Recently, I travelled with a group to the Bentonville/Fayetteville area in northwest Arkansas. The purpose of the trip was to research the area’s embracement of the arts and how the movement correlates to their momentous economic growth and stellar education systems. The trip was very transformational as I learned about how the arts impact quality of life and also about how to be successful as a rural community in middle-America. Here are my immediate takeaways:
Americans are fleeing the high cost-of-living, over-regulation, and soul-crushing traffic of major cities
They are moving to smaller towns with vibrant downtown environments, great school systems, and lower costs-of-living, yet with amenities similar to those of larger cities. Additionally, they desire communities that are welcoming to outsiders and those with a dynamic environment for entrepreneurs.
Our area is one of the cheapest to live in the country, but that isn’t enough to make people want to move and do business here. Other areas, like Northwest Arkansas, are still cheap compared to major American cities. If we are going to compete in the modern world, we must not be afraid to invest in our educational systems, park systems, the arts, and other amenities. It might mean that our cost of living goes up slightly, but it will still be cheap compared to almost anywhere else in the developed world. With a small, additional cost-of-living, we will have amenities attractive to those looking to relocate and we’ll have things for our own citizens to do.
Speaking of amenities, we need more & not just in Dothan
The area of Northwest Arkansas has many small towns, none much larger than Dothan, with world-class museums and trails. In fact, The Greenway, as it is called, is a trail system that connects the cities in the region. Over 60% of the riders of that trail system are from outside the area. Not only does a regional, interconnected trail system provide places for exercise and recreation for local residents, it also attracts tourists and their money from outside the area.
What is stopping us from building a trail system radiating from Dothan to Ashford, Cottonwood, Rehobeth, Taylor, and Wicksburg? What is stopping us from having a county park system where people in the outlying communities have places to relax, enjoy a walking trail, or hold a family reunion? With the will and determination, we could make it so.
We must do whatever it takes to make our local education systems competitive on a national level
It is not good enough to be near the top in our area or even in our state. We are competing for people on a national level and as such, we must have a nationally competitive education system.
We must be unique
If you were on a trip to the beach and you awoke from a nap while you were on the circle, how would you know you were in Dothan? What would be the unique characteristics that you’d see? What would draw you off the beaten path to further investigate this attractive community of ours? Where would you go to take a selfie and announce to the world that you were in this exciting community in southeastern Alabama? To be as successful as possible, we need to find answers to those questions.
Successful rural American towns should concentrate less on recruiting major manufacturers and more on building a quality place to live.
That isn’t to say we should not go after companies looking to relocate or open new plants, but with a higher “quality of place” the major manufacturers we so desperately covet will be much, much easier to recruit.
Yes, companies exist to make money, but companies are run by human beings. Humans want a high quality of place. They aren’t willing to sacrifice their child’s education and their own happiness in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
We must break down the invisible barrier between art and the everyday citizen.
Art shouldn’t only be sequestered away in sterile museums, kept safe for only the “artsy” to appreciate. It should be something we live, breath, and experience in our daily lives. It should be in the medians of our highways, on the corners of our streets, on the walls of our public buildings, and in the architecture of our spaces.
Finally, we must “Solve for Yes”
These things may be hard; they may take strenuous effort, but they are not impossible. Instead of coming up with reasons why we cannot do anything, let us instead think of what we can do – and work to make it happen.
I invite every citizen to begin having these conversations. Discuss what amenities we should invest in and how they will make our area attractive to outsiders and better for the people already here. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Let’s take that first step!