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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."