Last March I pre-ordered founder Charles Marohn Jr.’s new book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity and this past Saturday, I did a road trip to Davidson, NC to check out his book tour and meet him.
My main takeaway from his TED-Talk-worthy presentation:
How to Make Your Town Stronger
- Humbly observe when people in your community struggle to use the town as it has been created.
- Determine: What is the next small thing I can do to address that struggle?
- Go do that thing.
Marohn’s advice confirms the rinse-and-repeat things I have been doing to make Selma, NC stronger.
Selma is a town of 6,500 with a 13.5% unemployment rate, a 65.8% renter-vs-owner occupancy rate, and an elementary school that is 91.5% free/discounted lunch. When I moved to NC in 2014, I was driving through uptown and saw the “closed” sign on the visitor center. I thought, “What kind of visitor center is closed all the time?” The first small thing I did was to volunteer 2 shifts a week.
Just directing visitors, listening to residents, and keeping the sign turned to “open” helped. In 2018 I applied for and won an arts council grant that brought a 3-month art popup, storytelling and increased programming at the museum, a one-day writers conference, and a kinetic musical bench to the town — even a Little Free Library to Vick Park.
But the best “next small thing” I did was start “Activate Selma,” a growing group of “activators” who meet every Wednesday morning at 9 am at the Selma Historical Museum & Visitor Center at 104 West Anderson Street in uptown Selma.
Activate Selma is patterned after 1MillionCups.com. We meet one hour weekly to spark creative problem-solving for entrepreneurs. We don’t complain; we take action.
At our Oct. 2 meeting there were five activators, four visitors and one investor looking to buy an uptown building. We welcomed the investor and his dog inside, gave him coffee, and sent him on his way to town hall with directions and information. Wouldn’t you want to start a business in a town that friendly? The activators, whether they get to a meeting or catch up with the weekly e-news – include store owners, veterans, a real estate agent, a CPA, a filmmaker, an historian, an entertainment marketer, two non-profit leaders, an artist, a photographer, a jeweler, an upholsterer, two goat farmers who make soap – even a tiny home builder.
That guy who wants to invest – Marohn says he should be able to walk into a municipal building and walk out the same day with a permit. The bar of entry needs to be lowered so more stakeholders can easily participate in a town’s revitalization. Community leaders need to be more responsive to how people actually use a town, not how their dusty “Selma in the Year 2036” report tries to squeeze into a consultant’s cookie-cutter format. Just providing a “third place” to meet, have coffee, exchange information and action steps — when Selma has no coffee shop, or even an uptown restaurant that is open regularly — I feel like I’m doing a tiny but important “next small thing.” Join us any Wednesday at 9 am! We are at the “crossroads of tradition and innovation” on Exit 97 off I-95.
And thank you Charles Marohn and Strong Towns for the affirmation and continued instruction! I plan to share your book with local community leaders! Check out his book tour schedule here.