this area,” Harris points out. “The city just declared broadband as an essential service, just like water and sewer. That gives us a huge leg up, even for vacationers—you can work while the kids are at the pool.”
Harris is quick to point out that not every effort yields a new road or faster internet, but each one is important.
“Celebrate the small wins,” she advises. “If you get that one kid that moves back and starts a business, celebrate that story.”
Adds Gary Thompson of the University of Idaho’s McCall Outdoor Science School, who co-founded a leadership academy to prepare locals to tackle civic challenges, “progress is just one click of the knob at a time. You’re dealing with levees instead of dams.”