Thoughts about business and economic development in rural areas.


February 2018
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Rural Perspectives

First Steps

Spoke at the annual meeting of a local chamber or commerce last night and my topic was “First Steps to a Better Community.” While I listed several things to consider doing, the key to the entire message was that it all depended on passion. Your passion. My passion.

Business and community leaders must develop or rekindle a real passion for their communities if improvements are going to be made. We must be unabashed cheerleaders for our community ‘team’ and we must welcome new residents and businesses to that team.

On first blush some may consider ‘passion’ to be a strange choice for a top priority. But in my experience it’s usually not a lack of skills, talent or even money that holds communities back. What kills us is complacency and apathy. Without replacing those with some fire-in-the-belly passion it will never matter if we have a new strategic plan or if we hire a Main Street program manager or redo the storefronts. Without passion all the community improvement programs in the world are just window dressing.

If we want to improve our communities, the first step is passion. And it starts with each individual. Long before the programs come passion. That’s the real first step!

Community Service: Are we talking about the same thing?

Sometimes we do things with the best of intentions and wind up with unintended results. I may have stumbled across one of these last week.

In a conversation with a friend we started talking about ‘community service’. To me, that phrase brings up thoughts of involvement in civic clubs and volunteering in community activities. From my perspective that means pleasant memories and many feelings of accomplishment. His perspective was different. A lot different. To him, and a growing number of younger people, the term ‘community service’ was akin to jail time. It was a form of punishment. How did that happen?

Our legal system has made community service part of their sentencing plan for many minor (and not so minor) infractions as an alternative to hefty fines or jail time. This is especially true when a younger person is involved. The hope is that this exposure to good works will have a positive effect on the person doing the service instead of the time. That’s a reasonable and well intended assumption but is it really turning out that way? Or do these people now equate ‘community service’ with punishment?

Same goes for school mandated community service. The intent of classes and clubs requiring community service is certainly motivated by a positive desire to expose young people to the benefits and impact that such involvement can have. But in many cases the service is a requirement. The idea of ‘volunteering’ isn’t part of the equation.

So today, when someone my age talks about ‘community service’, does this bring up a completely different and possibly unfavorable image for younger members of our audience? Are we even talking about the same thing?

It’s more than just ‘Wandering Around’

I’ve written before about the importance of getting out of the office and this article by Wally Bock has some great tips on how to make that time truly valuable. You’ve got to do more than just visit your communities. You’ve got to do something to make each trip worthwhile for them and for you. Otherwise you’re just killing time.

Too many people think this is only a ‘management’ technique. Think of it as a learning opportunity. A chance to stretch your legs and your mind. A mental stimulation break. A (self) motivational moment. There’s a big payoff waiting just outside your office door.

The catchphrase is “Management by Walking Around” (MBWA) but to have value it’s got to be more than just ‘Wandering’ around!

Room on the Plate

Innovation can be challenging. It’s easy to say, “Think outside the box” and then try to come up with new ideas. There are lot’s of techniques and processes that can help. Heck there’s a whole shelf of books promoting great methods to help you and your business become more innovative. And the exciting fact is that many of them work. (My personal favourite over the years has been “Storyboarding”.) But the one topic that no one seems to ever address is this, “Where do we find the time and resources to implement these new ideas?”

Yep, one big glaring omission from the process and an obstacle bigger than Megatron. (My daughter took me to the new Transformers movie yesterday so I couldn’t resist.) Oh, I know what the supervisor, company president, committee chairman, Mayor or other grand pooh-bah in charge will say. “We’ll all have to just work a little harder, but it will be worth it. If everyone gives 110% we can make these changes happen.”

Gag me with a spoon. Let’s just ignore the fact that 110% is impossible in that stupid cliche. The real insult is that this attitude supposes that everyone is currently slacking off and adding new ideas and responsibilities won’t really pose a problem. There’s a real morale booster. Now if the PIC (person-in-charge) is talking about adding staff to handle the new stuff that’s a different story…a story we don’t usually hear, especially in challenging economic times. (And they are ‘always’ challenging economic times.)

