Cheating the Grim Reaper of ‘Small Town U.S.A.’

Four years ago, I first addressed the issue of the plight of Small Town U.S.A. After living five years now in a small town with a population of 500 which is essentially a bedroom community for Billings, Montana (pop. 100,000), I believe the issue is even more relevant today than then. And even though I labeled this post ‘Small Town U.S.A.’ … it could be anywhere, here or abroad. 

Back in 2012 I saw an MSNBC piece on an independent movie made about the small town of Medora, Indiana. Medora has a population of about 600 and is known, notoriously, for its high school basketball team, and its 2009 twenty-two game losing streak and their pursuit to win just one game. But there’s much more about the film than just basketball – and there’s also much more about Medora.

Like many, many other small towns around America, they’re struggling for their survival. In Medora’s case, they’re reeling from losing a plastics factory, the town’s main employer … as well as staring at the possibility of even losing their identity, their high school. Below is the interview on MSNBC with directors Andrew Cohn and Davey Rothbart.

A major tenet of this blog, “On the Road to Your Perfect World,” is community empowerment and self-sufficiency. I’ve been lamenting ad nauseam that our government will not be there for us, and nor will corporate America. In fact, on the contrary, corporate American is doing it’s best to destroy Small Town U.S.A. (whether intentional or not). It’s up to us to fight back and save our communities, and save our neighborhoods. Because if we don’t – nobody will.

But it’s not that easy. What if the people can’t help their community, can’t be there to help their neighbors … and maybe can’t even help themselves. What if the people of your community don’t have the ‘skill set’ to make it in this new world that is evolving faster than most can keep up. Relying on what worked in the past often doesn’t get it done in the present – let alone in the future. Make no mistake, experience is a valuable component of civic and personal sustainability (and if sustainability isn’t a term you regularly use then you have a lot of work to do). But the trick is converting that experience into action that is applicable today and in the future.


Your Small Town needs to develop a ‘Survival Skill Set’

So here is my idea on how convert this experience your community possesses into the proper ‘skill set’  for “Small Town U.S.A.” – circa 2015 and beyond. Actually, it’s more a set of attitudes. Because without the proper frame of mind – all the training money can buy, will be all for not.

  • Embrace change and be flexible: Expect your life to be turned upside down tomorrow when you wake up. Strike the word security from your vocabulary. The only security you’ll have in 2015 and beyond, especially in a small town, is yourself and ability to navigate the inevitable changes that will “slap you in the face” when you least expect it. Don’t be pre-occupied with trying to hang on to “the way things were.” The only constant in life is change … so deal with it!
  • Embrace technology: Technology and specifically the internet is everywhere, and embedded in everything. Technology will buffer you from the ups and down of a local economy. Become adept at social media. Social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) will widen your reach of contacts and ultimately the support when you need it most. The internet will also enable you to create income being a “location independent” micro-entrepreneur.
  • Embrace your community: Your community, your neighbors, are your primary safety net and support structure. Don’t be a recluse. Lend a hand whenever you can. Be the “go-to person” in your town. Be the ‘help leader’ that people will follow. Be the one that is the first one to rally the people to make things better for all. A positive, action oriented attitude is contagious.
  • Embrace the youth: Make your town the one that welcomes young people. For it’s the young people who will create the new opportunities, the opportunities that will keep your town’s death at bay. Don’t be part of a town that only tries to “hang to yesterday,” and tries to prevent any intrusion into this allegedly idyllic time … the time that is no longer and never will be. Business owners need to part of the solution also. Mentoring and internship programs do wonders keeping your young talent at home, rather than having them leave town for better opportunities.
  • Focus on businesses that serve out-of-town customers: If you’re an entrepreneur, stay away from ventures that serve only your fellow community members, especially if the services you offer already exist locally. Don’t depend on revenue only generated from your community. Be responsible for bringing needed money into the community rather than cannibalize the existing businesses of your neighbors.
  • Foster cross-generational cooperation: I already mentioned a small town needs to ’embrace its youth,’ but that doesn’t mean neglecting the rest of its residents – especially the elderly. It’s the mix of the young and the old that create a town’s personality, one that’s unique. Make it a point to identify areas of generational cross-pollination. Retirees can mentor high schoolers, while the younger ones can assist the older generations get up to speed on technology. Turn schools into community hubs for all ages. Silos are for grain and corn, not for a society or your community.
  • Support your local businesses: I could have labeled this “Don’t buy into the Snake Oil of Wall Street.” 40% to 50% percent of each dollar spent at a locally owned business stays in the community. And only 15% percent does with a large corporate entity, like Walmart, Target or Home Depot. What does that tell you! That’s 30% that could go to local parks or local business owners that would in turn spend it at other local business owners and on and on.
  • Embrace your Weirdos: It’s the creative people, the out-of-the-box thinkers … who are ones who push the boundaries and shatter the status quo. They tremble at the words – normal, or conventional. These are the “Weirdos.” The ones who don’t conform, the Albert Einsteins, the Steve Jobs, the Truman Capotes and the Orson Wells. They scare the normal people. When this country has made strides and moved ahead – it’s the “Weirdos” that blazed the way for others to follow … often to much prejudice and ostracism. But we forget that those proverbial roads we often take for granted – were the result of the chances they took … and not us.

In the end, all the above suggestions are about change, or at least being open to it. People generally want things to be the same or the way they were. It’s this attitude that decimates a community. “Small Town U.S.A.” doesn’t need to be a thing of the past, only a distant memory.

It just needs only to change … to change its attitudes.


If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.


You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

6 thoughts on “Cheating the Grim Reaper of ‘Small Town U.S.A.’

  1. Spot on brother. As a Planner who deals with farmland preservation, I work with small communities and towns throughout Wisconsin. The successful towns embrace many of the ideas you suggest. They welcome the visitor, embrace community social events and have great interaction between generations. A solid recipe.

    1. Thanks Ken. It’s nice to know the ideas I espouse work when put in practice. But then again … they seem like common sense to me. Unfortunately though, common sense is not all that common.

  2. I was touched by this post … and I’m touched, Clay, by your effort to talk to folks in small towns and communities everywhere. Your cry for cross-generational cooperation especially hit home. American culture as a whole is running fast away from “growing old” and away from people who *are* old. What a shame! In human history, the “elders” of any society have played a key role. Believe it or not, “wisdom with age” is real, albeit disregarded lately. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks you so much for your kinds words. It’s words like these that keep me writing posts like this. I know some people listen … and maybe some actually put them to action. And that’s what it is all about – making an impact.

      1. Clay interested in your Apollo 13 idea. Would love to connect with you and a Capacity building org I work for in Eastern NY

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