As I spend more time in a small town and compare it to my experience(s) in cities and even just regions closer to larger population centers, I am starting to learn one of the primary problems in small towns: lack of competition.
I mean lack of competition in an individual sense. There is no need for self-improvement or even, maintenance of quality in small towns for many positions just because there is no one else to take that place if it is an essential job. For example: middle management of any business. Once an individual gets into that sort of position in a business that stays stable within the community and can get comfortable, they really have no need to improve themselves or the business really. No other business will likely move in due to it being prohibitively expensive to move in and start a new business and there are not many new candidates moving into town to cause competition in the field itself for promotions etc. So, it becomes very easy to fall into a “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” attitude about everything. This hurts small towns most when it comes to leadership.
Having dynamic leadership is one of the best ways to promote expansion, development and improvement I think, having managers/mayors who are always willing to try new things and help those below them become more capable. Dynamic leadership happens when non-dynamic individuals filter down/are limited in their promotion abilities because of competition or cannot get into higher levels due to a lack of initiative.
A mayor and/or board which is not dynamic, not curious and willing to look into new ideas and not really in competition because of no one else running for those elected positions ends up leaving a town stagnant. The stagnant individuals essentially create a ceiling of potential and end up pushing those with more initiative, abilities or curiosity out and away (this tends to be associated with the younger generation) which then means that there are fewer opportunities which leads to even more people leaving essentially filtering down to those with the least amount of dynamism or initiative so that those who stay end up being the people who get up, go to work, come back and just sit in front of the television and doing nothing really at all with their spare time and becoming unhealthy and disconnected.
The question then becomes, how can small towns reverse this cycle now that it has generally started? The obvious solution is to get more people coming to promote competition but, they need to be able to have a viable life there, which is very hard to do since it seems that most of the possible work in small towns is either healthcare or construction related, with the latter requiring driving where it could be more efficient to simply live closer to the worksite. Thanks to cars, small towns are not self-sufficient anymore with small stores employing small amounts of people in the town to service everything unless they have some major industry which has yet to move away or is not mobile. The problem with those industries is that if they could move they probably already have at this point and those that are not mobile tend to be seasonal (agriculture, waterways, tourism). Seasonality does not make for a stable life, especially without being able to get land for oneself either. The other job industry growing right now is technology. Technology requires infrastructure which, sometimes, does not exist in small towns or it is not up to the requirements of the technology yet. The only way to improve that infrastructure though would be through an increase in funding which would only happen if, instead of shrinking and aging, the population of small towns was growing and younger.
We come back to, how does one stop this cycle? It seems that the most effective way would be for leadership to recognize its own failures – something that only happens through competition. Not to mention, recognizing the problems, which is another major issue for most of the small towns I have seen; they simply cannot recognize that there is a fixable problem that could benefit the town often because, no one wants to change at this point and everyone is afraid of dynamism. People want the same things that have worked for their entire lives to apply in the exact same way to everyone else and then magically everything will be dandy. Quite an interesting world those people live in so, next time you’re listening to a small-town friend of yours complain maybe just ask them, what have they done to help their small town besides simply existing in it?