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How does the mayor of a small agriculturally driven town who desires growth actually change the downward population trend and direction of his or her town?

“All change is hard at first, messy in the middle, and so gorgeous at the end,”—notes writer Robin Sharma.

The first step is admitting the need for change, embracing change and communicating to everyone the need for change and why. Change is hard, isn’t it? But, anything worth doing is usually hard.

In this example, the mayor has taken the first step and is closing in on the second—admitting the need for change and embracing change. A continual decline in population is scary. If a town isn’t growing, it’s dying. The third step is ready for the third step in change—communicate the need for change and why. Here’s how: The mayor starts talking to community members, identifying potential movers and shakers, and inviting the community to a stakeholder meeting.

At the stakeholder’s meeting, the mayor might consider having someone else (an outsider) lead discussion. Topics of discussion include identifying the community’s strengths and weaknesses in every area—for example, infrastructure, education, health and wellness, business and industry and public safety. It takes being real honest with ourselves at this point. It’s hard to hear but it’s necessary for change.

After the stakeholder meeting, the inputs are sorted out and put into a document for everyone to read and review. Ideally, the community comes together again to review the document and make some decisions going forward. Another idea, to gain outside perspective, the community hires a consulting firm to conduct a study, meet with community leaders, etc. Either way, the community sets goals and creates a plan for the future. At this point the community has fully embraced change and everyone knows the need for change and why.

With a plan in hand, the mayor and team can start researching opportunities for funding change. Does the city have funds for projects? Are there outside funding opportunities in the form of grants at the federal or state levels? If so, is there a local match for those grant funds? Can the town create incentives for redevelopment and encourage investment? Are there partnership opportunities within the area that could create positive development for mutual benefit? We sometimes think a neighboring community is our competition, when in reality, we are all in this together and we need each other.

Agriculturally driven towns have hope. They have a mayor that cares. The mayor can rally the troops and create a team with a vision. Their town does not necessarily need to move away from agriculture as their base. They can play upon it. Does the rural landscape provide opportunities for recreation and tourism which yields investment in the local economy? Does the town have untapped natural resources? Is there an opportunity in agriculture that has yet to be considered? Is there another industry that could be developed that ties into the town’s agricultural strengths?

There is one thing that has not been mentioned. “We have never done it that way before.” Naysayers. They can stifle opportunity fast. The mayor and the movers and shakers must prepare for and expect the “no.”

“A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”—Harry Truman, 1884-1972, American president [1945-1953].

The future is bright in Rural America! Small cities and towns with vision and a willingness to pivot when necessary will prosper! Let’s go!

—JaNae K. Barnard, the executive director for Major County Economic Development Corporation in Oklahoma, can by reached at 580-227-2512 or janaeb@majorok.com.

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