Thoughts about business and economic development in rural areas.


September 2007
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Archive for September, 2007

Nothing Ever Changes Here.

“The people who moved in after the couple that owned the place that bought it from the Morleys don’t live there anymore.” Sound familiar? It should. Years ago we knew the folks who bought the ‘old Morley place’. They probably bought the property 30 years earlier but all the locals still refer to it by the former owner’s name. Seems to be an unwritten rule in rural areas that the unofficial ‘name’ for a property only changes long after actual ownership changes hands. I know about the ‘old Morley place because my folks bought that farm in 1943. They didn’t buy it from the Morleys, they bought it from Walter Meyer. Our family owned it until 1970 and there have been three owners since then. It’s probably the ‘old Schneider place’ about now., we’ve been gone long enough.

But this isn’t about local naming conventions. It’s about the constant change in the makeup of our ‘communities’. Families seem to be much more mobile today and a look at U.S. Census data proves it. One of the questions asked determines if a household has moved within the previous five years. If so, the next question determines if the mover came from a neighboring county or neighboring state. The bottom line is that nearly 15% of the people living in a typical rural community moved there within the past five years and they moved from far enough away that they don’t know the pronounciations of local names. The test around here is pronouncing ‘Muscoda’. (It’s “musk-oh-day”….bet you didn’t come up with that?)

So what does it mean to us? It means that there are a whole lot of new people who don’t know squat about our community and it means we have a whole bunch of new neighbors that we have probably never met. And we used to say that only happened in ‘the big city’. To make my point I always issue a friendly challenge to mayors and village presidents. I’ll offer to bet them that if I took them to the five houses on either side of where they currently live I will be able to introduce them to at least one family they have never formally met. I don’t get too many takers. They might know there are new people over at ‘the Old Morley place’ and they might see them drive by on their way to somewhere, but they haven’t been introduced.

So we’re all trying to run community governments and civic organizations based on who used to live here while we wonder who those new folks are.

And all the while we nod our heads knowingly and say, “Nothing ever changes here”.

The customer’s viewpoint.

One of the best stories I ever ran across on how to drive the customer’s perception on the service they received was something I read years ago in Readers Digest. It detailed the story of two clerks at a local dime store. At that time most dime stores had candy in bulk and you ordered a certain amount by weight. At this particular dime store there were two clerks who regularly handled the sales of bulk candy. The manager noticed that one clerk regularly outsold the other. In fact, kids would wait until she got near the candy and would then quickly go up to the counter to place their order with her.

Upon closer observation the manager noticed the key difference that was already obvious to the savvy young customers. One clerk would place a generous scoop of candy on the scale and then remove enough to get to the desired weight. The second clerk would start with a smaller amount of candy and would add candy until she got to the desired weight. Both clerks gave out exactly the correct weight as ordered by the customer but you’ve already figured out which one had the higher sales.

Now if we want to increase sales should we focus on the facts or on the cusomer’s perception of those facts? Your choice.

It’s a matter of time…

Just participated in the 40th Annual Wo-Zha-Wa Run in Wisconsin Dells. The festival held in this tourism destination point on the 2nd weekend after Labor Day is wildly successful. Thousands of people invade the community over the weekend and every homeowner that chooses to do so can park their lawn full of cars at $5 a pop. The town is that full.

But that wasn’t always the case. I know, because I’ve run in 37 of those 40 events. In the early years, Wo-Zha-Wa (which is a Ho-Chunk term for “fun times or to have fun” was just a local end-of-season clearance sale for tourist related businesses as they closed for the season. Local service clubs ran brat & beer stands to make a few bucks which they hadn’t been able to do during the Summer because all their members were working 7 days a week to take advantage of the short tourist season which was the community’s only industry. And it was a chance for the locals to relax and celebrate the end of another hectic, anc hopefully successful, season. If several hundred people showed up that was a big deal. In fact, after three years there was a discussion about cancelling the event because of its small draw. ‘No one was going to come to the Dells after Labor Day’ was the oft repeated local mantra.

The most powerful tourism center in the entire state couldn’t create a successful event after three years of trying so what hope do any of us have when it comes to changing customer habits. Right? Well something obviously changed. But what was it? Over the next few entries I’ll share my view on what happened and why.

The first lesson learned is that everyting takes time. Just because something is a good idea or has potential doesn’t mean it will be instantly successful. Word of mouth is the key. The hot term today is ‘viral marketing’ but it’s really the same thing. But word of mouth takes time…..more time today than we might think given our belief that everything is ‘instant’ in our electronic world. Now go back to 1968 when this festival started and consider how much time it would take for word-of-mouth to work its magic, especially when you have a festival name that noone can pronounce.

