Towns Capitalize on What Makes Them Special ; Rural Areas Fighting Loss of Farmland and an Influx of Strip Malls Can Get Help

By Betsy Miller Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 14, 2004 | Go to article overview

Towns Capitalize on What Makes Them Special ; Rural Areas Fighting Loss of Farmland and an Influx of Strip Malls Can Get Help


Betsy Miller Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Orange County, N.Y., is where most of North America's onion crop is grown. But the local economy is shaky, so county executives want to expand and diversify without losing their agricultural base. The question is: How can they maintain their rural appeal while luring new businesses and additional residents to the area?

Five hundred miles away in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, constituents are facing a similar problem. How can they get an influx of new capital without compromising their open lands?

Farther south, the center of Port Gibson, Miss., (pop. 1,800) has been virtually abandoned as businesses struggle to survive encroachment by nearby "big box" stores.

Towns all over the country - in fact, throughout the industrial world - are facing similar struggles as the social landscape shifts. Strip malls and mass merchants multiply, leaving traditional downtowns abandoned. Owners of farms with low (or no) profits are tempted to sell out to realtors.

One group that's trying to help is the Countryside Exchange. Since 1987, it has addressed the issues of reduced agriculture and increased urban sprawl in 110 communities across North America. The group, a nonprofit arm of Glynwood Center in Cold Spring, N.Y., brings together experienced international teams of volunteer professionals to work with community representatives. Their goal is to improve the local economy without losing rural appeal - pristine forests, open land, or clear-running trout streams.

"We've found that the reason folks choose to live in small communities is because of the open land," says Judith LaBelle, president of Glynwood Center. "Any advice we give concerning community growth has to preserve that."

When community leaders approach the exchange, often they know they want to revitalize but are at a loss as to where to start.

So the exchange first tries to determine if it can have an impact. It considers similar communities where it has done work and then looks at the assets of the town and neighboring communities (landmarks, thriving businesses, agricultural potential, and nature "potential").

What they seek is an undeveloped strength - perhaps a historic cohesiveness in the center-city architecture, an unrecognized tourist site, or proximity to cul- tural events. (Anything that can be exploited for the good of the community.)

Next, the exchange looks for funding to support the town's improvement efforts. For example, a village on New York's Hudson River may be eligible for Historic Waterways money. Or, as was the case in Port Gibson, the National Park Service had funds available for the preservation of neglected Civil War battlefields.

"What we try to do," says Ms. LaBelle, "is find key issues and focus on three or four. The initial grant covers our cost of research, travel, and administration [on average, around $60,000], and the preliminary development of a primary asset that can be the anchor to move the community forward."

Help is on the way

Once funding is in place, the exchange sets an agenda and selects a team of six to eight professionals from around the world who are willing to share their expertise.

Past exchanges have drawn on the talents of Cheryl Brine, for example, an economic development consultant for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. Her specialty is helping municipalities recruit new businesses. Another alumnus is Pete Frost, a community action officer in the Countryside Council for Wales. His area of expertise is conserving the aesthetic quality of the landscape and preserving diversity and richness of wildlife.

The team, chosen from a network of enthusiastic volunteers (800 have participated to date), then makes a seven-day visit to the town, during which members focus on how to confront and overcome the community's problems.

But they don't do it alone. …

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