The small town that once defined America and the way of life in our country has been slipping further and further out of view in the past fifty years. The norm of a downtown with great local restaurants and small businesses is gone, replaced by a migration to suburbia and the downfall of these rural communities all over the country. The question arises, then, if there is a way to save these localities, to revive the lifeblood of America and bring back the close-knit communities that once dotted the landscape. While the process would take a long time, and manufacturing and other industry would have to return to these areas, it is certainly possible to revive the small town lifestyle. However, is money the only thing that is needed to make this happen, or do other factors need to be considered?The rebuilding of the American rural community has begun already, and no better example of this can be seen then in Beloit, WI. Home to 37,000 people and Beloit College, the community was headed downhill fast, preparing to join other American cities like Detroit and Youngstown in losing their major industry. Beloit used to house major plants manufacturing paper making machines and diesel engines, but when those major employers left, so did much of the life in the community.
Downtown Beloit, WI
Seeing this spiral beginning to quicken, self-made billionaire Diane Hendricks began buying up run-down property in and around town, scooping the half-empty mall, a country club, and an entire block downtown, among others. This move seemed absurd at first, and many thought Hendricks was crazy to be investing in so much property in a dying city. But through her work and renovating of the community, life has been breathed back into Beloit. The mall, which has become a $40 million project, is now home to the public library, while the old library building is an art and dance studio for students at the college. The dilapidated downtown block was leveled, replaced by several new local restaurants and a $7 million apartment complex named The Phoenix. Startups have started moving into the area as well, many in the old foundry building on the Rock River that Hendricks also bought and renovated. Obviously, not every small town is home to a billionaire like Diane Hendricks, and therefore the question for many that want to see a revival in the rural community is whether or not funds are the key to success. All projects require some sort of funding, but is it really feasible to revive the American small town on a tight budget? For Hendricks, the lesson learned is that while money does substantially help, it doesn’t fix everything. Unemployment in Beloit is still high, and just beyond the gleaming Phoenix are more run-down tired neighborhoods. Money could fix these as well, sure, but the true key in Beloit and really all over America is to build the community through the people, not the physical structures. By bringing in new startups and industry to the area, Hendricks has been able to promote a shift in the financial demographics of the city. Instead of rooting out those at the poverty level or only focusing on the top end of earners in Beloit, the revival effort has brought a more positive working and living environment to the people. Small towns looking to return to their heydays would be wise to look at how they can promote a greater sense of community. By being able to create a close-knit group of people dedicated to the health and wellness of their community, regardless of income, the positive change will come. The revival is happening. Small towns around the country are beginning to see new business, investors, and other changes trickle into their communities. While money is a large part of the success of these efforts, as shown in Beloit, the key to truly bringing back the community is to create it on a personal and neighborly level, because with a strong foundation of people dedicated to beautifying their town, the funding will come. Startups and industry will see the progress and want to be part of the action, greater wealth will begin to take notice and invest in the process, and quality of life will go up all the way around. So, is funding the key to the small town revival? It could be, but the skill of community building will take our communities much further than ink on a check.