OPINION: Small town renaissance is possible!

Many small communities constantly insist they are doing all they can to transform themselves, claiming their situation is unique and very difficult to change. The only problem with that train of thought is that so many communities are ignoring that debilitating thought process and doing it. Let me share with you many communities that have or are revitalizing as we speak.

Greenville, S.C., a city of around 70,000, embarked on a transformative journey in the 1990s. The city faced economic challenges and a declining textile industry. Community leaders and city officials took bold steps to reverse the trend. One key initiative was the creation of Falls Park on the Reedy, a stunning urban park spanning 32 acres featuring waterfalls, gardens, and walking trails. The park was a huge success. According to the Greenville Area Development Corporation, their revitalization efforts have generated a 320% increase in retail sales from 1993 to 2019. The city also invested in mixed-use developments, converting old warehouses into trendy apartments and commercial spaces. These efforts not only brought life back to vacant buildings but also created a diverse and vibrant community.

Paducah, Ky., a town of 25,000, faced economic challenges due to the decline of the river-based industries that once thrived there. In the early 2000s, Paducah implemented a unique strategy to revitalize its downtown -- the Artist Relocation Program. The program incentivized artists to move to the area by offering them affordable housing and studio spaces in vacant buildings. This creative approach injected artistic energy into the community and attracted visitors and residents, leading to a resurgence downtown. They generated $24.2 million in economic activity in 2019. Additionally, the city's historic district experienced a 65% increase in property values between 2002 and 2017.

Holland, Mich., a city of around 33,000, is another great case of downtown revitalization. Facing economic challenges in the 1990s, Holland took a community-driven approach to revitalize its downtown. One key initiative was the creation of a downtown snowmelt system, eliminating the need for traditional sidewalk snow removal and making the area more accessible in winter. Furthermore, the city invested in a variety of events and festivals, creating a vibrant cultural scene. The Tulip Time Festival has become a major attraction, drawing thousands of visitors each year, and generating an estimated $48.1 million in 2019.

Bozeman, Mont., a city of 50,000, experienced a downtown renaissance driven by a collaborative effort between the public and private sectors. The city focused on creating a walkable and bike-friendly downtown, enhancing public spaces, and supporting local businesses. According to the Downtown Bozeman Partnership, the downtown district saw a 62% increase in retail sales from 2010 to 2019. Bozeman's commitment to fostering a sense of community and preserving its natural surroundings has not only revitalized its downtown but also attracted new residents and businesses seeking a high quality of life.

Bisbee, Ariz., a town with a population of around 5,000, faced economic decline with the closure of its mining industry. The town reinvented itself by embracing its quirky and artistic character. Bisbee implemented adaptive reuse of historic buildings, turning them into galleries, boutiques, and unique accommodations. According to a report by the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum, the town's cultural and heritage tourism has contributed significantly to its economy. The transformation has led to a 30% increase in tourism-related revenue from 2010 to 2020.

Red Wing, Minn., with a population of 16,000, turned its economic fortunes around by focusing on its cultural heritage and natural assets. The city invested in preserving its historic downtown architecture and waterfront, creating a picturesque and welcoming environment. According to a report by the Red Wing Port Authority, the revitalization efforts led to a 20% increase in tourism-related spending from 2010 to 2018.

Athens, Ohio, a city of around 25,000, revitalized its downtown by leveraging its status as a college town. The city invested in creating a vibrant arts and entertainment scene, through fostering between the university and the local community. According to a recent study, the downtown district experienced a 45% increase in retail sales from 2005 to 2019. Athens' success lies in its ability to create an atmosphere that attracts students, locals, and visitors alike.

These examples and hundreds of others around the country showcase the diverse strategies employed by small towns to revitalize their downtowns, each tailored to the unique characteristics and challenges of their communities. As these towns continue to thrive, they serve as beacons of light for other small communities seeking to transform their downtowns into vibrant, economically sustainable centers for the future. Time to get to work!

John Newby is a nationally recognized columnist, speaker and publisher. He consults with chambers, communities, businesses and media. His Building Main Street, not Wall Street column appears in 60-plus newspapers and media outlets. As founder of Truly-Local, he assists chambers, communities, media and businesses in creating synergies that build vibrant communities. He can be reached at [email protected]. Opinions expressed are those of the author.