Haim Ginott once said, "Parents often talk about the younger generation as if they didn't have anything to do with it."
That has never been more true than when we discuss younger generations today as they relate to our communities. I have been blessed as I have worked with many communities throughout the country to see the many commonalities shared by so many communities. I've been able to witness first-hand the trends and changes occurring in these smaller and medium-sized communities.
As one drives through countless rural towns and communities, it is ever so obvious why our younger generations leave. We must ask, what compelling reasons have their preceding generations provided for them to remain?
The reason our young adults leave is that we have, in essence through unintended consequences, encouraged them to leave. Many of our downtowns are crumbling due to a lack of attention. Zoning ordinances are antiquated, allowing property owners (who obviously could care less for their community) to be empty, run-down, and ripe with blight. Our civic organizations (what's left of them) continue with traditions better left in the '50s and '60s. Our uniqueness has been replaced with the Golden Arches, Subway, and Dollar Store signs. They have little to no innovative or entrepreneurial spirit or drive. Above all, they have no plan or vision to change any of the above. And then we ask, why do our young adults leave?
In chatting with many of those in the younger generations, despite all the above, they still enjoy the life rural America provides. They enjoy the quiet and relaxed atmosphere. They enjoy the outdoor recreation that comes with a rural setting. They appreciate the sense of community and the ease of friendships and social life. They know rural life is a great place to raise a family and grow their roots. Despite that, this is not enough as they are forced to wrestle with the realities of life. In addition to the reasons stated above, they also find a lack of quality jobs and educational opportunities and are faced with a deteriorating community with no vision to change. So, while being pulled to stay, they ultimately leave, paving their future beyond their rural hometown.
So, what can communities do to alter this outflow? They can start by taking pride in their communities. Taking pride and caring is more than talking and celebrating the good ole days. It is more than continuing to do the same thing they have done for years. Taking pride means thinking about future generations and what you will leave them. It means taking bold and visionary steps now to create a brighter future.
Leaders must take steps to create a renewed vibrancy in the core and heart of your community, your downtown. To take many of the steps needed, money isn't always a barrier as not all are costly. Community leaders must tackle the creation of ordinances penalizing downtown blight and encourage upkeep. Yes, you will have pushback from the empty and deteriorating building owners but push forward regardless. These building owners are showing by their actions they could care less about your community. It is time to protect those surrounding building owners who do care. Blight drives people away, blight kills community pride, and you must play hardball to remedy this issue.
Instead of courting Wall Street-owned businesses, begin creating a unique environment in your community. We were recently driving through a beautiful area in Tennessee admiring the natural beauty, when what should appear to diminish the view? Yes, the Golden Arches, a Subway sign, and other obtrusive signs indicated we were not in a unique place, just a cookie-cutter place surrounded by beauty. What a missed opportunity! Don't take this the wrong way. There is certainly a place for chains; they can positively impact communities. But don't sacrifice uniqueness in exchange for commonality that can be found in Anytown, USA.
Often overlooked is the creation of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit in a community. Communities must find ways for this spirit to permeate their entire communities. The innovative and entrepreneurial spirit is very contagious. Many from all generations are attracted to this spirit. This is the single greatest thing a community can undertake. It will lead to revitalization, transformation, and new jobs in all compensation categories.
Don't delay the commitment to transform and attack the problems. The coming economic trends will show no mercy to communities that operate on a status quo timetable. Time is not your friend. Government often moves slow. Break that mold. Move fast, be aggressive and, above all, be bold!
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John Newby is a nationally-recognized publisher, community, chamber, business and media strategy consultant, and speaker. His "Building Main Street, not Wall Street" column runs in more than 60 communities around the country. As founder of Truly-Local, he assists community leaders, businesses, and local media in building synergies and creating more vibrant communities. He can be reached at [email protected]