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5 Ways Small Towns Benefit from Collaborating with Their Neighbors—The Case for Regionalization

Do we really want our neighbors to win?

Because we're all "good" people, we'd never say that we want the towns around us to lose, right? I mean, we're not that competitive...

The longer I'm in these discussions related to economic development, the more I'm convinced that we only give lip services to the concept of regionalization.

We say we want it because it sounds good, but if we're honest about it, we really don't want the other towns to win. And I hate to be so blunt about it, but that's essentially the same as hoping they'll lose.

I continually find myself making the case for demonstrating a regional mindset and even in an economic development meeting just last week I was asked, "Do you think the other towns around us want us to win?"

My knee-jerk reaction was, "I don't care." Then, of course, I had to backtrack because that's not really true. I do care. Deeply, in fact.

But didn't anyone else's mother ask them the clearly rhetorical question "If Johnny jumped off a bridge, would you?" Was that just mine? Alright, well, the point holds.

Just because others are or aren't doing something doesn't determine the "rightness" of the concept.

Just because the towns around us might not be fully embracing the idea of regionalization yet doesn't mean we shouldn't. Someone has to lead with a regional mindset because it's not only a good idea, it's probably crucial for our survival.

I truly, firmly, and deeply believe that if small towns are going to thrive, we have to release the Hunger Games mentality of "kill or be killed".

There's nothing wrong with wanting your small town to be the most successful. That's natural. But, the way we speak about the towns around us matters.

We can't afford to "win" at the expense of another community. Because in the end, that's not really winning at all.

From my experience doing organizational development for nearly 2 decades now, I see 5 specific benefits small towns get when they think about their community as part of a bigger region.

More Attractive to Funders

This should seem obvious, but since money talks, we'll start here.

Bigger funders rarely want to invest in one tiny town in the middle of nowhere; they like to see a collaborative effort showing that more than one community will potentially benefit from their investment.

One departure from this thought would be highly localized givers; local pride is a real thing and oftentimes, philanthropic or charitable bequests are made to a specific community. But hanging the future of your entire community on the hopes of that happening? Probably not much of a strategy overall.

State or federal funding, big foundations, and other grants often give more consideration to proposals that include more than one town; the only way to create a multi-community proposal is to have strong relationships with our neighbors.

Good for Business

If you have the audacity to open a small business, you need all the traffic and reach you can get. When the people who live in the small towns around you know about your business and shop with you, you have a much better chance of being successful.

We should all aim to know the people running businesses in the communities around us, especially if there are businesses that your community doesn't have.

I was reminded of this when watching one of my favorite holiday movies with my mom and my daughter earlier this month, Miracle on 34th Street (the 1994 version).

There's a scene where the new Santa tells a mom where she can find a desired toy for her little boy by shopping at another store. This culminates in a sassy and bold Alison Janney approaching one of the Cole's Department Store executives, saying, “You tell your Santa Claus that he made a Cole’s shopper out of me. I’m coming here for everything but toilet paper and bananas. Any store that puts the parent ahead of the almighty buck at Christmas deserves my business, and you can tell Mr. Cole that his Santa Claus oughta get a raise.”

The line is delivered with a thwack of her leather gloves against the manager’s chest. It's kind of ridiculous and silly, but there's a point.

The executives then pitch this idea as a marketing campaign: "If we don't have it, we'll find it for you."

Now, what does this have to do with small towns and regionalization?

Well, to me, kind of everything.

In my experience, we can do so much better at this within the walls of our own small towns, not to mention as a region.

When people are in your store and you don't have what they need, why wouldn't we want to be the store that helps them find what they need, even if it's not in our store?

And furthermore, why wouldn't we want to direct them to a neighboring town's small business owner versus sending them to a big city or heaven forbid, Amazon?

You can hate this idea. You can believe this is a quick way to go out of business (not so different from Mrs. Walker in the movie...although the marketing plan worked and she got a husband and a catalog house for Christmas, so...) and you can just tell the customer, "Sorry. We don't have that here."


You could get to know the products/lines/services offered at other businesses in your own town AND in neighboring towns, showing a desire to put the customer above yourself.

