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Honor: A Small Town Can SurvivePrint

Thriving Communities | June 13, 2012 | By Glenn Puit

Milan Wall said Honor, Michigan is on the right road when it comes to revitalizing the Benzie County community.

Milan Wall has spent much of his professional life in small towns across the United States, and he knows small towns can survive and, in many cases, even thrive in today’s cutthroat American economy.

“It’s a myth that small, rural towns don’t have a chance,” said Mr. Wall, co-director of the Heartland Center for Leadership Development.

Mr. Wall was in Honor, Michigan Monday night, speaking to Honor area residents who’ve committed to making the Benzie County community the best it can be. In Honor, local residents formed HARP, or the Honor Area Restoration Project, and are working together on a long-term plan for economic development and community pride in the small town on the Platte River.

They want a town that has job opportunities for locals, acceptable aesthetics, a vibrant tourism economy, and, most importantly, an environment that breeds small-town success.

“We feel very comfortable tucked into our (beautiful) valley with our river,” said Shantel Sellers, co-founder of HARP. This recognition of the town’s natural environment assets, Ms. Sellers said, “are…(perhaps) the key to survival.”

Mr. Wall and Heartland Center Senior Associate Kurt Montoya were in town to offer help in a segment of Michigan that has recognized the importance of long-term strategies for smart community growth through the Grand Vision.

The first thing Honor and other small towns in Northern Michigan, can do, Wall and Montoya said, is to acknowledge that myths about small town survival are just that: myths. Montoya urged a group of about 15 Honor area residents to dispel the following:

Residents gather in Honor Monday evening to discuss revitalizing their historic community.

Myth: Towns That are Too Small Have no Future

“What’s too small?” Mr. Montoya said. “I’ve been to communities of 50 that are vibrant.”

Myth: You Have to be on Water or an Interstate

Not true. Wray, Colorado has built a successful small town anchored around a top-notch hospital, recreation and other amenities.

Myth: Industrial Recruitment is the Best Job Growth Strategy

“We find that entrepreneurship creates more jobs in the long run,” Mr. Montoya said. “Economic gardening.”

Myth: Small Towns Can’t Compete in the Global Economy

Not true, said Mr. Wall. Technology, cooperation and regional strategies can create economic hot spots that don’t have to be urban based. Also, many urban communities depend on rural communities for agriculture and other products.

In contrast, Mr. Wall said there are certain characteristics of successful small towns that are universal. They include:

Evidence of Community Pride/First impressions

Aesthetics matter. Communities need to be really concerned about how their communities look and feel and what kind of amenities there are.

“We’ve got to get rid of this message of sending our youth away,” Montoya said. “Yes we want you to go get an education…but we also want you to (consider) coming back home.”

Awareness of Competitive Position

“You need to have specialties,” Mr. Wall said. “When communities figure out what their advantages are in the marketplace, they are in a better position.”

In Honor, he said, the area’s natural resources, including woodlands and fisheries, are spectacular. The community is also on the highly traveled U.S. 31 and the route to Sleeping Bear Dunes. Mr. Wall said Honor should look at offering more opportunities for families. A recent regional summit held in Traverse City also emphasized the importance of placemaking and creating great community public spaces.

Good Schools

“For years we thought the best way to attract business is really low tax rates,” Mr. Wall said, adding that while low taxes certainly help, “of the top 10 reasons for businesses relocating…taxation usually runs around 7 or 8. What’s higher is quality education, transportation, health care, and quality jobs.”

Good Infrastructure/Having a long-term Vision/Smart Spending

“Spend your resources wisely,” Mr. Wall said. “They are considered investments. Public and private…spend them so they fit within your vision.”

Recognition That It’s Up to You

A critical aspect of successful small towns is cooperation across traditional boundaries and an environment of working together as one. Successful small towns seize on multi-generational leadership and make sure there are leaders to succeed when others step aside.

“You are the one in charge of the destiny of your town,” Mr. Wall said.

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist and journalist at the Michigan Land Use Institute.