My father said it best as he stood posing for a photo in a tobacco field while visiting his homeplace after 50 years away: “It’s so good to be in Kentucky!” he exclaimed. Dropping my camera, I reminded him that he had been living in Lexington, Ky., for 20 years. He responded with a wide grin: “I’m not in Kentucky ‘til I’m in West Liberty!”
Ah, I thought. He got it right. As many places as I go, representing the Kentucky League of Cities, people always ask about the place they used to live: Do I know someone from Ashland? Is that corner store still down on Main Street in Cadiz? As much as our world has grown, bewildering large and small at the same time, no one can take away our identification with place.
But we are leaving our small places in droves, you say. Small towns cannot survive in a world where big and famous mean everything. Now I’ll quote my mother: We “have another think coming.”
That’s partly because of today’s technological advances. It is literally true that we can live and work anywhere, thus we don’t have to seek out economic opportunity in a metropolis. Not only are we seeing the palpable comeback of small towns, we’re even seeing the reinvention of big towns into smaller ones.
Of course, our small towns must recalibrate their thinking if they are to thrive – and make no mistake, many of them will not. On the other hand, Moscow, Idaho, and Morehead and Madisonville, Ky., are the sites of initiatives in which citizens came together to develop a vision and plans for the future. We call them the super M&M’s. These community initiatives have won prestigious awards as models of small-town revitalization.
And other communities can learn from them. The M&M initiatives had three elements in common – they were connective, selective and directive. Being connective means that they brought citizens together to identify their common values and priorities, the connective tissue of their community. Doing so is difficult in a world of mobility, but more important than ever.
Being selective means that the communities recognized that they could not be all things to all people – they distilled what they wanted for themselves and held to the vision. For instance, Youngstown, Ohio, is in the process of reinventing itself as a small town following the loss of its steel industry.
Finally, the communities were directive, which means they empowered a cadre of involved citizens and leaders to be determined and intentional in their efforts to make the community a better place. Great communities place into play a process that allows a community to deal with two inevitables: setbacks and change.
In doing all this, Moscow, Morehead and Madisonville have shown other small towns across America how they can thrive – by connecting, selecting and directing to shape the future.