During my 26-year career in economic development, I got to dabble and later indulge in my secret desire to be a writer. Not a writer of pulp fiction about economic developers lurking in dank alleyways dealing in black market recruitments mind you, but a legitimate writer with something important to say. Like Hemingway, if he had chosen economic development instead of running with the bulls (which is very similar, I am told.)

Occasionally, I would even hit the big time with my writings, highlighting best practices and sharing success stories, even penning some deep thoughts and lessons learned from innovative economic developers who fed me ideas for successful programs and strategies.

If I were successful in my writings, I would introduce new ideas that would stimulate action by practitioners to grow their local economy. At my worst, I would get called up before a Senate Committee to explain why I felt it was appropriate to punctuate my books, blogs and presentations with cartoons during my government tenure.

My writings and presentations became so prolific and well known over time that I was even asked to write a speech for a Governor a few years back. We obviously did not share the same sense of humor for my speechwriting career lasted that one speech. I did keep the jokes, however, because I had better timing than the unnamed Governor.

There was always one type of writing that I avoided like the plague. Book Reviews. Some people say that you can judge a book by its cover but who am I to judge the writing talents of a fellow scribe? Especially since my books were illustrated by talented cartoonists whose work adorned the covers, making my writing secondary, if not superfluous for my targeted audiences.

According to Wayne Dyer, “When you judge another, you do not define them, you define your self.”  Whoa, that’s pretty deep.  I can already feel people are judging this blog as I type.  “Get to the point, Maury”, you are thinking with index finger poised on the delete button..

That said, I don’t really care as much about my review ban as I used to, in large part because I just read one of the all-time great economic development books, “Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America” by James and Deborah Fallows.  I think it deserves to be shared in a review.

The title may sound like a book about tourism or a travel guide but it’s not.  It’s about the revitalization of America’s towns and cities.

During their travels in a single-prop plane, the Fallows visited dozens of towns and met hundreds of “civic leaders, workers, immigrants, educators, environmentalists, artists, public servants librarians, business people, students, city planners and entrepreneurs.” 

They tell the story of towns that have experienced downturns caused by everything from economic dislocation to opioid scourges.  But from these disasters, they write of the “energy, generosity, compassion dreams and the determination of making things better” for their communities.  It is the story of a “country busy remaking itself.”

Since you may not have the time to make your way through its 400+ pages, I will share with you the end of the book which contained the last chapter called “10 Signs of Civic Success.”

First, a Game of Thrones level Spoiler Alert!!!  No community dies in the end but I am going to repeat those 10 signs now with limited narrative.  (My editor is  a stickler for word counts) For more details, you will have to read the book or wait until the movie comes out.

  1. People work together on practical local possibilities rather than allowing bitter disagreements about national politics to keep them apart. People at the local level are figuring things out by bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation.
  2. You can pick out the local patriots. More often than not they are not elected officials, but champions who have returned home or who have lived their entire lives in one place
  3. The phrase public-private partnership refers to something real and is not just a slogan.
  4. People know the civic story. Often times the civic story in communities turned on the importance of strong local institutions like libraries, schools, philanthropies, public art projects and annual events. “The value is in giving citizens a sense of how today’s efforts are connected to what happened yesterday and what they hope tomorrow will bring.”
  5. They have downtowns. A healthy downtown will usually mean a healthy community.  Most of the cities they visited were putting resources, attention and creativity into their downtowns.
  6. They are near a research university. Research universities can transform a town through the students and faculty they bring in and incubators that develop entrepreneurs.
  7. They have and care about a community college. Not every community can have a research university but any ambitious one can have a local college.
  8. They have innovative schools that are distinctive. The common theme for these schools is experimentation.
  9. They make themselves open. The communities they visited stressed the ways they were trying to attract and include new people. Recruitment to them meant people, not businesses.
  10. They have big plans. Cities, because they can do things, unlike the federal government, still make plans and succeed in implementing them.

If you’re a community leader, do any of these 10 signs resonate with you? The same is true for a local business owner. Does your community have what it takes to be exceptional, if not exceptional now, then in the future?

What the authors learned is that it takes a community to create a community. Its easier to do nothing after a downturn.  It may also seem easy to leave the job of creating and maintaining vibrant communities and economies to elected officials or those mystic sages known as economic developers, but they can’t do it alone. They need the help of everyone in the community to create and act on a collective vision.

The good news is that there are plenty of communities around this country that are doing just that. They serve as shining examples as to what is and what can be done to re-energize communities large and small that feel as if they lost their way.

And there’s more good news. This is my first and last book review. As you can see, I don’t know how to write one without spoiling the ending. Which, in the case of this wonderful book, turns out to be just the beginning of the next chapter for communities around the country and around the state.

  • Maury