CYON Business Solutions, LLC
"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." Albert Einstein
I would say it’s a fair bet that most rural communities in Maine struggle with ways to foster community & economic development. I would also bet that if you were to take a poll of those same communities, many of them approach that development in much the same way. Many of them are also getting the same results – marginal. But, really, what are we trying to accomplish in rural communities when we prioritize development? The word “development” is a relatively abstract term for what in earnest is, by necessity, many diverse strategies used to stimulate localized investment.1 Also by necessity, those development strategies are reacting and responding to very different sets of local issues and relationships. Each locality faces different challenges, and brings to the table different assets. As such, it is time we recognize that cookie-cutter solutions to rural economic and community development, like attracting tourists or creating large venues in hopes of attracting non-local consumer dollars, aren’t the answer. Rural communities need to take stock in their unique assets and, well to borrow a phrase, “work it!”
In order to take that stock, community leaders need to engage their community members much more proactively. Answers for communities are not going to come from outside, they are going to need to be developed by members from within. A diverse group of both formal and informal leaders, from local governing bodies, education, health and human services, business, and the faith community must first work to establish opportunities for collaboration and networking in order to maximize and share often limited resources. A vision for the community as a whole, which includes quality of life issues, will direct efforts toward “win-win” partnerships and avoid redundancies. The real key to this type of development strategy is collaborative leadership. Collaborative leadership is needed when “problems require innovation and learning among the interested parties and, even when a solution is discovered, no single entity has the authority to impose it on the others. That is the reality of communities.”3
One example where this approach can be extremely effective is in the local business sector. Small businesses in rural areas tend to compete for the same market share, which is often small to begin with, creating unbending bottom lines and narrow profit margins. This cannibalistic competition, or “I win, you lose” philosophy, becomes yet another hurdle local businesses, therefore, must overcome. In other words, local business owners need to start thinking synergistically instead of competitively2. “Coopetition” can maximize impact for even the loosest network of businesses. Collaborative Marketing Groups (CMGs) allow businesses with very small budgets to save money through joint investment, share demographic information, and promote more reasons to visit an area.4 Even better, as businesses learn to share a customer base, especially that of its own community members, dollars stay and circulate within the community itself – instead of leaving with the summer tourist, for example.
Getting community stakeholders to sit down at the table together is the first step. Presenting them with the benefits of a coopetition attitude toward sustainable business practices is the second. Finding ways that the community as a whole can create and invest in vibrancy, natural asset management, job creation infrastructure, and entrepreneurial support systems can be the goal.
Lisa Cooper is an Associate Consultant for CYON Business Solutions.
1Brown-Graham, Anita, and William Lambe. Measures and Methods: Four Tenets for Rural Economic Development in the New Economy. Issue brief. University of New Hampshire, 01 Oct. 2008. Web. 5 Feb. 2013. <http://carseyinstitute.unh.edu/publication/measures-and-methods-four-tenets-rural-economic-development-new-economy>.
2"Community Development Strategies: Yes, It Can Fit in Your Budget | Center for Rural Affairs." Blog for Rural America. Center for Rural Affairs, 18 May 2010. Web. 05 Feb. 2013. <http://www.cfra.org/renewrural/rcthrive>.
3"Networking and Collaboration." Rural Networking and Rural Collaboration FAQs. Rural Assistance Center. Web. 05 Feb. 2013. <http://www.raconline.org/topics/networking/>.
4Barton, David. "What Is a Cooperative" in Cooperatives in Agriculture, David Cobia, ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1989, pp. 1-20
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