What is it that you do with SCALE, Inc.?
SCALE has been around for about seven years. It came as an outgrowth of about 25 years of work, mostly in Appalachia, around trying to build healthy, more diverse economies in the region and other parts of the country. We do everything from feasibility studies and business planning, to hands-on training with small businesses, with entrepreneurs, with farmers, all sort of geared towards trying to make local economies—rural, small town, and other—more diverse, more sustainable in an ecological sense and better for the citizens.
What do you think small towns could learn from the work you’ve done?
It’s been interesting because I’ve had this chance to do a lot of research about what’s happening in small communities around the country as part of this book that I’ve written. A couple things: one is that I like to say that we need to stop chasing jobs, kind of indiscriminately, and start thinking about what is the work that needs to be done. Because in every community there’s real work that needs to be done, but it doesn’t always translate into creating jobs for people. But if we start thinking in those terms—in some parts of our region, it’s the work of rehabbing old housing stock or fixing up old buildings that can become new tenants. In some places, it’s rehabilitating abandoned mine land or restoring forest land, so it’s a lot of different things. But first of all, if the economic developers don’t just think about ‘we need jobs,’ which almost all communities do, but ‘what’s the work that we need to do in our communities?’ and then ‘once we’ve identified those needs, how do we translate that into jobs and into businesses and into economic opportunity?’
Another thing we like to say is to think about building local wealth. Again, jobs are very important, but some jobs cultivate more wealth then others. Some jobs, maybe the business pays fairly well for a while, but if the business up and leaves, and no local capacity has been built, then you don’t have sustained economic prosperity—you have sort of like booms and busts. So we put a lot of focus on—whether it’s helping build the knowledge and skill of people in the community or whether it’s building up the capital of community, the actual real tangible assets–thinking in terms of building real wealth that is durable, that’s going to stick around for a while.
What kind of challenges do you think small towns in particular face?
Well, a lot of it is resources, and here again I think those are real challenges. It’s true that a lot of communities are resource-poor at this point, but it’s also true that even in some of our poorest areas, there is capital, there are people who have money. Mostly, they are investing that money outside of the region. People like Michael Shuman and others have talked a lot about how do we keep capital from leaking out of our communities, because if we could get people to re-invest locally through everything from creative, like slow money and other kinds of community capital to other mechanisms, then we could harness what we have better. That would be one challenge I think small communities face that there’s a potential solution for.
Another is that oftentimes public policy makes the work that we do locally, harder, even as an obstacle to it. I’ll use as an example economic development incentives. Very often, the same people in the community are working to revitalize, let’s say a downtown, and they’re trying to support local businesses and entrepreneurs. They’re trying to create livable, walkable communities in very small places. Then simultaneously, they’re also part of recruiting businesses to the periphery of town, to the edge of town, giving them a whole lot of money to come in many cases, and then those businesses may pull people away from the downtown because they can kind of do one-stop shopping right off the interstate without having to go downtown. We need to make sure that our larger policy supports the work we are trying to do to build these healthier, more interesting, more walkable, more livable downtowns.