Where are they now?

Embedded Community Experience in Columbiana, Ohio

Visit by Deb in February 2019.

Columbiana, Ohio is a small town Deb visited in February 2019 for an Embedded Community Experience. 6,400 people live in the town Harvey Firestone called home oh so many years ago.

  • One focus was on the downtown area because there quite a few empty storefronts.
  • One owner of several buildings wanted to make downtown more entertainment focused, more places to eat and drink and be entertained, less retail.
  • They have three areas in town for retail, it’s called the Triangle. Downtown, Firestone Park and DutchHaus eating and shopping. 

Lance Willard, city manager and Tom Mackell of Firestone Farms accompanied Deb to most of the activities and visits. There were several other residents, business people and organizations that got involved as well. 

In the past year, Columbiana has made leaps and bounds in their pursuit of becoming a friendlier town. Here are just a few of their results.

  1. All of the buildings downtown are filled, except one. There are more restaurants than antique stores, and the antique stores that are there have created an inviting place to come experience their wares.
  2. Firestone Park is now a vibrant shopping and eating area, and the stores are all filled. It used to be an empty, forlorn piece of land on the edge of town. 
  3. A local real estate developer offers free rent for a year to entrepreneurs who don’t have the wherewithal to get started. This is a town that believes entrepreneurs are the new inventors and innovators.
  4. One local woman donated 4 million dollars to the park for perpetuity. The park is done, with 6 waterfalls. It was a muddy hole in the ground a year ago. This park is located one block from downtown. Now visitors can eat, drink, shop and relax in this welcoming park.
  5. Columbiana was nominated by a citizen as the Nicest Place in Ohio. It was a contest where people had to vote to win. During every summer and fall event there were booths set up in the middle of the party where people could vote for their town. They did win the title Nicest Place in Ohio. Then they went on to be judged by a panel for the nicest place in America. They won that too! https://www.rd.com/nicest-places-contest/
  6. Hallmark voted Columbiana the 19th nicest place to celebrate Christmas.
  7. TOP 10 Advertising voted Birdfish Brewing Co. as the seventh best bar and pub in Northeast Ohio. Dutch Haus Bakery is #1 bakery and Salon Anthurium made top #1 salon. The salon just recently opened, and their loyal customers brought them to first place.

This community took to heart all the conversations Deb started when she asked them what they wanted. One suggestion was to take pride in their town. They now realize they are responsible for sharing that pride with others. The townspeople are actively involved in their community, and make the magic happen. 

Welcome to Columbiana, an Idea Friendly Town.

Say Thank You

Support your businesses with a thank you. A small group of us stopped in to the Pancake House in Paulding, Ohio just to tell them thank you! They are more than a pancake house, they serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. And they are local business owners providing a much-needed service in your community.

I get asked often about how we can get our communities more supportive of the local businesses. It starts with small steps, just like this. Be thankful. Say it out loud. Have no agenda with your thanks either.

We know for sure community happens when people talk to each other. Start with a simple thank you.

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!


Embedded Community Experience Follow Up

Six Months Later in Belle Fourche

“It’s because you told us to take small steps, and we did,” said Gary Wood, Chamber Director at Belle Fourche, South Dakota. I visited there in October of 2017 for an Embedded Community Experience. Since my visit, much has happened!


Cowboys Too! Moved across the street from their former location in The Olive Branch and had their grand opening on April 25th.

The Olive Branch has taken over their former space and expanded their product lines.

The Pioneer Bank & Trust has announced a major building renovation on their downtown location.  The CEO attended the Collective Impact sessions hosted by Dakota Resources and decided after hearing the importance of downtown to remain in their location rather than relocating to the Hwy 85 corridor!

Pizza Hut moved across the road and Subway has purchased their building, are renovating it and putting in up to date ordering etc.

The East end of state street businesses are excited about the Historic Roosevelt Events Center coming on line after 17 years of inactivity.  The Chamber is hosting a five business Chamber mixer on June 26 for the Chambers ribbon cutting, cake reception for the Roosevelt and tours of our office and the building.  Area businesses are excited to bring this end of downtown back on line and a part of the entire downtown business district.  A couple closed businesses have come for sale after the closing of an estate and they’re hoping for people to catch the vision for this area.  East State Street is beginning to come back on line and the businesses on this end are thrilled.

