Based out of Alberta, the now world famous “13 Ways” (short for 13 Ways to Kill Your Community) considers itself “the most unique consulting company in the world … we are community therapists.”
In comparing communities to people, they argue, “We don’t treat communities as we treat people, but we should. We often prescribe something to them, and anticipate that will make it all better. The prescription is often a new plan of some sort, or some money from government. The money and the plan simply mask the condition for a time, but eventually the prescription runs out and the symptoms, and the problem, return.”
So what can rural communities do, other than wait for governments to fix problems? 13 Ways’ founding CEO Doug Griffiths says waiting for governments to “fix” small and struggling towns means they will never get fixed.
“It doesn’t matter which level of government you want to blame – federal, provincial, or local – they can help to ensure the policies are in place that can help a community become successful, but ultimately it comes down to the individual community members to decide they want to succeed.”
He says “the reason for that is that success comes from finding what makes you unique and how you are going to use that to grow and prosper. That can’t be done by government. That needs to be done by the people that live in the community.”
Sounds a little floozy, but he’s not being an idealist about it. Consider which rural communities in Newfoundland are thriving right now. It was Zita Cobb alone who put Fogo on the international map, and the area of Port Rexton and Bonavista is a cultural hotspot right now because of entrepreneurs behind places like Port Rexton Brewing, Two Whales Coffee Shop, Boreal Diner, East Coast Glow, Sweet Rock Ice Cream, and Bonavista Living (among others), who collectively built a hive of cultural and retail heaven, that has locals and tourists alike flocking to it. If you build it, they will come.
“Many will argue against this,” Griffiths says, “but community members need to stop looking to others to make them successful and take it upon themselves. It is the only way their situation will change. No one is coming in with a magic elixir to make everything all better.”
For the past two decades, Griffiths has traveled to hundreds of small communities, listened to their challenges, and helped them take action towards positive change. Among his lectures, is one titled “Build A Community, Not Just An Economy.”
He says, “Everyone wants economic success. Why wouldn’t they? Economic success helps our communities grow and become stronger. The challenge most communities face, however, is they forget that developing their economy is virtually a fruitless effort unless they focus on building a strong community first.”
In his experience, a regime of low taxes, reduced regulations, and shop-local initiatives “are great undertakings, but they are rarely enough to ensure enduring prosperity if that is where all the community’s efforts go.” Place making is about making places people want to live in, work in, and visit. That requires a diversity of retail, food, cultural, an recreational buzz.
“I have watched in horror as a wonderful community, thriving and successful, destroyed itself because it never stopped to consider or understand what made it great. It was a bustling community with a vibrant downtown core of mom-and-pop stores, appreciating home values, and lots of visitors that dropped a lot of money in town. It was quaint. It was picturesque. It was almost a fairy tale community.
“Then they decided they needed an economic development plan just like everyone else. They hired an economic development officer, handed him a generic economic development plan, and set him to work. He worked hard and managed to attract a lot of businesses to town. They were mostly those big box stores that say to everyone, ‘We are successful now.’
“They put them between the town and the highway to lure the traffic in, just as those economic development strategies suggest. It destroyed the town. It lost all the reasons that made it great. It was no longer the quaint picturesque place everyone wanted to visit and live in. It lost its charm. One resident said to me as he was filling up his moving truck on the way out of town, “If I wanted to live in the city, I would have stayed in the city.”