Not too long ago, the Red River Regional Council partnered with communities in northeastern North Dakota to study how they could attract more residents and workers. They sought to learn more about their region to develop strategies to “enhance where we live, work and play.”
Part of that effort involved sending people to the towns in the region on “secret shopping missions.” These secret shoppers would bring back an impression of the current realities of the region’s communities, businesses, and people.
“The outcome will be a regional action plan that provides strong direction on how and what we can be doing to strengthen our efforts to attract people – both visitors and residents,” the Red River Regional Council said.
The regional council contracted with Roger Brooks International & Destination Development Association to conduct the study. “His team’s mission is to help communities in their efforts to be sustainable, successful destinations while improving quality of life for residents,” it said. His firm had assisted more than 2,200 communities with “branding, marketing, communications, economic and product development efforts.”
Before coming to the communities, they did a little research, seeing what they could find out about them before starting their in-person visits. How did the community portray itself to potential visitors, workers, and businesses through websites and other media? The secret physical visits that would follow would further develop the image the community presented.
What Brooks’ team found in their study of the communities might surprise some who have been involved in economic development for a long time.
“For the first time in history, quality of life is leading economic and tourism development. Jobs are going where the talent is, or where the talent wants to be,” Roger Brooks says. “Every community should be working overtime to become the place talented people want to live. This means a strong community development effort. And when you’re successful, jobs will follow.”
Community development comes first, and all other strategies should be built around it, he says.
When the study was complete, Marcy Douglas, a leadership development and strategic planning manager with Missouri River Energy Services, sat in on the presentation to North Dakota communities. Douglas works with small-town communities in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota to help them focus on their community and economic development strategies.
What the Brooks group found rearranges strategies for economic and community development goals. Here are the top 10 items people are now looking for when deciding on a community to call home, Douglas says:
1) Safety (particularly for kids.)
2) Good educational system and child care.
3) An engaged community that is welcoming and creates a sense of belonging.
4) Positive change happening – leadership and citizens who are open-minded to change and improvement.
5) Life after 6 p.m. and on weekends. Don’t forget strategies for winter – what do you have for people to do during those long, dark days? Is your downtown open? What activities and events have you planned for your residents?
6) Top-notch recreation – tell the story of the many forms of recreation available to people in your community and area.
7) Quality healthcare (particularly for kids.)
8) Walking and biking trails, paths, and school busing.
9) Housing availability, affordability, and quality.
10) Secure jobs or specific entrepreneurial opportunity.
What this list clearly shows is that community development strategies come first. Community development strategies should shape economic development efforts.
Not everyone will agree with this list’s priority order, pointing out it ignores some realities.
When the job openings are already here, and more would be readily created if we only had the workers to fill them, what then are our top priorities? Our best community development strategies will be frustrated unless we first address core challenges.
Our strategies have to be coordinated. We can’t attract more people if we don’t have a place for them to live. Every community in rural Minnesota faces the challenge of a housing shortage. We need to be planning to build more homes and apartment buildings not just now but have a plan for housing creation as an ongoing effort. We need to be setting the stage for that construction process three years from now – immediately.
If new construction isn’t possible, how can we implement a plan to renovate the current aged housing stock, rescuing it before it deteriorates past use?
We can’t ignore the evidence of what people are saying they want from the communities in which they will settle. It has to shape our economic development efforts. At the same time, we must maintain and build the necessary infrastructure that makes living in and appreciating our communities possible.
Essential to providing people a community where they want to sink their roots is a place served by good schools and day care services; with easy access to healthcare services; with a safe community with adequately funded and staffed law enforcement; with good and safe drinking water; with well-maintained streets; with reliable energy; and with up-to-date high-speed internet connections.
Attitude is easily communicated. What matters to the leadership and community’s people is picked up on in many ways. People considering living in a community can be energized and feel optimistic about what they see and hear or turned off. Those leaders who are forward-thinking and energize their citizens will build communities that prosper – if they provide what people seek in the place they will call home.
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