By Enoch Elwell
There’s something exciting afoot if you look through the negative national narrative on the decline of small cities and towns across the United States. Despite suffering significant economic loss which spawns a culture of grim survival, a growing number of communities are beginning to break free of the past in an unexpected comeback. Taking local institutional leaders by surprise, rapid economic and cultural transformation is occurring in unlikely places, often led by strange grassroots groups of creatives and non-traditional entrepreneurs. A new type of entrepreneurial culture is springing up everywhere.
While exhilarating to experience, the dynamics and drivers behind these changes appear to be random and are difficult to articulate. Looking deeper into the patterns behind these outliers, a common theme emerges: communities that experience rapid transformation have consistently identified unique local trends and have focused their efforts to ride in the power of the trend, experiencing exponentially greater results.
For almost a decade now, I’ve been working with these grassroots leaders. In just the past few years, our team has had the privilege of working alongside over 600 of them, wrestling through the unique challenges and opportunities in their 151 communities. Through sharing learnings, stories, and resources, we all do our best to help each other amidst the chaos that surrounds this cultural shift in the communities we support.
“Communities that experience rapid transformation have consistently identified unique local trends and have focused their efforts to ride in the power of the trend, experiencing exponentially greater results.”
As we’ve worked with various communities, we’ve noticed that the speed and scope of this cultural transformation varies greatly from community to community. Some communities experience something incredible—a seemingly instantaneous explosion of community engagement, entrepreneurial activity, and resulting economic growth—while others struggle.
My own community, Chattanooga, TN, is one of these fortunate outliers. Labeled as the dirtiest city in America in the 70’s, it is now lauded as a model entrepreneurial ecosystem, and has seen a significant cultural transformation occur, with rapid economic growth as a result. Other communities with which we’ve worked, such as Cincinnati, OH and LaCrosse, WI, are following a similar pattern. Watching some communities experience rapid shifts in their trajectories while others doing the same type of work struggle to move forward prompts a few key questions: What happened? Why these communities? What’s different? Why now? Is this just luck or can we replicate this phenomenon?
Before we look at the outliers, we need to understand the larger context. The way economic development has traditionally been done is being challenged, with a new systems-wide “ecosystem building” approach taking hold. This new approach focuses on holistically supporting a fertile environment for local businesses to launch and grow, rather than on primarily recruiting businesses from outside. As this ecosystem building model has become more established, excellent tools and resources are being developed and shared, helping shift economic development activity on the community level.
Many leaders of the field codify these resources by looking at the entrepreneur’s journey. The assumption is that if a community creates an asset map of existing support resources for entrepreneurs, identifies gaps, and fills the gaps to ensure something is provided for every stage of the journey, then the community will be best positioned to have success. However, with limited time and money, most communities are only able to truly excel in a few areas. And those areas of focus may or may not be the most significant drivers of change. While these frameworks are incredibly helpful, a very important set of factors are being overlooked—context, trajectory, and timing.
Looking at the communities with which we’ve worked, what looks like chance or serendipity actually has a pattern behind it. Communities that succeeded didn’t do so because their leadership, regional assets, or programmatic interventions were well funded and perfectly implemented. Rather, they were aware of deeper trends in their community and were able to seize the moment, using the power of a unique turning point in time to accelerate rapid cultural transformation. The context and trajectory of the emerging trends were recognized, and efforts were focused on timely interventions that played off of the particular moment of focused excitement and energy.
From what we’ve seen, I believe communities follow a predictable life cycle, needing different activities and supports at different stages in order to thrive and grow. While we realize each community is different, there are patterns that can help you better recognize when and where to focus your efforts in order to ride the powerful wave of the current trend and see transformational results.
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