Photo: Attendees at Vermont League of Cities & Towns discuss small community economic development strategies.
When most communities pursue economic development, local leaders often think of creating a burst of economic opportunity from large employers that can quickly increase employment for residents while at the same time increasing revenue into the municipality’s coffers. However, this strategy often does not support a diverse entrepreneur ecosystem and can increase a municipality’s risk of “placing all your eggs in one basket.”
In Vermont, I saw a different approach. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns convened a Community and Economic Development Forum that challenged local elected officials and municipal staff to think differently about economic development. In a state where small communities abound — only eight of Vermont’s 255 municipalities have populations in excess of 10,000 – cities and towns are exploring new and innovative approaches to boost economic growth.
Local leaders were invited to consider economic gardening, which promotes sustainable and long-term economic growth through non-traditional initiatives – from cultivating community engagement from diverse stakeholders to creating spaces for ideation, and from leveraging small dollars to support economic development, to removing the weeds or barriers for local economic engines. Each of these steps is critical to the economic vitality of any community.
At the Community and Economic Development Forum, local leaders learned five overarching strategies to help small towns leverage their community’s strengths.
Build your civic infrastructure
Economic development can often be viewed just in terms of capital, buildings, theatres, and new jobs. All too often, we lose sight of the residents as the engine that create, promote, and engage economic development locally. The forum’s keynote speaker, Rebecca Sanborn Stone from Community Workshop LLC, encouraged local leaders to focus on developing a Civic Infrastructure. Civic Infrastructure is looking at what is already available in the community, how the community connects, and who you are as a community. Check out her presentation.
Leverage municipal resources to support and grow local businesses
In the town of Bethel, VT, the community worked with the municipality to create a pop-up within the renovated town hall called Bethel University. The community-led educational program, which attracts residents and people from across the state and region, organizes classes on a variety of topics and interests.
The town of Brighton, VT, is known for skiing during the winter, but has struggled to attract off-season tourists. So town leaders created 33 disparate festivals that occur throughout the year. One of the most popular events is the Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Weekend, which was created after Brighton discovered that its annual chicken dinners simply were not profitable. A small team of local leaders and volunteers was able to attract over 15,000 people to a town of only about 1,200, representing a 1,200 percent increase in their population.
Inspire local entrepreneurs to dream and implement
In the city of Detroit, MI, despite being a large city, the community launched Detroit Soup in the small neighborhoods to support local entrepreneurs. At Detroit Soup, attendees pay $5 and receive soup, salad, bread, and a vote to decide on the best business idea pitched at the event. Think Shark Tank for the community. The winner receives the evening’s proceeds to launch their idea.
Use placemaking demonstrations to implement permanent ideas
Through AARP’s national work around placemaking – or the planning, design, and management of public spaces –AARP Vermont has led the way for promoting placemaking opportunities for a variety of communities in the state. Every year, AARP offers $3,000 through its Placemaking Demonstration Project. The friendly competition encourages municipalities and organizations to “employ temporary changes for the goal of leading to permanent change that support healthy active lifestyles for people of all ages and abilities.” Check with your state AARP to see if they offer this grant.
As a title sponsor of NLC’s City Summit this year, AARP will present creative ideas on building age-friendly and thriving communities.
Get out of the way of community ideas
Finally, local leaders are urged to challenge the status quo. Throughout the Community and Economic Development Forum, a thread of reducing policies and regulations that stifle a community’s efforts to dream and implement new and sometimes crazy ideas was common. It is easy for municipal officials to be adverse to change, fearing its impact on the community and future elections. However, being overly cautious can impede your community’s ability to develop and grow economically. Removing barriers to community ideas sometimes take the form of changing policies, ordinances, or even challenging the thinking of municipal staff and officials that “this is the way it has always been done.”
VLCT Executive Maura Carroll said, “It’s wonderful to see local officials be so enthusiastic over the available resources and tools that allow them to work on economic development throughout all of Vermont’s towns and cities.” To learn more strategies and insights to support small municipalities, click here.
Timothy Evans is a program manager at NLC within the Center for Member and Partner Engagement.