Director, City Solutions
National League of Cities
What does the National League of Cities have to offer small towns that is valuable that they might not know about?
I think the most valuable thing tends to be the networks. Elected officials like to learn from each other. Sometimes the most valuable thing we can do is just put the right elected officials in a room together where they can talk to each other. They often get more out of a lunch together then they get out of a month of city council meetings. We have guidebooks, and resources; our website, our education training programs. All these kinds of things for city officials who can travel, our training programs are first rate. For those who need to do some online courses, we’re developing some of those. So those are some of our key resources.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for mayors and town managers in small towns?
I think partly it’s about attracting new residents and keeping the residents they have. Sometimes it’s about housing and maintaining good housing stock and keeping it affordable. There’s also the notion of economic mix: Is there some businesses being created, is there entrepreneurship? Is there something that is thriving? Is there something they have that’s unique, that is the thing that brings people to the community rather than passing through the community?
Do you find that that’s a key thing to identify?
I do – the whole agenda for place making. The notion of the uniqueness about a community; sometimes it’s history, sometimes it’s proximity to nature. Sometimes it’s historic buildings, sometimes it’s a wonderful main street, sometimes it’s the local businesses. All of these things that make a place unique, that make it desirable to be in. Places I’ve been to near Washington, like Shepherdstown, other places I’ve done research on like Kannapolis, North Carolina, where the leadership is redeveloping the entire downtown. Eureka Springs, Arkansas, that has been made famous by the ARC in the Ozarks program. There are all sorts of things like this that are the wonderful things about smaller communities that make them unique and make people want to go there and continue to live there.
What do you wish that mayors of small towns knew that they don’t know?
I think sometimes they tend not to want to learn from much larger cities. It’s a natural expectation that a larger city has so many more resources, so much more dollars, so many more people. But in most cases, the process tends to be the same. They’ve gotta think about the vision. They’ve gotta think about the stakeholders, they’ve gotta think about where they want to take it. They have to assemble the different parts. They’ve gotta dedicate city resources. All of these things are processes that local governments do, whether it’s new York, whether is Shepherdstown or some other smaller community. Whether it’s Kentucky or Tennessee or New York or Pennsylvania. So some of those processes are the same. I think local officials if they understand that, they can get a lot of ideas from other cities, not just their neighbors, but ones on the other side of the state and ones in neighboring states.
Are you optimistic about the future of small towns?
I think so, yes. I see the migration patterns of young people, millennials in many cases, singles, newly married, maybe without children, there is this tendency that they want to gravitate to the urban centers. But if you look at some of the research, they also, when they have children, they want to be out in homes with more space and with yards, and with sometimes a bigger community. So there does seem to be this continued willingness for folks to want different things in different stages of their lives. While the urban environment may be great for singles, newly married and maybe people with young children and then for seniors and empty nesters – there does seem to be this mix. Not everybody wants denser living; not everybody wants walkable amenities. Many people want space, or they want proximity to nature, or they just want bigger houses. So I think because people want a myriad of housing and lifestyle choices for the myriad of places they are in their lives, that the small towns, and medium size towns and cities, are gonna be places that are perfect for people in the different stages in their lives. And we’re a mobile society, still, by and large, and so I think there is this willingness to pick and choose where you want to be based on where you are in your life. That’s all the more important, then, for smaller communities to figure out what they have to offer that’s special and unique.