Weed Whackers and Window Cleaner Ninja

I visited Roscommon County, Michigan and toured a few empty buildings.  On one corner, a major intersection into town, there was an empty building on each corner.  We talked about building possibility, working with the county and the town and hosting a tour.

Next to one of the buildings that needed to be torn down  was an old restaurant, still in operation.  The entrance everyone uses is on the back side by the parking lot.  However, the front side is what visitors see.  It is full of weeds and the windows are dirty.  I suggested the committee get together in the early morning light, bring their weed whackers and window cleaners, and take an hour to clean it up.

Then they could send a nice letter to the owner thanking him for keeping a long standing business open and being a part of the community.  Business owners are busy people and sometimes things fall through the cracks.  No need to remind him of that, he knows.  What he doesn’t hear often enough is “thank you”.  

Do you have location in your neck of the woods that needs a Ninja team?

Using the Entire Town to Fundraise

Akron, Iowa has a big idea of building an aquatic center. They knew it would cost a lot of money. They will write grants and apply for different kinds of funding. However, without full support of the community, those requests won’t go very far. 

Some of the small steps they are taking to raise funds and involve the community are:

  • 2 National Honor students went to the elementary grades and started a penny war between classes. The winning class got a popcorn party and a pool party (at their current pool). A penny party is when students bring in their pennies, and the class with the most pennies wins.
  • The mayor and her assistant went to two 8th grade classes and explained the aquatic center project. Their teacher introduced coursework that involves  presenting a plan to the swimming pool committee. The class members will be divided into groups of 3 and the best plan from each class will be selected. The goal is that the best plans will bring in $1000 to give to the aquatic center project. (I did suggest they use all the plans!)
  • A few ladies downtown got together and held a Spook Spectacular.  They had about 250 pumpkins donated. They set up various sized tables so young people as well as adults could decorate pumpkins.  The decorated pumpkins were placed all over town! Plus they had children’s games, free s’mores in the shapes of pumpkins, ghosts, etc. There was also a food truck, plus free hot chocolate. Then at 6:30 they had a movie at the opera house for kids, all part of their swimming pool fund raising activities.
  • The City of Akron Pool Committee hosted Wreaths for a Reason, a wreath silent auction. Each individual, community organization, church, business, etc., was asked to decorate and donate a wreath. Another fundraiser for the pool.

They continue to raise money, from literally pennies to thousands of dollars in ways that everyone can participate in. No idea is too small, or too ‘incorrect’. All the ideas are accepted, and everyone that can participates. 

There’s been no giant committee organizing everything. There’s no permissions you have to get granted. The committee of negativity is being ignored. And excitement grows!


No one person gets to decide

We no longer need a few leaders to make all the decisions.

All the people get to do things. Got an idea? Go for it.  And try, test, try again, test again, and refine until it works.  Or it doesn’t.

No need for meetings. No need for permissions. No need for drama.

The future is now.  This is happening RIGHT NOW. Things are getting done, and done well and excitingly.

Are you one of the ‘old timers’ and won’t let go of the past? Or are you one of those ‘new timers’ working in the here and now to make things happen?

It’s an easy concept. Just go do it.  However, it’s not always easy to break away from what you know. I’m encouraging you to go give it a try. Take a small step. Try something. Remember, you don’t need anyone’s permission or for someone else to make a decision for you if it’s right or not.

Here’s three stories of people who are doing things. \

Akron, Iowa residents are talking about the empty buildings, the businesses for sale and spaces for businesses to share.  They aren’t holding meetings, waiting on decisions, hoping the right person will find them.  They are just telling everyone they know ‘we’ve got these possibilities and you want to be a part of it.’ And people are coming out of the woodwork to take advantage!

Kristen Simons in Belle Fourche, SD  posted this on her Facebook page. Who on my Facebook list are artisans? Bakers, artists, woodworkers, painters, upcyclers, cooks, etc? I’d love to hear more about what you do – and if you aren’t one, would love recommendations of who I should connect with in this community. Imagine what she’s going to do with that information (and there were already lots of responses!)

Erin Criss, my friend who has had a home based business since 2004, made a simple decision. She’s no longer going to work with people she doesn’t like. She didn’t ask for permission. She didn’t cry about it. She just said “I’m doing it my way” and got to it. She’s already making a difference in her business helping people.