You don't have to believe in karma to know this is good business. People can feel it when their needs are put ahead of the "almighty buck". I love the idea of being a community that knows it and strives to be that.

More Enticing for Visitors

Now I'm not going to claim to be some kind of tourism guru here, but I have coordinated 2 successful bus trips to our small town and I'm here to tell you this: people will drive to your community when you make it easy and fun for them.

It's SO much more fun to check out little stops along the way rather than just driving straight from point A to point B. Make a day of it!

When you can suggest great stops for people to make along the way, it's almost like a "choose your own adventure" and it makes the entire trip an experience.

Get to know the cool small-town shops, eateries, and bars in your neighboring towns. Get to know the people who manage them. Invite them to come to your town and do the same. Experiences are built through variety; the trip to your small town will be more exciting for people if they have a unique set of options to discover.

More Enticing to New Residents

Just like visitors want variety, generally speaking, so do people looking to relocate to a new place. If we start treating our region like a bigger city and thinking of the neighboring towns as "extra amenities" whatever it is that our town is missing suddenly becomes less of an inconvenience.

No single small town can have ALL the things; as much as we want to try (And again, try! Do it! There's nothing wrong with hustling to get your small town pumped full of all the services and options you possibly can!) it's really hard to get a single location to have everything people might need/want if you're a relatively small town.

People are attracted to a winning team; think of how much more "winning" we'll appear if we show love and support for our neighbors.

A Stronger Future

Maybe you've heard the real estate adage that you never want to buy the nicest house on the block.

Now, I'll admit: sometimes, my analogies fall a little flat.

And this one has the grounds to be a bit shaky.

But, at first glance, it might seem crazy to suggest we wouldn't want to be the nicest town in a region.

I mean, if we're all competing for the same people, businesses, and workers, why wouldn't it make sense to be the best?

It does make sense. It's true.

It just doesn't make sense to wish for the demise of the communities around us. (Again, if you think that you aren't this negative toward them, refer back to #1. If you're not actively cheering them on, you're essentially wishing for them to fail.)

Do you know why it's not advisable to buy the nicest house on the block?

Because you can't bet on the houses around you to improve over time. You're not responsible for their condition and poor houses around you adversely affect the value of your investment.

Why wouldn't the same hold true for communities?

How exactly do we benefit if the towns around us die?

I think there's this notion that if the towns around us shrink, their school closes, or they otherwise lose population, we'll benefit.

That's not necessarily true.

If a neighboring school closes, those families will have lots of options to educate their kids, not just our town.

If the town next door's population shrinks, the core service and businesses in your town are just losing potential customers.

We don't win when the towns around us lose. We just don't.

This isn't the same as a sporting event where small-town rivalries thrive and our teams demonstrate the fiercest of competition.

Leave that mentality on the court, field, or track.

Embrace your neighbors. Love them. Support each other. And quit thinking about community development as if it's a zero-sum game.

If we want to be relevant and thriving five, ten, and twenty years from now, every small town will have to quit isolating itself and start opening up its minds and hearts to the people around them.

Finally, the last reason it makes sense to work together?

We are all working with limited resources of time, money, and people.

I don't see any future where the smallest of towns is suddenly going to set aside the kinds of dollars it would take to pay someone a full-time salary to do this work. And even if they could? Good luck finding anyone with the desire.

The world of community development continues to shift and change to meet a rapidly changing environment and just like the notion of attracting the next big employer is an outdated tactic for most small communities, so is the belief that we don't need anyone else.

Find the people in your town and the towns around you that are trying to do cool things.

You'll likely find a spirit of generosity, abundance, and a willingness to help.

Those people? Those are the ones that can and will help you combat these outdated ideas about how to move our small towns forward.

If you feel like you are that person and you want a little layer of built-in support, I encourage you to join our Small-Town Growth Club on Facebook. It's just a little pocket of the internet where cool people trying to do cool stuff in their small towns have congregated.

As always, we love to hear your thoughts. Is regionalization working in your area? What things have you tried? What's failed miserably? Share it with us in an email or pop into the group and let us know!


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