BY KERRY ANDERSON
At some point in time every rural town faces major change. Like every good business the trick is to anticipate that change and explore alternatives well before it happens. And sometimes, to save your town, it means the whole community has to work together.
"Losing 230 jobs in a town with a population of 2000 would be equivalent to losing 460,000 jobs in Melbourne," wrote Ed Gannon in The Weekly Times as he recently lamented the loss of the timber industry in his home town of Heyfield. He admits that the industry has been under threat and gradually declining over multiple decades but the final blow has still been devastating to the people involved.
Similarly, Morwell in the Latrobe Valley is reeling from the announced closure this month of the Hazelwood Power Station that employs 750 people. A huge impact on another community with a population of just over 13,000 as evidenced by a recent episode of Insight on SBS.
Heyfield and Morwell are far from isolated in this experience. Rural towns world wide are all having to reinvent themselves to survive which is why the Operation Next Gen Program was first developed in Australia to help communities look at existing landscapes with fresh eyes and understand the importance of encouraging and supporting entrepreneurs.
The key is to get the whole community on board and working cohesively together. Yes, easier said than done, but it can be achieved with a bit of pre-planning, some enthusiastic community leadership, and a lot of good will.
I have seen the evidence with my own eyes in rural Nebraska where organisations such as the Heartland Center and Center for Rural Entrepreneurship have been tackling the issue of declining rural communities for over 35 years. Building an entrepreneurial ecosystem is considered to be the solution to this widespread problem.
A great example of the success of this approach is the rural community of Ord in Valley County. Ord has a rural population of 2,112 in the township, or 4,647 if you count the whole county. This community worked strategically and cohesively to turn around huge issues similar to what we are experiencing in many rural towns here in Australia.
When I spoke with Ord community leaders back in 2013 they had some pretty impressive results to report from their 12 year campaign. During this period the Ord community had attracted $125 million of private and public investment and created 100 new businesses and 350 new jobs. The benefits have been wide spread. In addition to unemployment levels dropping and wages rising, there has been retail growth and the value of properties has risen. Things are looking much brighter in Ord than they were 15 years ago when they were considering a particularly glum future.
Trust me, this success was not by accident. A community wide economic plan was agreed upon and a Community Foundation was established specifically for the purpose of supporting new start-up businesses and business expansion. The County (Shire Council), Chamber of Commerce, School and community leaders came together and all took responsibility to drive various initiatives to ensure the plan’s success. A paid facilitator helped to keep the key partners informed and engaged.
Oh how I look forward to reporting on similar outcomes here in Australia as part of the Operation Next Gen Program that was first trialled with the rural towns of Birchip, Boort and Cohuna in 2013-14.
But first we need to establish if a community is ready to successfully take on this challenge. Here are a few of the key indicators that you can apply to your own community’s state of readiness.
Understanding of the challenges. What if our community doesn’t understand the issues or the importance of them? Then this is your number one priority as our political leaders recently discovered in the Federal election. Don’t wait until you lose a major industry or your last bank or supermarket in town. Being proactive in analysing the health of your community which is underpinned by the diversity of business and employment opportunities is essential, as is understanding that if business is doing well then so will the rest of your community.
Understanding of the opportunities. One of our biggest inhibitors is thinking that we have to keep on doing the same old thing in the same old way. News flash: Times are changing! We need to be able to look at existing landscapes with fresh eyes in the context of the technological revolution. By all means celebrate tradition but don’t get bogged down in it if you want to survive. The future is all about being adaptable and agile.
Engagement with entrepreneurs. Understanding the needs and desires of entrepreneurs - both young people and those changing careers - and looking at ways that they can be assisted to build their businesses is essential. They are our future and, even if they do leave town to study and travel, make them feel connected and know they will be supported upon their return.
Strong Leadership. Not just in council or in our community and industry groups. We need a network of leaders who proactively collaborate to come up with a big vision plan that has consistency across the whole community. Invest in your leaders to ensure that they can be strong, positive, consistent and inclusive in their leadership style.
Inclusive. I cannot stress enough the importance of involving everyone in your community in this discussion. At the very least they will understand why these plans are important and hopefully they will provide creative input and take ownership of some of the activities. Get over the silo approach and respect that everyone has different ways of thinking and processing. Find the initiatives that you can agree on and run with them. Success will breed success.
Prepared to commit to the long haul. In what appears to be the era of instant gratification we need to understand that this won’t happen overnight. We have to be prepared to celebrate the small milestones along the way and keep revisiting that big picture vision to remind ourselves of where our communities are heading.
Do you think your Australian rural town is in a state of readiness for positive change through an entrepreneurial ecosystem? If so, I’d love to hear from you.