Don’t wait for someone to tell you it’s okay to do it. Just take that small step, and do it. 

What will the future look like?

Location doesn’t matter in the future.

You can work from anywhere. Work will be competitive and informal/hands on education will be valuable. Artists will be in good shape and Dr’s will see more robots replacing them.  It will be the networking economy and we will need people who can connect with robots.

Empathy, communication skills, management and leadership skills and entrepreneurial skills are going to save you.

We will need lots of cross pollination with business and schools. Find out what your expertise is and find a way to bring it to the community. Those who hand make items, or manufacture items by hand, will be good. Artists should be fine.  Innovation wins.

When is all of this going to happen?

Let’s look at the numbers predicated on research:

  • by 2025 one in three jobs will be robot replaced, displacing 140,000,000 workers.
  • By 2020 millennials will be 50% of the workforce, and by 2025 it will be 75%.
What does this mean for rural?

Figure out how to connect digital to physical and provide the space for it.Artificial Intelligence, Autonomous machines, augmented reality, data management – all of these things are here already. How can you make more room for them in your small towns? How can you provide a wonderful empty building for living and working in your town?

Learn how to use augmented and virtual reality. Workers are now training in real time with virtual reality. A car mechanic can watch an engine being repaired and it appears in front of him virtually. He can work on his own engine at the same time. Learn how to fly a drone, get a license and think of all the opportunities coming: rural deliveries, transport blood in rural Africa, building virtual and augmented reality for clients, to name a few.

Businesses working with students, kindergarten through college, will be vital to provide workforce, ideas and skills. They are the future, and they are here now.

Think differently about farming. Vertical farming will show up in lots of places. People want to be more responsible for they eat. Organic farmer will go to a new level. How you can use that in your small town? What kind of robotics will be need to be built to plant and harvest the crops with no humans? There will be 4 billion more people on the planet by 2025, and we will need to feed them.

Idea Friendly Towns will be the most prepared for the future.

The ability to live in the present and prepare for the future will matter. The crowd will create new ideas, and be more innovative. The future will be built by people working together, and we will get there by taking small steps.


Your Gift from Becky and Me

We know that the Idea Friendly method works in small towns just like yours.

You can learn all about it by watching this video. You’ve got through December 31 to watch it. Invite others to join you!

Happy Holidays!

What story are you telling?

We can be our own worst enemies. It’s time to change that habit.

The rural narrative that others are writing about us is just not true. Rural is NOT dying, and they are describing rural based on deficits. Let’s get better about talking about our assets.
Our downtowns have changed not because they are rural but because living in the world has changed. 

Rural population has actually gone up 11% since 1970. Our urban areas are growing wider, not taller. Des Moines, Iowa has spread out to include in the metro West Des Moines, Urbandale, Grimes, Ankeny and many more. Look in your state, do you see the metros spreading out to include what used to be small towns? Wider – not taller.

Too often we tell our stories based on used to, coulda done, and shoulda had. 

We focus on what we didn’t get, what we don’t have and what went wrong. Realize you are not helping to tell your story in a positive light.

If you ask me about Webster City, Iowa I’m going to share about our 6 mile trail that goes out to Briggs Woods Park. I’ll tell you about the movie theater we saved from extinction. You’ll hear about all the new businesses coming to town.

If you ask someone else it is very likely you’ll hear “we used to have the factory, but they left and now we don’t have much.” That is certainly true – they left. But what is not true is the statement we don’t have much. We used to have a factory; we coulda saved it maybe; we shoulda got another factory. These are not stories that welcome newcomers.

If a place is nice place to visit, it’s a nice place to live there.

Let’s start showing our visitors our nice side. What are the good things about your community? Write them down, and share them everywhere. Encourage your friends to talk about the good things. Post them on Facebook.

Can’t find enough nice things to talk about? Look at the nonprofits in your community. Our nonprofits tell the world what we care about, what is important. In my town we focus on mental health, senior care, youth involvement, and building up our downtown. There are more of course, but those are the ones I know for sure about. People volunteer and give to nonprofits in your town, those are the things they care about. Rural leads the world in giving to our own, and making life better for those who need it.

People want to live in small towns for several reasons .

They include; simpler pace of life, safety and security, low housing costs, and the ability to be part of the community. In fact, there is a migration of 30 to 59-year old’s moving into rural areas. How can we get those people to come to our towns?

