Cornerstones Blog

Why Small Towns are Buzzing About Rural Creative Placemaking

By Becky McCray

Over 300 people from 38 states gathered in Iowa last month under the banner of the first Next Generation Rural Creative Placemaking Summit. What generated all that excitement? And what does it mean for your town? 

First, let's tackle placemaking. It's a bit of a buzzword itself. Placemaking means local people working together to make the public spaces in their town better, with a focus on building a stronger community. Public spaces are all the places we share, like downtown, parks, squares, sidewalks, streets, and more. These all belong to us. They are the places where community building actually happens. It's really about our shared quality of life. 

Now that we have placemaking, what is creative placemaking? It's still about local people working together on public spaces to build community. What's different is the focus on using our creative skills, our arts, crafts, music, and everything creative, to improve our quality of life. 

Why rural? That is the most exciting part, to me. We are seeing an entire movement emerge that's focused on small towns and rural places and how the arts help make rural places better. 

What does rural creative placemaking look like? 

Here are some examples that came up at the summit:

  • Camille Ferguson with American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association highlighted how the National Park Service cooperated with Native American tribes around the Grand Canyon to turn an old, tacky, gift shop into a vibrant display and demonstration space for Native artists.
  • Nikiko Masumoto with Masumoto Family Farm in California, talked about how their family farm went from thinking of themselves just as producers of fruits and vegetables, to thinking of the farm as a meeting place. Instead of thinking only about the end product for people to eat, they have begun to consider the experiences that people can have at their farm, how the fields and orchards look and feel, and how that affects visitors. 
  • In Iowa, a community theater held a professional wrestling event in their main room and a poetry reading in their bar area, on the same night each week. The two crowds avoided each other until the third week, when a few wrestlers ventured over and admitted they also write poetry. By the fourth month, they were connecting, and after that, they had to coordinate times so people could go to both the wrestling and the poetry reading. Now they always try to schedule two crowds they used to think of as opposite on the same night, Zach Mannheimer with Iowa Business Growth said. 
  • Zuni, New Mexico, is transforming from a town with no formal economy and no public spaces to share, into a place where everyone can come and informal businesses can get a start and grow from pop-ups to mobile street vendor carts, Ted Jojola of the Indigenous Design + Planning Institute explained. It's an example of the seventh generation principle they like to use at Zuni Pueblo and many other Native communities, considering the point of view of your great-grandparents, your grandparents, your parents, you, your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren. 

Finding Allies, Involving Everyone 

While I was at the summit, I was struck by how similar the conversations with artists and creatives were to conversations I have had with chambers of commerce, economic developers and all kinds of civic-minded local businesses. I wanted to bring the creative types together with the business types to see if we could bring the conversations together and take action with more people locally.

So I created a checklist of local organizations to help you find other groups in your rural place who might want to talk with you about creative placemaking and better quality of life. There's also a short video with a little explanation. Find them both here:

What creative placemaking  ideas do you have for your community? Can you envision any unlikely alliances like poets and wrestlers?


Video archive 

Photos on Storify 


Checklist for finding allies 

About the author: Becky McCray started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.

Creating Connections One Meal at a Time


image of BBQ

If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him. …The people who give you their food give you their heart. -Cesar Chavez

With Thanksgiving and the holidays right around the corner, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on the power of food and meals to bring us together. The relatively simple gesture of preparing and serving food can build relationships and trust.

Take the case of McComb, Ohio, where a cookout put on by the Community Heart & Soul® team there led several significant, positive changes including,  greater diversity on the team, a new Spanish-language translator for the schools, and a boost that got a catering business off the ground. 

With the Heart & Soul™ principle “Involve Everyone” in mind, the team decided to reach out to the predominantly Hispanic Cora Street neighborhood. Project Coordinator Joe Wasson, who grew up in McComb, said he and others on the team had never been to the mobile home park.  Armed with a grill, meat, and fixings, plus a big, inflatable, bounce house for the kids, the team set out to hear from the residents. What they ended up getting was so much more.

For one thing, they got an invitation to a potluck in the park the following week. Wasson and others on the team went. Wasson thought he’d get a bite to eat and say hello. He stayed for three hours.

“It was such a neat experience,” he recalled. “Not only did we eat this amazing food, we just hung out for hours talking.”

The potluck in the park led to more connections.  Immediately Wasson noticed that when he was visiting in the schools or the grocery store, people from the neighborhood recognized him and waved to him. This happened to others on the team as well.