ECE in Belle Fourche Cowboys Two


A new group of grass roots volunteers (gather your crowd folks) has formed Bring Belle Back and they are doing a little every month to clean up the corridor. Revitalize Belle Fourche (a city committee with business members on the committee) lighted our downtown and Bring Belle Back lighted the trees.  After a bit of struggle— “the trees are suffering from the LED lights” and calls to other cities and a professional arborist who told them actually the street lights are damaging the trees, not the LED lights!! The lights are now staying up permanently.  Many are enjoying the lighted downtown area and drive down just to see the lights.

Belle Fourche Ninja


The Roosevelt High School was purchased by a progressive young couple—they own another smaller school building in town already.  They purchased the Roosevelt last Fall and the 44,000 square foot facility came on line for events and business.  The Chamber of Commerce moved in April 1, 2018 into the principal’s office right inside the main doors.  Loads of parking, space for several events at the same time, including indoor and farmer’s markets.  They’ve hosted roller skating in the gym.  People rent it for volleyball, pickle ball, indoor soccer, dog training classes, family and class reunions.  The community room (former band room) seats 50 comfortably and has had pre-school graduations, birthday parties, boy scouts etc.  They are waiting for the demo kitchen to be put in so they can host food demonstrations etc.  It also features a 500 seat auditorium that needs to be refurbished and then will be available for plays, concerts etc. The Historic Roosevelt Events Center was featured by the associated press and picked up by the Seattle Times.  Local TV and radio have interviewed the owners several times and the buzz continues.

Roosevelt School in Belle Fourche


The Chamber envisioned an indoor market and considered several different spots. In January they  opened “Le Belle Marche’” in the Historic Roosevelt Events Center gym.  They had originally considered the former band room but quickly gained too many vendors for that space and filled the gym where there is have room for 44 vendors.  The Chamber is in association with three other private markets that take place on that day here in town.  We call it Market Days in Belle Fourche.

Our local radio station has come strongly on line with a new web site; streaming of programming and news.  A new employee is attending meetings and reporting on those meetings & events.  She’s producing innovative ads and creating a buzz.

Le Belle Marche

Gary sent along this note on what else the Chamber has been doing:


  • The Chamber is researching “Place Making” and will do a lunch and learn on the subject toward the end of this month to inspire business and individuals to get involved with place making.  I’m telling businesses that they can be place makers in their business and create Instagram worthy places for the generation that is looking for a community that has life, events and character.
  • The Chamber is seeking to develop a “midtown” concept in our “midtown” business district.  We have several businesses on “National Street” and we’re envisioning a “National Block Party” on the fourth of July holiday.  Kind of a play on the “National” part with the fourth of July celebration.  Remember we get 17,000 for the parade alone on the 4th.
  • The Chamber is helping the Sr. Citizen Center to come back on line as an important organization and place for our community.  They were aging.  The 87 year old lady was shoveling the snow.  We’ve featured a Chamber luncheon there, helping them to grow their membership and general encouraging them.
  • The Chamber has a new take on the Shop Local campaign. They are using Belle Fourche First, encouraging their businesses and residents to shop in Belle Fourche first. Their new campaign just kicked on in May.


A Few Ideas from Bennettsville, SC ECE

I had the pleasure to visit several small towns in March on my Massive March Road Trip.  I’ll be writing more about it, but today I’m sharing ideas from Bennettsville, SC you can put to work right away!

Newcomers Gathering

Bennettsville, SC had me come to town for an Embedded Community Experience. One cool thing they did was host a Newcomers Get Together. Everyone that had moved to town in the past year were invited by their realtors to attend this gathering. Those realtors invited them face to face and it really helped to bring more people to the event. There were treats, it was early evening and they all had a chance to ask a lot of questions. I talked about working together, sharing ideas and taking action. The newcomers also got to ask basic questions like can they burn garbage, where do they change their licenses at, and who should they contact for what.

Take Pictures

There are beautiful plants and flowers in South Carolina. I took this picture in the yard of the b and b I stayed at in Bennettsville. I realized that the locals would know what these flowers and plants are, but visitors may not. What if we shared our pics on Instagram and Facebook so possible visitors would know a little more about our nature?

Make Your Small Spaces Beautiful

This is a little pass through by the flower shop in Bennettsville. There’s a sweet statue, a path and greenery. What if they added a proper bench by the sidewalk entrance, some art on the brick instead of graffitti and created a lovely little resting place?

Ask Alumni for Help

This is a very old African American school in Bennettsville. They asked different graduating classes to take on the responsibility for one of the rooms. They finished floors, made the blackboards beautiful and put in new windows. The room will forever be theirs.

