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CEO, author sees potential for small-town revival

Small-town America has economic challenges just like those anywhere else, according to a CEO who will discuss rural economic development strategies at a meeting Friday in Spokane.

Diversifying the economy, building a strong image and emphasizing quality of life will save small towns, much the way those traits can rebuild bigger metropolitan areas, said Jack Schultz, CEO of Agracel, an Illinois company that specializes in small-town development.

Schultz is the author “Boomtown USA: 7 ½ Keys to Big Success in Small Towns.” The book lays out several scenarios for how American small towns are creating jobs and reversing economic decline.

Schultz and his partners at Agracel have done development work for about 200 towns nationwide.

He said smaller towns can tap vast growth potential by capitalizing on the flight from large urban areas. He points to Census Bureau data showing one in three jobs created between January 2001 and January 2004 occurred in towns with populations between 5,000 and 15,000.

Two towns that Schultz refers to frequently are Leavenworth and Moses Lake, and both demonstrate different approaches to small-town recovery, he said.

Leavenworth went from a thriving lumber and railroad town of 5,000 residents to just about 1,000 people after the railroad pulled up tracks in the 1950s. Today the town has a successful tourist-based economy, thanks to residents and businesses converting Leavenworth into a Bavarian village.

Moses Lake was one of the first small towns Agracel researched for his book on small-town transformation. The town seemed destined for decay after the U.S. Air Force closed down Larson Air Force Base there in 1965.

Instead, “the town turned the old air base into an asset” by creating a pilot training program with Japan Air Lines, Schultz said. The city has increased its retail and manufacturing assets and developed strong sister-city relationships that have led to several new companies starting there, he said.

Of those two strategies, Moses Lake’s is preferable “since the approach Leavenworth took is somewhat more one-dimensional,” said Schultz.

Schultz and Agracel realize that small towns, like large cities, go through cycles of growth and decline. “The difference today is that changes are accelerating. It’s more volatile than it was 20 years ago. And it will be even faster change 20 years from now,” he said.

His bottom-line approach is that every town looking for transformation needs to develop its unique assets, “brand” them effectively, and find good people to support the change.

“It has to come from within and people have to want to do it. Often, one person with passion in a community is better than 50 people who are just kind of interested,” Schultz said.