A Hispanic woman got involved in the Heart & Soul project and that led to her working with the school as a translator.

When the Heart & Soul team was having a training, a woman from the Cora Street neighborhood was hired to do the catering.

Guadalupe Hernandez didn’t want to get paid for the job, however, because she considered it an opportunity to test the business she and her husband Leonardo Bernal hoped to start one day. Wasson insisted on paying. The food was fantastic, and another connection was cemented that lead to even more possibilities. 

Wasson learned that the couple wanted to take their catering on the road, so to speak, in a food truck. English is not the couple’s first language so Wasson offered to help them navigate the paperwork and permits they would need to get started. He spoke with a lawyer about creating an LLC and an accountant about helping with financials. He pulled together a template for a business plan and paperwork for various permits. He even called the cookie factory, which employs 1,700, and got the OK to have the truck pull up during lunch break.

Wasson was fairly confident the concept would be a hit. He knew the food would be good. He also knew, from the Heart & Soul work he was doing, that locals wanted more dining options.

“Through our data we saw that people are really screaming ‘We want restaurants.’ A food truck might not be exactly what they are thinking, but it’s a start.”

Just like the cookout on Cora Street was just a start.  

Here are some other tempting ideas for engaging residents and making connections through food.

Celebrate a Celebration: Hearing from people in the Hispanic community was a priority for the Cortez Heart & Soul project. One effective way that has happened was at a block party on September 16, Mexican Independence Day. The Heart & Soul team supported the event with a small grant, but the neighborhood organized it. A potluck was at the center of the celebration with traditional foods like tamales, toastadas, and beans and rice. A key to the event's success was that it was organized and presented by the neighborhood, said Monica Palmquist, Heart & Soul team member. Connections made at the event built trust and have had a positive and lasting effect, she said. 

image of potluck

Vote with Your Appetite: Even the simple act of choosing what to eat can bring a group together. In Essex, Vermont, residents are giving input on a school district merger through a series of meetings. Attendees are asked to "vote" with stickers on a big sheet of paper for what they'd like to eat at the next meeting.

"It was a really easy way for people to feel like their voice made a difference, and it was a powerful way too, because at the next meeting, there was the food they voted for,” said Susan McCormack, senior associate with Everyday Democracy, who facilitates the meetings and was a project coordinator for Heart & Soul of Essex. 

Quid pro pie: The North Fork Valley Heart & Soul project in Colorado held a series of community conversations called “Your Slice of the Pie.” Residents were invited to share their “piece of the story” about what makes where they live unique and worth preserving. In exchange, attendees were treated to a slice of delicious locally baked pie. 
“While many people did come for the pie, they left knowing more about both strangers and friends, and began thinking about their own ideas for the future,” said Alexis Halbert, who was project coordinator at the time, and is a senior associate at Orton.

6 Innovative Small Business Models in Small Towns

By Becky McCray

You don’t have to settle for a normal business. Rural businesses are exploring new shapes, new locations and new ways of doing business. Here are six innovative ways people are building businesses in small towns today.

1. Pop-ups

These are temporary business that may last from just one day to several months. You’ve seen short-term vendors setting up tents and booths around special events, and this extends the idea to all kinds of businesses. You can experiment and gauge demand in a small town before committing to a more expensive permanent business.

Pop-ups can be as small as a booth for a day, or as big as a full-size building rented just for the holiday season, or anything in between.

Pop-ups are a good fit for: restaurants, retail stores, and artists.

2. Trucks and Trailers

Food trucks are a hot trend in urban areas, and now all kinds of business from retail to service are going mobile. With a truck or trailer as a base, there’s no need for a building. That’s good, because there is often a problem finding usable buildings in small towns.

Mobile businesses can also build their market by taking advantage of neighboring small towns’ special event crowds. Instead of having to set up and tear down a booth every time, the whole thing is ready to go in the trailer.

Trucks and Trailers are a good fit for: specialty foods and retail. 

3. Business-in-a-business

In a small town, there may not be enough demand for a single business to fill up an entire building, office or retail space. Rural innovators are now borrowing and sharing space with several different businesses under one roof. A restaurant may pop-up inside a retail space. A single retail store may include half a dozen different vendors or mini-shops inside. You can even make a business of subdividing your building, like an old-school antique mall or an upscale version with separate small spaces.

Business-in-a-business is a good fit for: small retailers.

