Updated: May 16
Friday nights in 1991 the city of Wakefield was exhilarating. Laughter, conversations, and excitement filled the air as cars made laps up and down the four main avenues that made up the downtown section of this small rural city. Teenagers hanging out of open windows, calling out to passers-by from their classic convertible cars, while others sat and dined at local sidewalk cafes, were a few of the sights that brought life to this small community.
Fast Forward to today and nothing but dust and dirt fills the Wakefield air. It isn’t from the cruising cars, but rather the winds sweeping through deserted streets and boarded-up buildings. The same individuals that filled the city in 1991 are nowhere to be found, and there is no resemblance to a time long forgotten.
Wakefield isn’t unique in its transformation. Today many rural communities have witnessed a similar change to the vitality of their rural cities.
Some may wonder what happened. Despite the best of intentions, many city leaders were misled in their ambitions in how to build up rural economies. Like Wakefield they were convinced that if they could get the big box stores and chain restaurants to come to their community, it would become the epitome of modernization, attracting more people from the big cities and bolstering their local economy.
However, this approach failed to ever realize their dreams. Instead of attracting city dwellers, there were devastating, unintended consequences. Many mom-and-pop restaurants, locally-owned stores, and other small retailers would find themselves unable to compete and subsequently forced to close their doors. The hasty ambition to bolster the local economy, in the end, detracted from it, forcing ambitious small business owners and entrepreneurs to become poorly paid employees of big corporate retailers.
In addition, cities like Wakefield failed to understand the economics of their small town. The town was filled with entrepreneurs and self-employed individuals whose profits and spendings were fueling the local economy. The capacity to launch a new business or continue a family business was a significant factor in the health and vitality of the local economy. Money that used to be generated locally and spent locally cycling around inside the local economy was now being spent at the big box stores and exported to urban centers, consolidating capital in the big cities that were home to corporate headquarters.
If you’re wondering why America has seen a drastic rise in the income gap this is a significant contributing factor. Instead of spreading money out amongst many small businesses, capital began to be consolidated with only a few large companies.
The once shining beacon of hope to modernize had become the trojan horse that would wind up becoming the downfall for many rural economies.
Another element that contributed to the decline in rural communities was the removal of local manufacturing in the community. In essence, this was like taking away the backbone of Wakefield. Rural communities have historically been supported by local manufacturing. The removal of many blue-collar jobs weakened the structure of the city, further diminishing the local economy.
For example, Central Pennsylvania relied on mining coal and natural gas to keep its rural economy afloat. By removing local manufacturing, rural economies were stifled. Today many rural city officials remain fixated on trying to secure a large manufacturer to try and stimulate their rural cities. This model is shortsighted and in the end, futile as it would become the nail in the coffin for many towns like Wakefield.
Community leaders need to begin to think differently. By eliminating this outdated method, there is hope for rural economies nationwide. Instead of watching them crumble when corporations relocate or begin to automate, decision-makers need to take a new approach if they are going to see rural revitalization.
There are two ways economic stimulation can be accomplished that can potentially shift the rural landscape as we know it entirely.
First, beautification plays a prominent role in helping rural economies. Major trends are beginning to show a rise in what is being called “deurbanization”. Urban dwellers are discovering that technology is affording them the opportunity to earn a living while working remotely. As a result, they’re exploring ways to relocate to enjoy the benefits of rural living. Rural leaders need to discover ways to entice these individuals to their communities, not for work, but for play.
Furthermore, investments in quality education, athletic programs, and rural housing revitalization are a must if rural towns are to win the bid for the hearts of those who desire a change of pace.
There's more good news for rural communities seeking to pivot and explore how to strategically redevelop. Individuals are becoming disillusioned with franchising. Instead, they are looking to discover mom-and-pop restaurants, local shops, iconic boutiques, hole-in-the-wall bookstores, and other places that champion the unique and authentic identity found in each local community.
Second, embracing trends will also benefit rural areas. Some individuals may be hesitant to move to a more rural area because of the stigma that they will not have as much to offer. However, this is far from true. Embracing trends in fashion, business, technology, and so forth will allow individuals to better connect to rural communities. In turn, the advent of the internet has also bridged rural areas with the surrounding culture in a greater way. More training and learning opportunities will help individuals connect and compete in remote workplace environments. This not only includes employees who can compete in remote work opportunities but entrepreneurs learning to build businesses in a the global digital age. This, in turn, paves the way for large corporations to funnel money back into local economies instead of out of them, helping revitalize rural communities.
Don’t underestimate the power of this reverse in economic trends. No longer will residents send money to urban centers. Instead, large corporations will be paying local residents who work remotely and spend their available money, in their community.
In conclusion, the outdated model of attempting to entice big box stores, join the race in automation, and outsource manufacturing, has proven to harm rural economies instead of helping them. Fortunately, a new model can help revitalize rural economies and bring them back to life. This model includes beautifying and attracting individuals as they join the trend in deurbanization, moving from the cities they live in, and embracing trends in beauty, fashion, technology, education, and embracing the unique identity of the local community.
In addition, increased training will allow entrepreneurs to compete, and the advent of remote working will help funnel money from larger corporations back into local economies, bolstering them and fostering a new sense of community.