Guest Blog: Rural Development Based on Small Town Values - THCOC
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Guest Blog: Rural Development Based on Small Town Values

The Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce would like to welcome guest blogger, Jenn Kersey, Chief Operating Officer at RJL Solutions.

Rural Development Based on Small Town Values

It’s no secret that I love living in a very rural area of Indiana. I love it so much that I choose to drive the back roads through the country as far as I can on my commute to work, even on the days I am not dropping my kiddos off at school. It gives me the sense of calm I need before I start my work day, where I actually thrive on a very fast-paced environment. Then, at the end of the day, I get back to ‘zen’ on those country roads as I head home.

On the weekends I enjoy visiting the downtown areas of not only my small town, but the surrounding communities as well. It is fun to see how similar and yet how very unique each community in West Central Indiana is. One thing is for sure, we are all equally rich in beautiful natural resources and historic structures, which is probably why tourism is often identified as one of our greatest strengths. Yet, we all still struggle with how our small communities will continue to grow and thrive when our population continues to decrease.

This concern is not unique to West Central Indiana. This is felt across the nation, and has started somewhat of a rural development movement as small towns have begun to rally around their individual strengths and collaborate with surrounding communities to support one another. This movement is what brought me to Keene, New Hampshire for a two-day “Radically Rural” seminar, where surprisingly most of the presenters are from the mid-west.

The seminar started off with all attendees together, being welcomed at the Colonial Theatre which reminded me of the Ritz Theater in downtown Rockville. There was an opening presentation by one of Keene’s local entrepreneurs where she talked about the importance of supporting your local businesses and how to change the story of our struggling small towns by getting involved and collaborating with others on big ideas. From there we branched out across downtown to our designated areas according to the track we selected from the following: entrepreneurship & culture, rural media, working lands and main street. I chose the main street track for day one, so down to the Old Court House I went.

Along my walk down Main Street, I noticed how well kept the streets and green spaces were. The store fronts were all occupied with small businesses, retailers and restaurants, and each did a great job of gaining attention with window displays, sidewalk signage and inviting outdoor seating options. Although my walk was about six blocks, it seemed much shorter because I was so busy looking at every store front I passed.

During the morning session we heard a presentation around tactical innovation which included ideas such as communities working with local realtors to invite new residents to a new-comers gathering, businesses hosting backroom tours, empty building tours, business resource nights, placemaking, pop-up shops, tiny business villages, co-working and maker-spaces. There were examples from communities of varying sizes and resources. The key take-away from this presentation was that every community has the resources it needs to thrive, you just have to find them.   

The afternoon session was a presentation from a member of the Walldogs, a group of muralists who paint murals on the outer walls of large buildings to depict a town’s rich history. This group selects one town per year and the town will typically hold a mural festival around the 3 to 4-day painting session in order to gain community support and excitement. They have painted over 800 murals around the world to date. To learn more about the Walldogs go to
http://thewalldogs.com/.

The rest of the day was filled with walking around downtown Keene some more and visiting the smaller nearby towns to see how they were radically rural in their own unique ways. Something I thought was very interesting was how the towns seem to have a building code for all new builds. All the buildings have a very colonial look to them, even the chain stores. I also love how these small towns have preserved the very old downtown buildings and repurposed them rather than build new in most cases.

I am looking forward to day two of the seminar where I have selected the entrepreneurial track. Although I am truly enjoying my time in New England, I am anxious to get back home to share these ideas.

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