4. Tiny business villages

Groups of tiny houses or dressed-up sheds are popping up on empty lots and unused green spaces, filled with extra-small businesses. The smaller spaces encourage lower-risk experiments, and all the businesses together draw a critical mass of visitors to the village. The key factor is to bring a number of them together. One tiny business on its own is lonely; groups of tiny businesses are a draw.

Individual crafters or artisans who couldn’t fill an entire store get a chance to fill a tiny space. Agri-tourism businesses like wineries or maple syrup who couldn’t justify renting an entire downtown storefront, can easily support a tiny storefront.

Tiny businesses are a good fit for: super-specialty retail. 

5. Rural-sourcing

It’s usually cheaper to live in a small town than an urban area. Now freelancers and specialist rural-sourcing companies use the small town cost of living as an advantage to compete for big-city contracts. Online marketplaces like Upwork let people work from anywhere and deliver services digitally.

Some professional services, including web designers, writers, programmers, creative artists, marketers, consultants and virtual assistants, may not be able to make their entire living from local customers, but can easily score work from out of town clients.

Rural-sourcing is a good fit for: service providers, creative professionals, online services. 

6. Omni-local

Instead of waiting for customers to walk in the front door, smart rural retailers are using the same omni-channel tactics as big retailers. The low cost of cloud-based tools allows them to reach local customers in multiple new ways. It’s easier and more affordable than ever for small town business to use e-commerce to take orders online, mobile-friendly websites to connect with customers on the go, and subscription boxes to delight customers monthly.

Omni-local is a good fit for: existing small brick-and-mortar retailers looking to reach more customers.

About the author: Becky McCray started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.

This article first appeared in Small Biz Survival and is reprinted with permission.

Here's a video from a recent keynote speech Becky gave in Kentucky:


5 Ways to Engage the Community through the Arts

Engaging the arts can be a great way to engage people, especially those might who not otherwise participate. Below are examples of how Community Heart & Soul™ towns have used the arts to creatively engage the community.

1. Bridging Town and Gown. The arts were a bridge between University of New England students and the local community of Biddeford, Maine. Facilitated by the Heart of Biddeford project, students took a more active role in town life through partnerships with City Theater and two art galleries.  The student theater group,  UNE Players, stages productions at the theater and members have seats on the theater's board of directors.  Students and faculty put on exhibitions at local gallery Engine and in the North Dam Mill. 

2. Mobilizing with Mobiles: More than a hundred volunteers and students from five schools in Essex, Vermont, teamed up to create mobiles under the direction of artist Kevin Reese. The mobiles represent the Heart & Soul value statements that emerged from the Heart & Soul of Essex project and hang at businesses and public buildings around town. 

3.Weaving Stories: Woven Heart Spots is a collection of stories and memories from residents of Paonia, Colorado. Artist Lane Taplin wove and silkscreened community members’ stories onto fabric with imagery and words.  The stories were also recorded so that gallery visitors could listen while they viewed the exhibition.  

4. Grafitti for Good: When youth in Cortez, Colorado, asked city officials if they could paint the city’s new skateboard park, essentially “tagging” the concrete, officials were excited that the skaters wanted to make the park their own. But they were also apprehensive about giving them free reign with spray paint. The artists agreed to submit their designs for approval. After the skateboard park project was complete, graffiti tagging incidents in town dropped dramatically.  Watch Video >>

5. Portraying the Community: Artist John Bakker collected photographs of a diverse group of Galesburg, Illinois, residents and over five months turned them into an assemblage of nearly 400 painted portraits. The intent was to create connections among local residents. Bakker incorporated mirrors in the work so that "residents whose portraits were not included—some take selfies surrounded by portraits—or future generations of viewers can see themselves in the context of their predecessors in Galesburg," he said.


Has your town tapped the arts for engagement? Tell us how! 

USDA Awards $48K for Community Heart & Soul in Iowa


The Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque received a one-year, $48,037 Rural Business Development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a Community Heart & Soul project in Bellevue, Iowa.

As announced by USDA Rural Development Under Secretary Lisa Mensah, this is one of eight grants totaling $300,000 awarded to projects in rural Iowa.

“We are proud to serve the needs of rural people and places to ensure that rural America continues to thrive and to drive the economy,” Mensah said. “We are very happy to be a partner with all the communities we serve as they work hard to make investments that will impact many future generations.”

Rural Business Development grants provide targeted technical assistance, training and other activities to assist with the development or expansion of small and emerging businesses in rural America.

The Community Heart & Soul project in Bellevue will focus on economic opportunity, strategic planning, and investment in the community’s future. Community Foundation staff will partner with community leaders to discover what matters most to rural residents, to involve more residents in decision-making about the future of their community, and to help build a future-focused culture around residents’ shared beliefs.

