WEBSTER CITY, Iowa — Deb Brown lives in the future, and that doesn’t mean flying cars. She says it simply means she sees the possibilities ahead instead of the problems of the past.
It’s an attitude that has served her well as she deals with revitalization efforts in rural communities. It certainly served her well here in Webster City, the north central Iowa town where she lives and where she has been a leader in local revitalization efforts.
“You can’t live in the past,” Brown says simply.
For rural communities, that means you can’t spend all your energy trying to become something you used to be, she says. Instead, think of the future. Talk to young people. Consider new leadership structures and new business possibilities.
Today, Brown works with Becky McCray of Hopeton, Oklahoma, running a website called saveyour.town and she writes a blog at buildingpossibility.com. The two women work with communities and offer suggestions and ideas for revitalization.
They describe their approach by saying small town residents are a community of possibilities, not of problems. It’s not about what the town used to be but what it could be. Community is the goal.
Jeff Pingel understands the approach. By day Pingel works for Black Hills Energy. But when the Webster City movie theater closed a few years ago, he was at the center of efforts to buy it and operate it as a nonprofit to benefit the community.
Brown, who was then head of the local chamber of commerce, worked with him in that effort. Their group raised a quarter of a million dollars. They talked to people in other towns where theaters had closed. They formed a nonprofit organization.
“We raised a lot of money in small dollar amounts,” Pingel says. “Kids brought in $5. It was nuts.”
That theater is still operating. The group that runs it insisted that the people working at it should be paid employees rather than volunteers. They wanted it to be a contributing part of the fabric of the community rather than a charity effort.
Kevin Rubash is one small part of that community fabric. In fact, he specializes in fabric as the owner of Interior Spaces, a small furniture store. Rubash came to Webster City from Montana as a teenager. He worked in the furniture store for many years and eventually bought it.
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“It was extremely scary,” he says of the idea of buying the store. “I was overwhelmed.”
But he says there was a strong local support structure. The community believed in him. They bought things in his store. His discussions with Deb and other local business owners helped him along the way. He’s not sure that would have happened in a larger town.
Anne Blankenship and Maureen Seamonds are also big believers in small towns and in this small town in particular. Blankenship is managing editor of the local paper, the Daily Freeman Journal. Seamonds has a shop and art studio. Both say they love small towns and that Webster City is an example of a small town that has survived and even thrived in difficult times.
With a population of about 8,000, it is large enough to have some local business community and infrastructure but small enough to feel rural.
They say a thriving local scene isn’t just about business. It includes the arts. It includes amenities. It means making a town feel like a place you would want to live.
But all of them say the leadership structures in small towns are changing. The civic clubs of the past several generations — organizations such as Kiwanis and Rotary and Lions and Jaycees — are in many cases struggling because the younger generation is not as interested in that type of structured organization.
Instead, people are uniting around specific projects. A group may form to improve a park or install a playground or clean up a river or help the community in some other way.
“The landscape is changing,” Brown says. “These structures are becoming more informal. People are uniting around a project instead of a board.”
That is important to remember as towns deal with local issues. The younger generation isn’t interested in dealing in large amounts of paperwork or what they might see as old-fashioned power structures.
They are, however, interested in their community.
Brown has worked with other communities to promote business. She has promoted ideas as simple as a walk-through of empty downtown buildings to see what is available. Other times it may be using a building for multiple businesses or providing some type of business incubator space. It could be working through immigrant communities or through the school to get kids involved. It could be as simple as telling the good news local stories. It could be supporting the local newspaper or movie theater as important pieces of the local life and infrastructure.
And at the end of the day, perhaps it just comes down to the line Rubash says as he describes why he runs a store here.
“It’s my home,” he says.