Scared Stiff: Why Your Small Town is Dying

These days there seems to be one question small towns across the country are having to ask themselves: What happens when the Boomers retire or leave?

Big question.  And it not only deserves an answer but requires one—at least for those small towns that don’t want to be flooded for a reservoir in a generation or two.  The “brain drain” continues to deplete Main Street of professionals, thereby driving down home prices, property taxes, and incomes for teachers and other educators (all are major factors in a city’s success).

What exactly in the brain drain? Simply put, it’s the fleeing of a city for greener pastures by those who have the means, education, and/or opportunities to do so.  The brain drain is a problem because when income levels in households stay stagnant or drop, it hurts every piece of a town’s development.  The only way to systemically boost income levels is to bring in citizens whose qualifications and positions are valued at a higher rate. In order to do that, however, higher-educated, qualified individuals need to be drawn to a community.  They need to see real growth happening, or, at the very least, in the works.

And this, for many small towns, is where the wheels fall off.

Small towns habitually practice Analysis Paralysis—the over-thinking, over-debating, and constant postponing of new initiatives and developments.  The small town mindset, from top to bottom and back up, is that change is risky. The fear is that if a large project is undertaken to improve a deficiency or eyesore in the city, there is a risk of failure, and failure is expensive.

Here’s my take: Failure is cheap compared to inaction.  Failure is cheap when the alternative is continued and generational stagnation, or worse, decline.  Staying the same, simply living with the fact that “we can’t be better because we’d have to do something”, is the single largest mistake every small town is currently making, and has been making since the late 1990s.

Small towns must try to view themselves as a business in this one respect above any other—they must understand the needs and desires of their market. It is not enough to adequately function, to simply get the buses and garbage trucks running on time.  No. Small towns should be consistently asking themselves how they can attract people to their community to grow it.  We no longer live in a society where you grow up, live, and die in the same three or four blocks.  We don’t have to pretend to operate in the 1950s mindset.  We have advantages, improvements, and technologies that allow us to work from anywhere, find fulfillment in our communities in ways we never have before, and give back in immeasurable ways.

If small towns and communities with aging populations don’t start taking action to draw in the younger crowds, they will find themselves at the bottom of Big Mistake Lake.

Adam Tidrow is the author of The 7 Page Business Plan and Founder of Hoosierpreneur LLC, an Indiana-based consultancy focused on guiding entrepreneurs through the start-up and business development process.  Reach out at


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