Spurred by an insult, led by a strong mayor and grounded in volunteerism, Scottsburg, Indiana, has replenished itself as both a community and a regional economic force.
Community development grows from shared dreams and visions. It is nurtured by patient but determined and persistent leadership that successfully brings people together to work toward common goals. It is sustained by the willingness of people to seek opportunities, take risks, and continue to pursue the ever-out-there long term.
Community development practice is art and science. But art and science only go so far. Community development is also alchemy, some “it” factor that brings communities together to turn dreams and visions into reality.
Community alchemy – getting the lead out and reaching for the “gold” of healthy environment, healthy individuals and families, social well-being, and economic security – is not the stuff of the mythical philosophers’ stone. It happens. The magic is something to be celebrated, not only in the successful communities themselves but by the rest of us, too. This is the stuff of epic stories.
Rural Scottsburg, Indiana, is certainly a place to celebrate. In early October I visited the small town of 6,700 in the southeastern part of the state and heard a heartening story. In 1988, Scottsburg was skidding. Despite the rough economy of the past few years, this town persists at the task of building its community and economy, a sustained effort for the better part of a generation. The results so far are wondrous, not only for Scottsburg but for Scott County and its surrounding region.
Mayor William H. Graham is part of the alchemy that moved the town and county forward. His leadership efforts have buttressed at least one professional maxim: “Community and economic development go hand in hand.”
In 1988, a new Japanese plant that made steel wires for radial tires opened in Scottsburg’s industrial park. The firm’s president told Graham he was dubious about locating there because people didn’t seems to hold any pride in where they lived. The downtown was half vacant at the time.
The mayor was struck, perhaps stung, by this comment. Instead of becoming defensive, the former banker took the observation to heart. He recruited volunteers to build well-managed organizations with achievable goals. He encouraged enthusiastic leadership that not only recognized the importance of volunteers but lauded their accomplishments. The growing cadre of leaders attracted both newcomers and born-and-raised residents and drew them into building a community-wide critical mass for change.
The community did change, with huge accomplishments. The downtown is beautiful and well used most hours of the day and evening, with a low vacancy rate. Other endeavors addressed a wide variety of community needs and wants: a Kids’ Place; a merged countywide chamber of commerce and a leadership academy; an economic development corporation; a United Way; the Scott County Partnership that helps various agencies work together more closely; a community foundation; a visitors commission; a clearinghouse to help with food, energy and other financial assistance; a YMCA; a heritage center and museum; and a lifelong learning center and industrial training program. When existing communications companies balked at offering broadband Internet access, Scottsburg took the lead in setting up Citizens Communications Corp., with more than 49 tower locations providing service to all or parts of nine counties.
What started out as a bootstrap approach using volunteers has been sustained by the community’s ability to leverage money from the state and other grant sources. For example, according to ProPublica.org, the area received about $16 million in federal stimulus funding.
The city has successfully applied for state and federal funds for major projects, including its most recent and perhaps riskiest venture, the Mid-America Science Park. Mayor Graham and others from the community spent 13 years planning the facility, visiting other sites, listening and learning. It was a conscious effort to search for higher-paying jobs and stem the brain drain, according to Graham.
The $11-million facility ($6 million in federal funding) occupies the former site of the Japanese firm that helped kick off the community’s renaissance. It is designed to be versatile, including a highly sophisticated global communications system and a conference center; state-of-the-art lab facilities for business research and incubation; and a training and research center equipped to develop manufacturing technology and alternative energy. It even includes outdoor space for experiments and programming. Future plans: Leaders want to acquire an onsite supercomputer.
The park’s first tenant is locally grown. Stray Light Optical Technologies, Inc. might have started someplace else. A personal invitation from Graham to the company’s founder, Gerald Rae, started with a chance encounter between the mayor and Rae’s mother at a funeral. Instead of pursuing his career somewhere else, Rae took the offer to help plan the science park and stay at home to build a business. The result is a start up that is in the forefront of energy-efficient lighting, using plasma to create lighting applications for medicine, TV and film, aquariums, streets, and open areas.
Scottsburg has persisted in its efforts to capture the alchemy of combining community and economic development. Graham describes one element of the “it”: “In Scottsburg, we don’t argue much about our differences – we know we have them – we just continually concentrate on how to make things better, work around the issues and strive to improve our quality of life.”
Quality of life is the mythical gold of development alchemy. And going for the gold means facing and moving beyond the lead-weighted realities of rural life in many communities today. With a little magic, inspired and collaborative leadership, and a lot of hard work in and for the community, dreams and visions can become the new reality, a better one at that.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.