By the way….Wo-Zha-Wa is pronounced…….Ah, you’ll get it. It’s just a matter of time.

Who’s gonna run the food stand?

Service clubs have played a major role in almost every small community in the United States. I’ve been a member of several and the direction they seem to be heading is a concern to me. This past weekend provided a great example.

I volunteered to work the food stand at our county fair for a club I used to belong to. I’ve worked there several times over the past few years and it is one of the best organized food stands I have ever seen. (Some restaurants could take lessons on how well this it run.) It’s a profitable venture for the organization and every dollar raised is turned right around doing great things for the community. I’m a habitual volunteer so saying ‘Yes’ was easy and I worked (‘enjoyed’, actually) two four-hour shifts.

So what’s the problem? The fair lasts four days and finding enough people to run it is a real challenge! I know most of the club members and you couldn’t meet a greater group of dedicated volunteers. Many of them are long-time members who have served their community well and have made terrific contributions over the years. But that “over the years” bit is the rub. Many are well into retirement and frankly can no longer handle a work shift. Being on your feet for 2-4 hours can be tough, especially when you’re really busy and while they want to do the work, the reality is it’s more than they can handle. So what do you do?

In this case the club hired another group to work the stand under club member supervision. The local two year campus of the University has a strong foreign exchange program and members of that group were enlisted (and paid) to help. And since it’s so well organized, stepping in isn’t too hard. Problem solved….at least for this year.

But what about the future? Hopefully some of these students will consider joining the community service club but past history doesn’t make that very likely. The club members themselves continue to age and while there are a number of ‘younger’ members the term ‘younger’ is a bit relative. If I were to rejoin the club I’d be one of the ‘younger’ members…..and I’m 59. The fact is, 20 somethings aren’t joining traditional service clubs.

So, in future years, who WILL run the food stand??

The Missing Link

Had the pleasure last night of participating in a focus group planning for the future of our local technical college. Southwest Wisconsin Technical College is essential to the future of our area.

I’ve worked with them very closely in the past while I was involved as an economic development professional and again as the community relations coordinator for Boscobel Area Health Care. The services they offered were a critical element in the decision of several companies to locate or expand in our area. And at BAHC I would estimate that between 40-60% of our staff of 270 had received training through SWTC. Without them we would face a much tougher time staffing our facility.

While the session went well I did some reflecting on the process after it was over and I found one key element missing. I knew most of the people who were in attendance. In fact, most of them were my age….and suffice it to say, I’m on the leading edge of the “Thundering Herd” (The new name I coined for Baby Boomers…..we’re a long way from the ‘baby’ stage…..that title needs updating.)

Where was the under 30 crowd? Many of the issues raised concerned them but they weren’t there to present their perspective.

Were they the missing link?

Rural Advantage Lost(?)- Part One

Ok, I put the question mark there because what should be the #1 advantage for businesses and inhabitants of rural areas is #1 in one area….and that’s ‘hype’. The advantage? That’s simple. In rural areas everyone knows everyone else? Everyone knows that! Right? Or at least that’s what the purveyors of rural legends would have you believe. And if everyone knows everyone else it should be easy for local businesses to sell to their neighbors because they know them so well and it should be easy for organizations to get volunteers because they can easily call on that neighbor they know so well just down the street.

Well if that’s the case, how come rural businesses are struggling as consumers regularly shop in ‘the city’ and why are the service groups that formed the backbone of rural volunteerism struggling for existence? Could it be that residents of rural areas have become as distant from their next door neighbors as we’ve always so smugly assumed was the case only in the big cold impersonal urban areas?

Once upon a time, not too long ago, we really did know our neighbors. Heck, we were probably related to most of them. We worked with them, not always because we wanted to but certainly because we had to. It wasn’t a matter of convenience, it was about survival. Threshing crews were the most noted example but it didn’t end there. You helped your neighbor with most everything and they returned the favor. Sometimes the neighbors knew your fields or your herd almost as well as you did. But then something happened. Actually, lots of things happened. The equipment changed. It became better and more affordable. One person could now do a task single handed with the right machinery and the right machinery not only became more availalbe, it became so affordable that even the smallest farm had a complete line that would make any John Deere dealer proud.

I still waved at my neighbor while he worked in the field next to mine but we weren’t working together anymore. Once in a while when we were both close to the fence we might stop and shut the tractor off and jaw for a few minutes but then it was back to work in our own separate worlds. I still knew who my neighbor was, but in those few minutes I didn’t learn as much about him as I would have if we had worked side by side for several days.

And something was lost……