A Visit to Akron, Iowa

Embedded Community Experience

Sharon Frerichs, the mayor of Akron, Iowa invited me to come and be a part of the Embedded Community Experience in September. I spent three days there.


I told the mayor, that once I stepped out of my car, I was hers. She took me at my word. The embedded community visit started at 11 a.m. Tuesday and we wrapped it up at 2 p.m. on Thursday. Many businesses were visited, as were the coffee groups. Tuesday evening, the City Council meeting hosted a question and answer session with me as the guest. Wednesday evening I presented to interested citizens about Innovative Rural Business Models. I explored empty buildings, visited non-profit groups, ate at local food places, spent some time at the river with Justin Higman and thoroughly enjoyed myself.


Location, location, location – you are the gateway to the Loess Hills, situated on the Big Sioux. This is a tourism dream! Start with activities you can do around the Big Sioux: canoeing, kayaking, fishing, etc. Don’t forget winter activities: ice fishing, snow shoeing, etc.

  • Local winery right in town.
  • An old hospital re-energized into a makerspace, a home for a local artist, housing a massage therapist and a collector of fine things, and room for more businesses.
  • Beautiful houses.
  • A local grocery store, pharmacist, medical clinic, local veterinarian, and local hardware.
  • Great places to eat and shop.
  • A school system envied by many and locals who support it. This includes the pre-school and the thrift shop that supports it.
  • Senior apartment living and nursing home, too.
  • A farmers market.
  • Local community theater.
  • Local musical education and entertainment.
  • A beautiful building that houses your history.
  • A campground area with cabins, RV space and activities.
  • Alternative healthcare options – massage therapy, essential oils, etc.
  • Hole in the Wall
  • Artists that live and work in your town

Suggestions for things you can do:

Big Ideas:

  1. Places to stay. Outside of the Hole in the Wall, there is not really anywhere for visitors to community to stay. However, there are ideas you can put into place. Upstairs housing that can be used as AirBNB is one avenue. Opening a boutique hotel is another. Both of those can be costly, and require investors. They are worth pursuing though.
  2. There are communities near you that have overnight stay housing available: Hawarden and Le Mars. What if you worked with them to create an itinerary that includes Akron? Give visitors a reason to stay in the area for two or three days.
  3. Add entrance and exit signage to your community.
  4. Work with the students and the Old Geezer Club to get that workspace used more often.
  5. Use the fact that you are the entrance to Loess Hills for your marketing of the town.

Now look at how you can take small steps to make it happen.


A “Plant Your Flags” party has been scheduled for Monday, October 23 at 7:00 p.m. in the Security National Bank Community Room. It will let those who have ideas to get together, grab a flag, put a thought or idea on it, and let those with a similar interests join together to work towards a common goal.

If this sounds a bit vague, that’s because it is. This is a gathering for folks to come together and share their ideas. It’s not a committee meeting. Note taking and decision making are not suggested. Those who wish together on an idea will do so. This is where the small steps start: gather your crowd.

Perhaps a few folks could reach out to the hotels in surrounding communities and begin talking about places to stay, and offering them possible itineraries that include visiting Akron. This could be done by the Chamber or City, but what if there’s a few folks interested in doing it? Maybe parents whose children attend some classes at the SPA could partner with the volunteers at the community theater.

What if the Old Geezers Club started involving students in their workspace. Could they design some ideas for entrance and exit signs? It starts with just having a conversation about it. What would they want it to look like? Who do they know that could help them? Gather Your Crowd and Build Connections.


  • Mayor Sharon Frerichs and Justin Higman attended a Mayors Conference on the Big Sioux river. Justin is attempting to get all of the mayor’s together from North Sioux to Sioux Falls, and then meet with the Iowa DNR and the SD DNR to set up a meeting on cleaning up their part of the river, and getting/pursuing info on a bike trail.
  • Agreement came through for the tear down of the old auto parts store.
  • Julie Madden covered the visit for the local paper at http://akronhometowner.com/
  • The city is showing the SaveYour.Town webinars for the entire community.
  • Prospective new business owners have been to town to look at possible locations (not at liberty to share their information).
  • The Akron Development Council is looking at investing in a new business – details will be released when the paperwork is completed.
  • Mackenzie Waddell is working with the Opera House to begin the process of historical status and main street store front restoration.

The beauty of Embedded Community Experiences is that it’s a chance for the town to see through my eyes. We hear so often ‘there’s nothing to do here’ that we start to believe it. Now, this small town can no longer say that. There’s many things to do, to be proud of and they are taking small steps to create their own brighter future.