We expect these newcomers to be ‘part of my group’ and when you don’t notice them you say “well, they’re not in my group.” Newcomers are engaged; however, they are engaged in their interests, not yours! When we do meet these newcomers, we welcome them to the community and then ask them to be part of our groups. Join the Rotary! Join the Lions! Volunteer here!

We are looking for leadership before engagement.

What if we took the time to get to know them first instead of scaring them off? Find out what their interests are and stop asking them to join organizations that require they commit a huge chunk of their time. Invite them to the pancake dinner. Tell them about the music in the park. Let them know what is going on in your town, and find out what they are interested in.

Tell your story in a positive light, and engage with people.

Is small scale manufacturing a thing for small towns?

Just what is small scale manufacturing? 

It’s the artisan makers, the prototyping to small scale, it’s the production at scale, the makerspaces and the shared commercial kitchens and workshops.

You’d be looking for craft brewers, artisan businesses, contract manufacturing, commercial kitchens, farmers market organizers, and the ‘connectors’.

Let’s play a short game of who do you know.

Who likes to cook and is making food at home for sale?
Who is making crafts, sewing, painting, digital graphics, signage?
Who do you know who sells products on etsy?
Who is refurbishing furniture?
Who is making soap or lotions?

These are your possible small scale manufacturers.

Now we need to understand the spaces that can house small scale manufacturing.

1. an empty building with pop up shops
2. shared kitchen or shared workshop
3. micro retail in the front and production in the back
4. large retail and/or production
5. small, but industrial.

What areas in town will we target to put these folks into business?

You’ll base your decision on several factors.
1. What buildings are vacant?
2. Are there people in community that will invest in this type of new business?
3. Is there a neighborhood that could benefit from this business and help stabilize the neighborhood?
4. Is there neighbor or property owner interest?

This information should get you started in looking at your possibilities for new business, expanded business and the neighborhoods they could go into to.

This process can be done by gathering your crowd, and then answer the questions above and start building connections.

Running on Fumes

I get it. Everything is coming at you at once. Trying to prioritize becomes an exercise in futility. You’ve lost your grip on being in control.

Stop.  Breathe.

Realize that you don’t have to be in charge. In fact, being in charge and in control is a demon of the past, part of the old way of doing things. It used to be important that a small group of people made the decisions. They were responsible for knowing all the rules, knowing who the key players were, knowing how to make the best decisions for as many people as they could.

The world has changed. Our access to news, technology, and innovation is light years away from the way it used to be. The days of six white men in the backroom making all the decisions has passed. There is now a culture of creativity, of coming together to pool our resources and make small, beautiful accomplishments part of your every day.

How do you let go of being in control?

The next time someone walks into your office and says, “I have this idea.” You’ll respond with “great idea! When will you get started on that?”

The next time you’re in the middle of flux and can’t seem to get things moving, you’ll gather your crowd. Who is interested in this challenge? How you can crowdsource the solution? Move that control out of the way and invite your crowd to solve that bit of flux.

When someone asks you for help, share your connections – not all your time. Who and what do you know that will help them? Build connections, help them find their crowd and encourage them to take small steps.

Finally, move from talking to action.

Get rid of the meetings, get rid of the phone calls to tear apart yet again something already broken, get rid of the people that only want to tear you down. The committee of negativity was never your friend and was never going to help you.

Small steps, with your connected crowd, no one in charge, everyone participating in a small but meaningful way, and your life of being in control is over.

Raise Your Voice

Paula Jensen is a guest blogger, and I’m thrilled to share this article of hers. (All bolded letters are at my direction.) 

Raise Your Voice for Rural Communities

It seems to me the only voices being heard in this world are from big companies, big cities and big government. The news blasted on my car radio as I drove across the prairie a few weeks ago, “the nation’s Gross Domestic Product growth has risen to a booming 4.1 during the second quarter of 2018 and consumer confidence is high as we go into mid-term elections.”  I wanted to yell at the car radio, “What about the news that is affecting rural communities!”

That brief tantrum brought a question to mind for me. Where are the voices willing to explore and discuss issues facing rural communities?

