The downtown districts of Greater Peoria’s small towns contain a wealth of history, character, and well-built environments designed to last for generations. But many of these communities face numerous challenges when it comes to attracting or retaining businesses and residents in their once-lively city centers – a trend pervading small and rural towns throughout the country as populations have gravitated toward large metropolitan areas and major box-stores have relocated consumer goods to the outskirts of town, putting independent shops out of business.
But that does not mean our Main Streets have been left for dead – nor should they be. On the contrary, some of our communities, such as Havana, have started exploring new ways to breathe life into their downtown districts through creative community planning and by building a local financial toolbox to spur investment. These proactive approaches are now critical to ensuring a community’s longevity. With their rich histories and local identities as a backbone, Greater Peoria’s small towns can reinvent their downtown districts to offer a unique living and working environment for generations to come.
Have a Vision – Make a Plan
Before building a plan, all communities need to develop a collective vision based on local identity and assets. A clear and unified understanding of where the community has been, where it is, and where wishes to go, along with buy-in from the citizens, businesses, and the public sector are all necessary to bring any actionable community and economic development plan to life. With all the community stakeholders at the table, a plan is more likely to succeed.
Although every community has its set of unique challenges that need identifying and addressing, many small towns repeatedly identify the need to slow outmigration and retain and attract the next generations of citizens to carry the community into the future. There are many proactive approaches to supporting younger generations in rural communities, but also some encouraging lifestyle trends of Millennials and Generation Z may favor small towns as an ultimate settlement choice. For communities aiming to retain or attract these cohorts, acknowledging some of those trends in development plans will be advantageous.
Millennials Don’t Hate Small Towns – They Just Want Modern Amenities
As older Millennials move into the next chapter of their lives – raising families, settling into careers, or starting new businesses – a growing number are looking to retreat from the buzzing metropolis. Greater Peoria’s small towns can capitalize on this Millennial shift by cultivating their readiness to welcome the next generation of families looking to live quieter lives in walkable communities with access to the amenities that allow them to thrive — such as everyday shopping and services, restaurants and cafes, modern digital connectivity, outdoor recreation, and arts, entertainment, and night life.
The growing gig economy and an increase in companies offering remote working opportunities for employees has also empowered a growing workforce to focus on quality-of-place over proximity to major employers when choosing where to live.
Many of our smaller communities already possess the community fabric, the infrastructure, and the business-friendly environments that could attract this next generation of families and small business entrepreneurs. The low cost of living and doing business that small towns offer appeals to a growing number of millennials – the largest segment of our country’s population. Coupled with the high value placed by this generation on both historic preservation and community engagement, the downtown districts of our small towns are potentially prime locations to establish roots for their growing families and small businesses.
Small Businesses Are Essential to Living Local
Our region’s Main Streets are also ideal for the growing interest in living and shopping local – and not just novelty shopping geared toward tourists such as antiques and artisan gifts on which many Main Streets have come to rely. Younger consumers increasingly prefer life’s daily essentials within walking distance and they prefer to give their money to small businesses. A growing trend of hybrid online and brick-and-mortar retail shopping also presents itself as an interesting opportunity for downtown commercial districts, where the traditional showroom combines with the techno-tendencies of younger generations.
It should be noted that a small town’s investment in downtown revitalization is not simply pandering to Millennials and the hope that they will stay or come knocking. Beyond attracting from the outside, downtown revitalization can boost local economies and community pride (which can lead to greater retention) and improve the quality of life for all citizens, no matter the generation.
Get Creative and Get to Work
There are many models and theories to work from when it comes to downtown revitalization, and each community’s plan will be different according to their local assets and vision. The small towns of Ord, Nebraska and Water Valley, Mississippi stand as great examples of communities bucking the stereotype of the withering small town. In Paducah, Kentucky, the city bought aging buildings and sold them to enterprising artists for as little as $1, which resulted in impressive returns.
When communities make a plan and invest in themselves, prosperity will follow. But any successful plan will require public-private partnership and investment, strong and determined leadership, a willingness to adapt and evolve, and an understanding of the needs and wishes of the community’s present and future citizens.
The Greater Peoria EDC wants to help in any way we can to ensure your community remains vibrant for generations to come. Contact Tory Dahlhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about our programs and resources and find out how your community can plug in to all the great regional economic development initiatives in Greater Peoria.