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Editorial: A story of (your town’s) success

If you were to write the story of your town’s success, just what would it be?
Would you describe the process it took to solve the lack of affordable housing, or how your community was able to provide adequate childcare and early education? Would you recite how you flipped a stagnant or dying retail business district into something more robust, or tell the story of how your downtown moved away from a retail-centric mission to a dynamic hub to interact, brainstorm and share experiences with each other?
Would you tell the story of how the riverfront in your hometown became a pathway used year-around by regular walkers, bikers and runners from throughout the region; how bike paths, skateboard parks or rollerblade venues re-energized the community and attracted younger families?
Would you recall how your local hospital played an outsized role in improving the health of the community through new programs that encouraged — even cajoled — residents to exercise, eat healthier and laugh more — all with the added benefit of lowering the community’s health care costs? And what story, pray tell, would we hear about how your town revitalized its educational system to provide life-long learning for the constantly changing jobs of tomorrow while engaging all preschoolers in full- or half-day instruction?
And can you imagine how exciting it would be to tell of new business start-ups that had created the good-paying and interesting jobs to which your kids would hope to someday attain?
Just where would you begin that story?
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Let’s imagine such success and walk it backward to a theoretical beginning in, let’s say, the Land of Oz, only it didn’t begin with a house falling on a wicked witch. Rather it began with the realization that the retail community of old had met its match with Amazon Prime. There were a few local exceptions, of course, but thereafter downtown retail districts and even shopping malls wouldn’t be the same. Without the retail traffic, and with populations shifting to urban centers where jobs were more plentiful and city centers more attractive, some communities realized they had to evolve or wither.
Many would fail, but the more successful communities pursued a similar process of evolution:
• They identified their strengths (and weaknesses), put aside any differences, and rallied around the primary assets unique to them to create a desirable destination in which to visit and live.
• They recognized that younger families were being drawn to city centers not just for jobs, but because cities had changed; many were no longer the blighted centers of yesteryear, but hip, vibrant, fun hubs in which skate parks, bike lanes, green spaces, lower crime and cleaner outdoor amenities were attractions that met a family’s needs — and they had high-speed internet! Rural towns would have to compete on all those fronts with an equally compelling story.
• The successful towns in Vermont seized on their natural assets as tourist destinations and developed a consistent marketing message to tell that story, year after year, building a loyal fan base just like a good sport franchise does.
• The most successful towns set realistic, concrete goals with defined timelines, encouraged community discussion and participation, fine-tuned the goals to get the majority on board, and then made it happen.
The detail work to pull off such miracles would take the effort of many varied community organizations and municipal offices. Each would be assigned a special task to complete: To make housing more affordable, planning and zoning boards worked to achieve higher density development downtown, which also helped make town centers more robust and vibrant; transportation committees worked overtime to envision a system of pedestrian/bike lanes to lessen vehicular traffic, cut carbon output, and provide recreational opportunities — while also lessening the need for expensive parking spaces in downtowns used less and less for retail; parks and rec groups would develop riverfronts in towns lucky enough to have one coursing through their centers — extending them for miles, not just for daily use but also 10K runs and other community events that help make towns happy places.
Towns that didn’t already have a marketing budget created one from a small percentage of their local option tax, and championed the assets most unique and appealing to tourists, bringing a vital outside source of revenue to local businesses. That, in turn, created a livelier restaurant and entertainment scene, which excited local residents, changing a sleepy (some say moribund) nightlife scene into one attractive to all, including a younger demographic — solving yet another concern of rural (delightful but sometimes boring) towns. In short, those towns that were visionary and proactive sparked an upward spiral of progress.
Wishful thinking but it will never happen, doubters say; even Dorothy woke up from dreamy Oz to find herself back on the farm in Kansas, added the realists.
Could be, but here’s our wager: The majority in a town who think so will live in those withering towns of tomorrow; those who embrace today’s changes and take proactive measures to capitalize on opportunities might be lucky enough to tell their kids and grandkids an interesting story of transformation and renewal.
What’s your bet, and how do you envision your town’s future success?

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