A small town’s key to success

Published 4:59 pm Tuesday, February 23, 2016

This past Sunday I watched a segment on CNN about James and Deb Fallow’s 54,000-mile journey around America in a small single engine plane. I made a note to find an article on their journey in this month’s edition of The Atlantic Magazine. Ironically, a friend sent me the link to the article the very next morning.

The Fallows were seeking out small cities around America that were a success. They didn’t just visit; they stayed two weeks. This was followed by a two week follow-up visit the next year. They identified 11 common traits for these towns and cities where things seem to work.

I am amazed at how neatly these traits seem to fit into the work that we are trying to do in the City of Donalsonville. However, as I think about the successes and challenges of the other cities in Southwest Georgia, I believe these same markers apply to them as well.

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National politics are not the focus of local discussion. Granted, we are in the middle of a most unusual presidential campaign. But the things that divide us most at the national level aren’t the topic at the local coffee shop. Successful towns are more focused on the practical problems in their community.

You can identify the local patriots. Soon after arriving, the Fallows would ask “Who makes this town go?” The answers could be different. It could be one person or it could be a group. It could be a private citizen or an elected official. It could be a combination of all of the above. The important thing is that every successful town had an answer to the question.

Public-private partnerships are real. Every successful town can point to at least one concrete example of how the public and private sectors have done something positive in their community. A positive example in Donalsonville is the new Three Notch EMC building. Those involved know that this building would have never been built in this community without public and private cooperation and efforts.

People know the civic story. We all know that America has a story, though some of it has been embellished over time. What about our city? Do we have a story? Actually, I think that Donalsonville is refining and fine tuning their story right now. It isn’t important that everyone in the world understands the story. It is important that community gets it, understands it, and collectively believes it.

There is a downtown. Bingo. All successful cities identified by the Fallows had a downtown or were working to make their downtown better. Common things to look for are people living in upstairs lofts and lights on in businesses after dark. We are getting there.

They are near a research university. There isn’t too much we can do about this one. FSU is an hour away and others range out from there. It is well known that these types of institutions attract a rich and diversified workforce. Our internet project will make these universities more accessible to our community.

They have, can care about, a community college. For Donalsonville, this is perfect timing. The beautiful new Bainbridge State College building will open in the next few weeks. It isn’t just the college or the community that makes the difference. It is the combination, the working together to educate the workforce and the citizens that is often a positive indicator for success.

They have unusual schools. A successful community cannot exist without successful schools. It doesn’t really matter if they are private or public. The common thread is that the schools are willing to experiment. A great example is the way the Elementary and Middle/High Schools have collaborated with the city for the upcoming Net Day event in Donalsonville.

The city makes itself open. While national politics focuses on building walls and excluding people different from us, successful small cities want people to move in. They want new jobs. Attracting talented outsiders will also help slow down the brain drain that every rural community has faced as its brightest and best move away. The welcome our Chinese visitors have had over the past few months says a lot about this community and its desire to move forward.

They have big plans. It isn’t the short term plan that will define our city. We must think about what we want to happen in 20 or 30 years from now. Donalsonville has its challenges, but no one can say that we don’t have some really big plans.

The have craft breweries. Every single success city highlighted by the Fallows had a craft brewery. I really wouldn’t have thought anything about this point, and probably wouldn’t have even included it in this article, except that on the very day I read the article, I had an email inquiry about a license to sell craft beers. Maybe we are on to something here.

The cover story in The Atlantic is “Can America Put Itself Back Together?” My question as Mayor is “Can Donalsonville Put itself Back Together?” After rereading this article a dozen times, I have renewed confidence that the answer is yes.