While community renewal is something that can be easily seen and experienced, it is not always something that can be objectively defined and quantified. In large urban areas this is generally not a problem, but in small towns and villages, there are a number of social activities and ventures that can go on unseen and unnoticed because they lack the size and scope to sustain traditional businesses or institutions.
If one fails to properly account for these types of activities it may be the difference between a successful and dynamic small town and a community revitalization process that is at odds with the existing social capital of a community. In order to turn around small towns, we have to be aware of the ways in which social capital operates in small towns, and one area that has done a great job of tapping into existing social capital is Water Valley, Mississippi.
Located some 20 miles from Oxford, Mississippi, the town of Water Valley has a population base of just over 3,000 people, but in recent years the main street has seen considerable development activity. The various town revitalization ventures were extensively profiled in a 30-minute Youtube video created by the website faircompanies.com. Two of the projects, which may act as positive models for other towns, are the Base Camp Coding Academy and the BTC Grocery Store, conceived by husband and wife team Kagan Coughlin and Alexe Van Beuren. In both examples, steps were taken to fill a valuable community niche, but modify it in a way that corresponded to the scale of the town and its existing base of social capital.
The Base Camp Coding Academy might be summarized as a one-room schoolhouse for the 21st century. Mississippi students, who are nominated by their teachers, will receive training in software development at the academy for 12 months. The academy generally takes in 15-20 students and is located in the same building as the BTC Grocery Store. By the end of the program, students will have developed a professional work portfolio, which can be shown to prospective employers. This type of skills-specific, small academy is ideally suited to small town life since it can provide valuable post-secondary education in places where size and scale prevent the formation of larger educational ventures.
In the case of the BTC grocery store, the owners took steps to educate themselves about the local supply chain for food and used this knowledge to create a unique brand that distinguished them from nearby competitors. The owners of BTC also gave floor space to local neighbors to sell antiques and other merchandise within the store, which further enhances their store’s offerings and helps contribute to the local economy. If any of these activities were called upon to sustain a single retail operation that might be a tall ask, but in concert with each other one is able to generate the necessary economies of scale to make small town retail work.
While the coastal towns of Alabama and Mississippi may differ in socio-economic profile and environment from Water Valley, Mississippi, the intimate scale of small town activities and endeavors is no different.
In order to achieve a critical mass of retail activity and institutional support in rural areas, it is important to find ways of capturing marginal economic value, so it may be incubated, or utilized, in a way that compliments existing retail activities.
Creating non-profits, which are scaled appropriately to rural areas and can be poised to take full advantage of the mutual support that small town life engenders, will help enrich institutional diversity in towns. In short, the life of a successful town is something that we can see, but can’t always adequately capture; planners would be well served in recognizing this in the techniques and approaches they use in rural redevelopment.