So what do organizations that want to try new things without adding staff do to deal with this obstacle? Here’s one suggestion that is usually overlooked. Call it the Two-Thirds Rule for Innovative Success. At the beginning of each planning period every organization should conduct a complete evaluation of current activities and rank the effectiveness and importance of each to the organization using the mission statement as the ultimate measuring tool. (You do have a mission statement, don’t you? If you have to dust off a copy or send someone to find one you have problems not addressed in this post.)

Once you have these activities/tasks ranked, draw a line two-thirds of the way down the list. Everything below that line is expendable. They can, and probably SHOULD, go away. Spend your valuable time and resources on things that make up the top two-thirds of your list and then spend time developing and implementing new ideas that will keep your company, community or organization fresh, exciting and growing.

Here’s an innovative thought. Recognize that change and new ideas can’t be implemented until you make room on the plate!

Defining the Discussion?

Defining the limits of a discussion can be as important as having it in the first place. Last night I spoke to a group of volunteers for a project involving the “Moving Wall” Memorial to Viet Nam Veterans. Just the mention of the term ‘Viet Nam’ can still bring people to the edge of immediate verbal and even physical confrontation. I know this personally as a veteran from that era. I agonized over what to say and more importantly as a speaker, how to say it.

A day before the presentation I finally found my solution. I needed to acknowledge the strong emotions that are still associated with the Viet Nam era and then clearly define for all involved what the “Moving Wall” Memorial is about. The “Celebration of Heroes”, as the community event is being called, isn’t about the war. It isn’t about whether it was right or wrong. It isn’t about whether it was good or bad. It’s not about ANY of that.

It’s about those 58,228 who died, those 303,400 who were wounded, those 2,600,000 whose boots touched South Vietnam’s soil, those 9,087,000 who served during that era. It’s about honoring the dead and understanding the pain of the living. Those who served, those who had family members or friends who served, those whose lives were forever changed and still affected by that time in our history.

As I defined the discussion in this manner we found that we had much more common ground, even hallowed ground, than we had imagined.

I suspect that the same is true with most of the discussions we have. The process of defining the discussion is not an easy one, but it is critical if we are ever to make progress on any topic. Fortunately most of the topics we agonize over as community or economic development issues aren’t tainted with the depth of passion that still surrounds Viet Nam.

If we take the time to clearly define the discussion, we are well on our way to having a productive one. And that is indeed, ‘hallowed ground’.

It’s Not the Numbers…It’s the People!

All too often we judge the success of things we do based primarily or even solely on the number of people involved. Hold a meeting…how many people showed up? Hold an annual conference…did we have more attendees than last year? Conduct a training session…how many were registered? And on and on.

While I understand the power of numbers in each of these situations and I certainly understand the necessity of ‘paying the bills’ that are tied to making some of these things happen, the numbers should NEVER be the only factor determining the success of anything we do. Note, I said the ‘only’ factor. Yes, they count, but they aren’t everything.

Case in point, I just spoke to an Entrepreneur and Inventor’s Club in Black River Falls. It certainly wasn’t a big crowd but that’s OK. These types of groups rarely draw ‘big’ crowds because of the simple fact that at any one given point in time there aren’t hundreds of people actively seeking to start a new business or bring a new product to market. The important thing to keep in focus is the fact that each of these individuals in attendance is important and worthy of the attention they are receiving.

I’ve been involved in civic organizations all of my life and I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve heard the president or chair person start the meeting by complaining about how few members are in attendance. Great way to fire up the troops. Let them know that you aren’t as important to him as the folks who didn’t attend. And since there aren’t enough people in attendance we can’t expect this to be a productive meeting…I can hardly wait to get to the rest of the agenda. Not! All too often we let numbers drive what we do and what we offer and in rural areas in particular this can mean people who need our help get left out. ‘Not enough people to make it worth it!’  Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

So what do we do when there are small numbers? You can start by letting each person who DID show up know that they are important and that they matter. You then proceed with the same quality program that you would have had if the place were overflowing with attendees. Actually you can take this opportunity to give them an even better program because you can customize things to fit those who are there and spend much more time developing individual involvement.

