That’s not your job

If you have the chance to see Michigan State professor Dave Ivan speak, take advantage of it. I’ve heard him give four different talks in the past year and have come away with pages of new ideas each time. He’s “that guy;” the one who inspires, challenges and engages people who work in local government. I crossed paths with Dr. Ivan in Rice Lake this week, at the annual Wisconsin Rural Summit.

The Rural Summit is a gathering hosted by Wisconsin Rural Partners. The League is one of several sponsors for this event. The summit attracts about one hundred or so city, village, town and county leaders, economic development directors and private citizens who are interested in sustaining small town living in this state. At this particular Rural Summit, Dr. Ivan challenged my notion of what is, and what is not, the job of local government.

Should local governments be in the job of negotiating commercial building leases? Most of us would say, “Of course not,” but that’s exactly what city leaders in Jonesville, Michigan are doing. Jonesville is a typical older small Midwestern city; established in the 1800’s with a current population in the neighborhood of 2,200. If you go to the Jonesville.org web site you’ll see the usual tabs for city meetings, schedules for brush pickup and photos of a downtown streetscape. You’ll also find commercial real estate listings. According to Dave Ivan, the city is an active participant in bringing small businesses together with downtown real estate opportunities.

Like many of our older cities and villages, Jonesville struggles to keep its downtown vibrant. But unlike many places, the city doesn’t sit back and wait for commerce to happen. City leaders take an active role. And the result? Jonesville has an old-fashioned-looking, but modern and vibrant downtown with a growing business base.

Dr. Ivan rattled off other communities that went off the usual track to get things done, including a small town in Kansas where the city built and owns the one and only grocery/convenience store, as well as builds and sells housing (at cost) to attract young people.

The role of local government isn’t limited to snow plowing and brush pickup. In a representative democracy, the role of local government is whatever your citizens need it to be. Does your community need housing, but can’t attract a developer? Consider the village being the developer. Are you a “food desert,” without a grocery, or even a convenience store? Build one. Don’t wait around for an entrepreneur in shining armor or a state politician waving a grant application; take the initiative and do it.

I’d like to propose a simple four-step process for you as a village leader when faced with a problem no one seems to be solving: 1) Does this thing need to be done; would it help your community remain viable? 2) Is someone already doing it? 3) Is there community consensus that it needs to be done (consensus does not mean unanimity)? 4) Can it be done from a legal and financial perspective? If the answer to questions 1, 3 and 4 is yes and the answer to question 2 is no, then do it!

Stop waiting for someone outside your community to come to your rescue; they’re either busy rescuing someone else, or they’re just not interested in your particular village. There are resources available to Wisconsin communities through state and federal agencies, regional economic development organizations and the powerful private marketplace. But those resources don’t come to you; you have to go after them. And don’t sell yourself short; you have resources too. The most important resources you have are your sense of your community and your concern for the people who live there today and tomorrow. Those people are expecting you to lead them. Lead!

I attend a lot of meetings and conferences where big problems are discussed and a variety of solutions are displayed. There’s a common element to the solutions. What I hear over and over again are not success stories that came to the community from without; they are success stories that started from within. They were started by a village president who kept asking questions until someone said yes. A city administrator who wouldn’t accept the “fact” that “we just don’t do that here.” Or a mayor who wouldn’t quit when told, “businesses aren’t interested in downtowns anymore.”

Successful municipal leadership isn’t magic, genius, luck or a gift from the State Legislature. It’s persistence. It’s hard work. It’s an unspoken vision of a community handed to your grandchildren in better shape than it was when you took office. That’s your job.

It’s not a divide, it’s an opportunity

I’m in Washington this week for the National League of Cities Congressional Cities Conference. NLC’s research department just released a report that should turn the “rural-urban divide” debate on its ear. “Bridging the Urban-Rural Economic Divide” suggests that rural and urban areas will succeed to the extent they recognize that they need each other.

We’ve all seen plenty of data that shows rural areas have not seen the same level of economic recovery as urban areas. But NLC shows that the same data reveal some surprises, including the fact that rural areas of Wisconsin have seen much higher rates of growth in the formation of high-value businesses (businesses that export a high percentage of their products). The report makes a strong argument for looking at economic activity in clusters, recognizing that there are both rural and urban elements to most forms of product development.  

The Report was written by Christiana K. McFarland, a research director at NLC. Here’s a link to her short blog post on Bridging the Urban-Rural Economic Divide. The blog includes a link to the report itself.