“USDA funding provides the opportunity for a community-based planning process. A plan is a critical element in beginning to look at a community’s future. The Jackson County Economic Alliance is very excited to partner with the Community Foundation and the citizens of the Bellevue area on this initiative,” said David Heiar, Jackson County Economic Alliance director.

Tom Meyer, Bellevue Community School District superintendent, will be helping to organize youth involvement in the project.

"Bellevue is an amazing and progressive community, and is always searching for ways to make more opportunities available for our community members and youth. Bellevue is a great place, with great things to offer," Meyer said.

The Community Foundation has already implemented Heart & Soul in Monticello, Iowa, with support from the Rural Community Development Initiative program, a two-year USDA grant awarded to the Community Foundation in 2014.

“We look forward to partnering with community leaders in Bellevue to encourage job creation and retention, rural philanthropy, youth engagement and a culture of entrepreneurship,” said Nancy Van Milligen, Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque president and chief executive officer. “The USDA has been a strong ally in this work and we are grateful for its continued support.”

Engaging Diverse Voices in Cortez, Colorado

A recent edition of The Daily Yonder, featured a story by Cortez, Colorado, City Manager Shane Hale about how Community Heart & Soul™ transformed the way the city practices engagement. Here's an excerpt: 

Daily Yonder masthead

Like most towns, Cortez has its enthusiasts and detractors, old guard and newcomers, and sometimes there’s friction among the groups. One of the reasons a process like Heart & Soul was appealing to us was that there was increasing concern about divides in the community between all the groups that make Cortez a melting pot: ranchers, youth, recreation enthusiasts, the Ute Mountain Ute and Navajo tribes, and Hispanics. There was recognition that diversity was a strength and an asset, but without effort, divides could weaken us.

Cortez Heart & Soul aimed to get as many people as possible, from as many groups as possible, involved in community-based decision making as a way to create a vibrant and thriving community.

Success meant thinking outside the standard city-hall-public-hearing model to get broad and deep participation.

Community engagement in Cortez, Colorado

The project team used a range of approaches to get all demographic groups involved. We placed a special emphasis on engaging the voices of those who traditionally were underrepresented, such as low-income communities, ethnic minorities, youth, and seniors. That often meant building trust first. In the Hispanic community, for example, that meant working through churches to initiate a connection. Other outside-the-box activities for community engagement included things like the following:

  • English and Spanish surveys were placed at specific locations and mailed.  Surveys reached all demographic groups but seniors were especially familiar with the format and more apt to mail them in.
  • Community conversations. Dozens of conversations were facilitated to capture specific demographic or interest groups. Examples include the local food pantry, the day labor center, and the coffee shop.
  • Block parties, designed with input from the intended attendees. In the Hispanic community, that meant honoring requests to include representatives from immigration, the police chief, translators (to assist English-speakers in understanding Spanish), school teachers and the principal to hold parent/teacher conferences.
  • Art shows. Disposable cameras were handed out for residents to participate in a “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” photo exhibition that was used to spark conversations.

Read more>>

Getting a Fresh Take by Involving Youth in Planning


image of student planners

Planning Magazine takes a look at how youth bring new perspectives to planning. Involving them makes sense because they are often the ones who, over time, will be most affected by decisions planners make. 

Writer William Atkinson highlights several towns where youth have been at the table, including Biddeford, Maine, where youth played a role in that town's Community Heart & Soul­™ project. Teens collected stories from their elders and learned a history of the town they never knew. That helped restore pride in the town and set the stage for economic development. 

In Edina, Minnesota, youth planning commissioners have suggested more sidewalks, better pedestrian connections, and provisions for bike facilities. They tend to be more open to mixed use and higher-density development, and offer unique perspectives on architecture. 

“The students who have served on the planning commission, even though they do not vote, are full participants in the discussion and provide a unique perspective that is appreciated by other members,” says Cary Teague, the community development director.

Read more>>



Celebrating Summer in Small Towns

Summertime is small towns is marked by celebrations.  We unfold our chairs in the park to take in a concert or find a place along sidewalk to watch the parade of floats and fire trucks go by. And who doesn’t love the fair with livestock shows, tractor pulls and rides?

To capture these sweet moments we asked our Heart & Soul towns for images of their summer celebrations. Here’s a slideshow.

What’s your favorite summer celebration? Let us know and post to social media with #HeartandSoulSummer or email to us at