Years ago a good friend of mine, Marcella Finder, related this story about Patrick Lucey. Both were involved with the Democratic Party in Wisconsin. Marcella was the long-time secretary of a small county group and Pat was involved in developing a stronger statewide organization. Pat had been invited out to a small community in Marcella’s county for the monthly meeting. There was a near blizzard that evening but Marcella bundled up her two kids and drove 15 miles to the meeting place. Pat drove all the way from Madison, some 70 plus miles and none of it was interstate (they didn’t even exist back then). Come meeting time they were the only people there. Marcella said that if Pat was disappointed he never showed it. In fact, Pat made Marcella and her kids feel like they were the most important people on earth. Marcella never forgot that and it was obvious when she told the story that she was tremendously impressed with Pat’s attitude and there was no doubt in my mind that Marcella would do anything for Pat Lucey. Well, the Democratic Party went on to become the dominant party in Wisconsin and Patrick Lucey served two terms as Governor and later was named Ambassador to Mexico. 

And I truly believe that it was because he never lost sight of the fact that it wasn’t the numbers that were important…it was the people that mattered.

They don’t live here anymore!

I’ve dealt with the subject of people moving and the impact it is having on our communities before but something that happened the other night brought this back to mind. I was speaking at a chamber banquet to an audience of just over 100 people. I asked the question, “How many of you were born in this community?” About 10 hands went up. Just 10 hands! If I had it to do over again I would have changed the wording of the question a little bit to, “How many of you were raised within 15 miles of this community?” There might have been a better test. After all, the technical answer to where you were born might not have anything to do with where you consider your ‘roots’ to be. For example, I was born in Green Bay, but was likely only there for a few days. I was raised near Rock Springs.

Even though I could have asked a better question, I doubt that the result would have been significantly different. It’s a fact. The vast MAJORITY of everyone who is part of your community today were not raised there. Don’t believe me? If you’re one of those folks who live in the community you were raised in get a copy of the mailing list for your last high school reunion. Told you!

And why is that important? Well in this community’s case there are several significant issues that literally haunt them today that go back generations. And you know what. When you get down to the guts of it many of those issues are only really important to the folks who were raised there. The new folks, well let’s just say they are very likely to have a different viewpoint.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “How many decisions are we making based on who we used to be instead of who we really are today.” 

The buildings might be the same…but the people in them are vastly different. Now what do you think makes up a ‘community’? The buildings…or the people?

And the people you went to high school with, they don’t live here anymore!

Recession Opportunities?

Ok, put that newspaper down. Back away from the TV and pull the plugs on the iNews updates. All the news is bad. You already knew that. The economy is going further South than bowl teams on New Years Day. The world as we know it is coming to an end. Or at least that’s the impression I get from all the media.

Yes things aren’t going well. Unemployment, foreclosures and business closings are all up. But does that REALLY mean that you can’t still be doing business in your community? Has everybody closed? Is this the Apocalypse?

Hold the four horses. Not by a long shot.

With every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s Third Law works in business too. Maybe not 100% but it DOES work. Ask anyone who owns an auto repair shop how business is. Ask anyone who makes replacement parts how things are going. You can even ask some skateboarders in California. There are definitely opportunities out there. You might have to look a little harder to find them and finding them might require some real work (imagine that) but they are there. 

Maybe now is the time to get folks together in your community and turn the coin over to find out what’s on the other side. Are there ways for your community to benefit from the effects of the recession? Do you have some prime industrial or retail space that is newly available and newly affordable that just might be attractive to another business. Could several of your local businesses find ways to cooperate to share the costs to help make some projects happen that would have been impossible six months ago. (What! Are you talking about working together! What a concept!) And the costs of building…..wanna bet the bids will come in under or over budget?