There is an online news feed called The Daily Yonder that understands rural and puts our issues in perspective, but I’m guessing since it’s not one of the national news mediums, not many are looking at it.  Jim Goodman, a writer for the Daily Yonder recently wrote, “In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted 2018 crop profits would hit a 12-year low. Dairy farmers’ prices have fallen 30% in two years, while pork producers have seen a price drop of roughly $20 per head. Overall farm incomes are down nearly 50% from 2013. Long before the trade war began, I and many other farmers feared we were in a farm crisis as bad as that of the 1980s. Now we know it will be even worse.”

The success or despair of agriculture will ultimately trickle down to us all in small South Dakota towns. Yet, how we as individuals and the collective community choose to raise our voices and prepare for those times of success or despair equates to whether our communities will thrive or die.

The small towns that are successful in South Dakota are focused on creating a new rural – a vision and strategy to thrive. These small towns and regions are exploring the strategic possibilities of community and economic development. Here are a few strategic ways communities of the new rural are choosing to thrive:

Initiating Community Conversations – Because of the culture and leadership structures in small towns, we often lack a voice to raise difficult and challenging questions on issues facing our communities. With little cost but plenty of leadership, thriving rural communities are hosting community gatherings to talk about the issues, surveying residents, commissioning housing studies, empowering citizens to take action, and elevating other issues of priority.

Educating the community – Local community and economic development organizations are providing easy-to-understand public education on issues that are at the forefront, such as housing, business, leadership, daycare, quality of life amenities and more. By presenting and sharing quality data, information, and even opinions this puts communities and their residents in a better position to understand and address complex issues in a local context.

Building local infrastructure – This strategy is not about sewer, water and streets even though we know that type of infrastructure is necessary. Thriving communities make a lasting commitment to developing an infrastructure of community engagement (citizen leadership) and economic development (leadership focused on business development, people attraction and quality of place). For example, a community that is committed to building local infrastructure may see value in employing a community and economic development specialist that will wake up each day ready to engage residents, build outside connections, leverage resources, and keep their finger on the pulse of the community and region.

Grow local voices – Thriving communities empower residents and local leadership to speak out for their community to elected officials, resource providers, funders, neighboring towns, national platforms and, most of all, each other. This strategy begins through community engagement, education, connections and regular communication. Growing local voices allows a thriving community to solve a wide range of issues that may be affecting them, such as broadband access or the ability to maintain healthcare.

Are you willing to raise your voice to explore and discuss issues facing rural communities? Creating a thriving rural community requires your voice, new strategies, and your commitment to creating change around the issues you are passionate about. I challenge you to find your voice and begin speaking up for rural. It starts in little ways, like sharing a new idea with a group at the coffee shop, saying thank you to a long-time community volunteer or sharing on social media #Iamrural. Go ahead, I give you permission to use your voice for the good of rural.

Having a passion for rural community leadership and development is what drives Paula Jensen’s personal and professional life. Paula resides in her hometown of Langford, South Dakota, population 318+. She serves as a grant writer and community coach with Dakota Resources based in Renner, South Dakota. Dakota Resources is a 501c3 Community Development Financial Institution with the purpose of stimulating financial and human investments in rural communities that are invested in themselves. Contact her at paula@dakotaresources.org.




Rebuttal to the New York Times

In 2016 we had a young man who was writing an article for the New York Times come to town. He was ready to tell the story of how our town lost a major manufacturer and it was awful for us. I disagreed and wrote this rebuttal.
I like Brendan Hoffman.  He first traveled to Webster City in 2011 when he was covering the presidential elections in 2011. I met the young man when I first started as Chamber Director in 2013.  He was back on a visit recently, following the Clinton team.  Brendan was just published again by the New York Times and I’m a bit ticked off at them for leading their readers to believe that Webster City is leading a terrible life. (http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/28/iowa-brendan-hoffman-factory-electrolux/?_r=0 )  But then, they do have papers to sell. For some particular reason, there’s this idea that slanting a story towards bad news or sad news will sell more papers.

Here’s where I am going to disagree. People are pretty disgusted with always hearing the bad news. We can pick up those stories on Facebook, or in the rags while standing in line at the grocery store.  What if you actually just told the truth?  Why not share some facts, and then find the stories behind the facts?  Here, I’ll get you started.

Unemployment rates in Hamilton County (we are the county seat) are 3.8% as of November 2015.  That is the same as the state of Iowa.  New York’s is 5.7%.  We’ve also got jobs here.  Good paying jobs at that – visit Van Diest Supply and find multiple listings, with starting pay in the $17+ an hour range.  Vantec, Inc. is hiring.  So is Webster City Custom Meats.  The list goes on.  There is work here.

