Big Ideas for Small Cities: 6 Mayors Discuss How to Get Creative on a Budget

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Union City, Ga., Mayor Vince Williams at the Big Ideas for Small Cities EventUnion City, Ga., Mayor Vince Williams at the Congressional City Conference Big Ideas for Small Cities event on Sunday, March 8, 2015. (Jason Dixson)

In a large city, implementing a creative idea doesn’t necessarily mean choosing between innovation and laying off a police officer. Smaller cities, on the other hand, have a significant challenge when it comes to establishing new programs – a smaller budget. This afternoon, mayors from small cities gave examples of out-of-the-box ideas that didn’t break their bank. Here are six ideas they shared with Congressional City Conference delegates:

1. Build your brand around a cultural endeavor: Mayor Jud Ashman of Gaithersburg, Maryland encourages small city leaders to define their community to the larger world through culture. The Gaithersburg Book Festival attracts prominent and celebrity authors from all over the world, not to mention scores of attendees who eat, shop, and stay in the city of Gaithersburg, which normally has a population of 64,000. He shares three tips for putting on this kind of game-changing event in your city: get the whole community involved (including schools, libraries, and private partners), make sure it occurs at the right time, and choose the right event for the market.

2. Believe in your own city. Mayor Nancy Backus of Auburn, Washington says “Show everyone how much you believe in your city, and they’ll believe in you.” Through a very tough economic time, Backus and her council asked “What can we do to attract developers?” And answered their question by restraining development fees, securing grants, and starting a small business assistance program.

3. Put people on your team without putting them on the payroll. If you have the challenges of a big city without the resources, Mayor Christian Price of Maricopa, Arizona suggests finding people in your city who can help change the narrative. These are well-connected, outgoing citizens who can serve as “ambassadors.” They are given accolades and responsibility to debunk the idea that their city is less desirable than their neighbors. Mayor Price’s ambassador program has tremendously changed the story of Maricopa, through real citizens who love their community and want to share it.

4. Have vision for your community. Mayor Vince Williams of Union City, Georgia transformed a failing mall into a movie set, and brought 800-1200 jobs into his city in one year. After a lot of work and state lobbying, this endeavor brought incredible opportunities for young people, huge growth in small businesses, job training, tourism, and tax credits. Identify what challenges could transform into something beneficial for your whole community.

5. The three most important ways to improve your community are partnerships, partnerships, and partnerships. Mayor Garrett Nancolas of Caldwell, Idaho created the Caldwell Youth Master Plan using resources from NLC’s YEF Institute and collaboration with public and private partnerships. For example, the city now offers free swimming lessons for all 3rd graders with help from the bus companies, who bus kids free of charge to this important after-school program that directly correlates to a major improvement in reading scores. Crime has gone down and reading scores have gone up since Mayor Nancolas began collaborating to meet huge goals. Caldwell is now considered one of America’s 100 best communities for young people!

6. Provide education for your business owners. After his city lost its successful and vibrant downtown due to big box shopping centers and online retailers, Mayor Stan Koci of Bedford, Ohio joined with his small town downtown retailers to revitalize the area through education. To reengage with the community identity of Bedford, he invested public dollars to fund free classes to give retailers the tools they need to grow with the times and prosper as small business owners.

Want more big ideas? This event kicks off NLC’s brand new, ever-growing database of City Practices. This is a resource for you to find examples of initiatives and projects in cities of all sizes across the country.

Mari Andrew bio photoAbout the author: Mari Andrew is the Senior Associate of Marketing at the National League of Cities. She works hard to help city leaders build better communities, and believes the world would be a better place if people wore more creative clothing.