Maybe now’s the time to sponsor and deliver those business training sessions that will make your existing businesses stronger and more likely to survive. Maybe you could double your efforts to help start-ups, inventors and entrepreneurs. My guess is there is more interest out there with some folks who will be pretty dedicated to trying new things and who will be more than eager to accept any assistance that is offered to them.

And most importantly, now’s the time to get ready for the coming economic turnaround. No, I don’t know when it will happen but we all know that it WILL happen. How about preparing right now so you are ready to take full advantage of it right from the start.

Opportunities during a recession? To borrow a phrase from a recent political office seeker, “You betcha!”

Being who you really are.

Just finished reading an old “Across the Fence” column by Howard Sherpe in which he talked about jack-o-lanterns and how they didn’t really come to life until you placed a lighted candle inside them. He said the same thing was true about stained glass and people too. No true beauty until the light within was allowed to shine through.

That column brought back thoughts of a couple of experiences I had during my economic development career. In the first one we were entertaining company officials from France. They had spent a good part of the day with us learning about our community and what we had to offer as a location for their potential North American facility. They were staying over for the evening so we had the chance to take them to supper. When we were planning this the community mayor and I discussed our choices. One was a good local supper club. Our other choice was one that chance had provided us. Their visit coincided with the annual community chicken bar-b-que. This was a well attended and well lubricated event that drew a huge crowd each year and lasted well into the night. Not knowing our guests we decided to go the safe route and take them to the supper club. We showed up in suits while our French guests had gone casual with blue jeans and polo shirts. During the course of our meal we discovered that the president of the company had spent a year hitchhiking across the United States with no money, just a knapsack and a guitar.

Our evening was OK, but I always wondered what stories they would have told had we taken them to the bar-b-que and shown them the folks we really were. My guess is they would have all had a rip-roaring good time and we would have made a real connection with them.

Another related experience happened several years later. Another community was having a day-long follow-up visit with the main person from a major company considering a manufacturing location there. He would be staying the evening and we of course wanted to take him out for an evening meal. In this case the community did not have a traditional supper club. We discussed what to do and the leader of the local community ED group felt very strongly that we shouldn’t go to another community for the evening. We looked at our local alternatives and he decided that the local pizza parlor would be our choice. So the company rep was invited to join four or five us for beer and pizza. Best ‘business reception’ I have ever been a part of. Casual, relaxed and real. We had great pizza, a few pitchers of beer and an absolutely wonderful time. 

It wasn’t fancy. We didn’t put on the dog. We were just ‘us’. In the end the company chose our community and today is a major employer providing some of the best manufacturing jobs in the region.

I learned a big lesson from those two experiences. Our best impressions are the real ones. Letting our own light shine from within is the wisest choice. Trying too hard to impress others is tempting but the real winning strategy should center on being who you really are.

Can you hear me now?

No this isn’t an ad for a phone company. It’s a reminder of perspective for rural areas. When I worked with the communities in Grant County in Southwestern Wisconsin I was very aware of my responsibility to help get our message heard at a statewide level.

But like all tasks, we have to look at them from the customer’s perspective. In our case, Grant County and the four other counties that we called Southwestern Wisconsin made up about 2.4% of the population of the State of Wisconsin. So there were a lot of competing messages being heard by state agencies and even our state legislature. Everyone wants training dollars, everyone wants transportation improvements, etc.

As a reminder of the challenge we faced I would often conduct this little demonstration. If I had 50 people at a meeting I would have one person stand up and yell, “We want money!” at the top of their lungs. That person represented SW Wisconsin. Then I would have the other 49 stand and yell, “You can’t have it!” And that, I would say, is what the people at the state agencies hear. A loud roar of requests, demands and needs that our one small voice could easily be lost in. Hopefully, my audience would have a little more understanding of the challenges we faced as we all tried to be heard on those levels.

OK, so now we understand a little more about the challenge of being heard, what do we do about it. That’s fodder for future posts. And the answer to the question, “Can you hear me now?” can be ‘YES!’