The economic pain being felt in small towns across the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic is not something most people want to talk about.
But Becky McCray will.
“I wish we didn’t have to talk about this, but it’s something that’s on all of our minds right now,” said McCray, co-founder of Save Your Town, a consulting business that guides people toward making their small towns a better place to live.
“All small towns are facing the challenge of rebuilding their local economy. And the advice we hear is often meant for cities or big business districts. It doesn’t meet our small town reality.”
Recently, McCray was the featured speaker during K-State Research and Extension’s monthly online series, First Friday e-Calls, which helps to nurture small businesses and inspire entrepreneurship in Kansas.
A highly sought-after speaker, McCray noted that rural communities are usually pretty resilient, having survived dips in the agriculture markets, oil busts, recessions and more.
“The current crisis is different for a couple reasons,” she said. “This time, we have lost a lot of jobs and even entire businesses. The businesses that remain are not in great shape. And it’s not just locally, but the whole country and the whole world.”
“Right now,” McCray added, “we can’t depend on help from the outside, so we are going to have to focus on what you can do with what you already have locally.”
She said that being resilient in challenging times will require that towns develop an “idea-friendly” attitude.
“We need to be more open to new ideas,” McCray said. “Iowa State University studied 99 small towns over 20 years and found that the communities that survived the best were the ones that were open to new ideas. And it makes sense. If you are open to new ideas, you can deal with new challenges.”
McCray said three ways to be ‘idea-friendly’ include:
• Support participation in business by many people. Start a community-wide email list to promote all businesses in town. “Your goal is to build a huge, combined list that reaches as many people as possible. What you’re trying to do is rally everybody in the community to support local businesses and keep up to date with what’s going on.” Use the list to share photos, videos and other information; and to communicate which businesses are providing delivery, curb-side pickup, phone orders, special hours and more.
• Connect businesses to each other. Fellow business owners can often help more than experts. Find others in the community who may already be successful at selling products online, grant writing, or marketing on social media. “You’re going to find ways to connect and re-circulate money in your local economy so that it can do more good in your community.” In the short term, money circulating because of business partnerships helps the local economy. Longer term, the partnerships formed help the local economy become more resilient to future shocks.
• Take small steps, rather than high-risk bets. Businesses should seek ways to help customers, such as offering flexible payments or by offering smaller items and budget-friendly options for products. Loyalty programs, Buy One/Get One deals and small giveaways are incentives for local residents to support local businesses.
“Don’t forget to talk about how you’re giving back,” McCray said. “Tell people about it. Put it in that new community-wide email that you’re starting. You and your local businesses are the ones doing something for your people, so talk about it. These small steps build feelings of pride and community, and you are building your social capital.”