How small businesses are critical to the recovery of rural towns

Author Doug Griffiths travels around to small towns like the one pictured here, educating communities on how to keep their towns thriving and successful. (Facebook/13 Ways)
Author Doug Griffiths travels around to small towns like the one pictured here, educating communities on how to keep their towns thriving and successful. (Facebook/13 Ways)

The percentage of the population living in rural areas has been steadily declining since before Canada was even a country: in 1851 the rural population of the Canadian territory was estimated at 87 per cent; a few years after Confederation it stood at 81 per cent. By the 2011 census only 19 per cent of Canadians were living in rural areas or towns of less than 1,000, and the population classified as urban stood at 81 per cent, a complete reversal since 1867.

Doug Griffiths, self-described “community therapist” and co-author of 13 Ways to Kill Your Community, says that the loss of small businesses can be especially critical for rural towns, creating a downward spiral “for schools, health care, less volunteers in the community, less money spent.”

Griffiths, who helped write an Alberta rural development strategy as a Progressive Conservative MLA, served in the Alberta Government until 2015 in a number of portfolios, including as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Minister of Service Alberta. Now, he often employs the reverse-psychology framing he’d used as a young teacher when discussing how to achieve success with his students, offering warnings, inspiration and insights in high-energy presentations to small-town and rural community groups throughout North America.

“We all do things every day that undermine our success,” Griffiths observes. No one is doing these things deliberately, he points out, but “we’re just not analyzing the long-term consequences of our actions.”

He has identified 13 destructive behaviours that many communities do without even realizing it:
1. Forget the water.
2. Don’t attract business.
3. Don’t engage youth.
4. Deceive yourself.
5. Shop elsewhere.
6. Don’t paint.
7. Don’t cooperate.
8. Live in the past.
9. Shut out your seniors.
10. Reject everything new.
11. Ignore outsiders.
12. Become complacent.
13. Don’t take responsibility.

Griffiths also consults with local officials and concerned stakeholders to identify practical steps they can take if they hope to change the attitude of their community, transform it, and bring it back to life.

Bringing in businesses

In mid-May, the mayor of West Lincoln, Ont., Doug Joyner, invited Griffiths to present his ideas to more than 150 colleagues, constituents and community leaders attending Joyner’s “First Annual Mayor’s Luncheon.” West Lincoln, a rural township of 14,500 with the town of Smithville at its centre, is now “one of the fastest growing municipalities in all of Niagara,” says Joyner. “But we recognize we are doing those 13 things.”

Joyner agrees that attitude is the most important aspect of any community’s success. Businesses looking to move into a community may talk to economic development offices or chambers of commerce or look at a community’s website, and big companies often hire site selectors to find the best match now, Joyner says. When a site selector comes to town they look at several factors.

“Infrastructure, obviously – roads, bridges, how’s your water, your sewers, your telecommunications,” says Joyner.

They’ll also place a value on community amenities and advantages, such as health and recreational facilities, hiking or ski trails.

“But so many municipalities push business away or talk negatively,” says Joyner, so he makes sure to remind staff that they’re vitally important as a newcomer’s first point of contact, inspiring them to be welcoming to new business ventures and to new residents.

Joyner says he has little tolerance for “the Negative Nellie who holds court with all their friends down at the Tim Hortons talking about all the negative things that are happening in the township.

“I will gladly take constructive criticism every single day,” he says. “But if you’re going to bitch, moan and whine—we call them ‘BMW’s—you better have a solution as well.”

Adapting to the wishes of youth

One key to a community’s success is its young people, who are realizing they’d prefer a more balanced life, says Griffiths.

“It’s not about trying to climb the totem pole and reach the pinnacle—they want to ride a bicycle to work rather than drive and park and spend an hour in traffic,” he says.

Griffiths points out that youth have always moved off to urban centres for jobs and more opportunities, try new things and explore. But communities need to develop what he calls a ‘boomerang strategy,’ and with advanced technology and connectivity that’s becoming more and more of an option.

“Give them the momentum and a reason to come home afterwards,” says Griffiths. “Maybe it’s creating a newsletter to send to kids that have graduated and gone off to college or university to let them know what’s going on in town so one day they may want to come back.

“One of the reasons we have these hollowed-out cores is that we’re trying to implement a traditional downtown economic business model” of commodity businesses, Griffiths observes, with businesses focusing on niche products and services.

“I’ll be in a community of 800 people and they’ll say ‘We can’t compete with those businesses in the town of 10,000 people down the road,'” says Griffiths. “That community will say ‘We can’t compete with the city with 800,000 people an hour away.’ And those people will say ‘We can’t compete with Amazon.'”

Where many communities falter is forgetting what made the downtown space so successful in the first place.

“What pulled people downtown were the libraries, rec facilities, theatres, art galleries and coffee shops,” says Griffiths. “It was the socialization that made them successful.”

Standing out

“There isn’t just one solution—in fact, if your town is offering the same incentives as everyone else, you probably won’t succeed,” says Griffiths. It’s a community’s uniqueness that helps it win that competition, he says, “and innovation can occur in Wasaga Beach or Harrison or wherever. The beauty of each of those communities is that they all have something that makes them unique. And that’s what you use to draw people.”

Joyner agrees. “You’re competing with every small town around you, with every major city, and at the end of the day you’re competing globally,” he says. “And I don’t think any mayor is worth their salt if they’re not some way somehow promoting their community every day.”

What to read next