There is also opportunity here.  We have room for entrepreneurs as well.  We host events like EntreBash where we partner with groups like Wright Hamilton Entrepreneurial Network and find ways for people to start their own businesses.  Small Business Development Centers are part of the SBA and they assist, at no charge, and help entrepreneurs as well.  There are building owners that have put their buildings into the Incubator Project and are willing to ​rent their buildings at reduced rates to help people get started.

​Now let’s talk about what has happened in town since Electrolux left.   Remember, we’re a town of about 8,000 people.
New businesses in town:
Prime Life LLC
 bought an empty building and specializes in total hormone balancing, stress management, preventive medicine, and the management of chronic medical conditions.
Mind and Body Clinic utilizes both traditional and complimentary therapies, with a focus on psychiatric medicine and osteopathic manipulation.  They use space in the Prime Life facility.
Neighbors Heating and Cooling bought the Chalfant Plumbing building and business.
Victoria’s Bubble Tea was open for a year and rented space from Al the barber.  She is no longer in business.
Iglesia Del Dios Pentecostal bought an empty building that was once rented by Public Health.  They are a Hispanic church and active in the chamber as well.
Crispy Eggroll is renting an empty building and serves Asian, Vietnamese and Thai food.
VeroBlue Farms is capturing the opportunity to become the largest onshore, indoor facility of its kind in North America. Through its Iowa’s First Hub located in Webster City Iowa, VBF is expanding its production of the Barramundi fish species through a new urban farm with approximately 7.2 million pounds of production. They have already purchased one of the old Electrolux buildings and are converting it to grow fish.
La Perla Jarocha Restaurant is an offshoot of their grocery store and serves traditional Mexican food.  They rent an empty building until their restaurant facility will be ready in the next year or so.
InTANDEM Workspace is a community of like-minded professionals who want a different kind of place to work.  Located in one building, coworking is becoming the norm for many people.
Chicago Styles is a clothing store for hip, young people owned by a local Hispanic family.  The Laotian Grocery Store is new to the community and features Laotian food stuffs.
El Benedicion Mexican Grocery Store is right next door and offers food and other services like phone cards as well.
The Webster Movie Theater reopened under HERO ownership.  HERO is a nonprofit organization (Help Entertain and Restore Organization) that raised over $200,000 in a years’ time to save the movie theater and install new digital equipment.
SOS Vintage came to town to look at the Incubator Project and ended up buying their own building and opening up a store where people come from all over to shop.
Relax the Bath and TiDe Creations are two entrepreneurs who sell their products in SOS Vintage and bring originality to our community in a unique way.  Soaps made for the gods and hand crafted leather items you can’t find anymore – niche markets that people are looking for.
Stein Heating and Cooling moved from the country into town and we’re happy to have them here.
Shopko Hometown found us because we are ideally located along Highway 20, and we’re their market.
Marlies Garage is a local young man and his wife who branched out on their own and fixes cars and does alignments and believes in working in their own hometown.
Maid-Rite serves the traditional sandwiches and other sandwiches, breakfasts and goodies as well.  Also located along Highway 20 and locally owned.
Other expansions, new owners and moves in the last few years:
Interior Spaces
 bought Classic Carpet and Interiors – they are full service interior decorator business.
Thrifty White moved to 2nd Street and Broadway.
Maharry Dental is scheduled to open this spring in a larger, new building.
Webster City Community Theatre has completed their expansion.
Van Diest Supply Company continues to expand.
WCF Financial Bank has moved to a new building in a new location.
Splash Graphics expanded their business to Webster City.
Future of Health Massage moved to a new location.
Lucinda Stone started Therapeutic Life Center of Massage College.
Leah Feltz Fitness and Magers Martial Arts now have classes here in town.
New Horizons Travel and The Computer Guy, two new businesses in town, are in the coworking space.
P and P Electric has expanded.
Storm Flying Service has new owners.
I’m sure I’ve missed some too – and to those people I apologize.  It’s exciting to see all this growth!

Brendan did say “The town has not shriveled up, which is amazing.”  I just wonder why he thinks that is so amazing.  We are not quitters.  One factory leaving doesn’t stop a town like Webster City.  

You can read Brendan’s original article, and see my rebuttal in the comments.