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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Business is picking up in McComb, Ohio (pop. 1,600). From a car dealer to a carpet store, merchants are feeling optimistic and opening shops. In one month’s time eight ribbon cuttings will have taken place.
When has there been so much activity in this small town? There hasn’t, at least not in the past six decades.
“There hasn’t been anything happening downtown, because, as long as I can remember, it was a furniture store. When the furniture store went out, downtown was devastated,” said Joe Wasson, whose family owned Bennett’s Furniture Town.
In 2013, Bennett’s closed. That left 50,000 square feet of retail space in 16 buildings vacant, right downtown. Since then Wasson has been among those working to help write McComb’s next chapter. Wasson has been involved in economic development efforts and is project coordinator for a Community Heart & Soul™ project that kicked off a year ago.
On June 1 three ribbon cuttings were held: Select Auto Group at the edge of downtown; Northwestern Water and Sewer District Water Shed, a place for people to fill jugs with drinking water; and Great Scot storage facility behind the Great Scot supermarket.
In July ribbon cuttings are scheduled for Siferd’s Carpet, which moved back into a space it occupied about six years earlier; Bread & Butter Antiques, celebrating renovations after a storm damaged its building; McComb Emporium, a group-owned antique and vintage goods store; Kayro’s Fine Art, an art studio where classes are also held; and Tees, Tees and More, a custom embroidery and retail shop.
Holly Hanken, owner of Tees, Tees and More in downtown McComb, felt like the timing was right to start her business. She sensed good things happening around the Heart & Soul project and decided to take the plunge. So far, business is going better than she projected and she’s excited to be getting work locally and from out of town.
“It’s a good time for McComb. McComb is moving into its next phase of life cycle, definitely in a positive way,” Hanken said.
It’s hard to say what factor or factors are contributing to McComb’s momentum, Wasson said. But McComb Region Heart & Soul, which is still underway, has helped foster a sense that local residents can steer change and that’s helped make people feel optimistic about the future.
“There’s a new sense of pride here in town. I can see that as I walk down any street. People are taking care of their yards a little better. It’s a whole sense of community,” Wasson said. “Heart and Soul’s been a big part of that. Would it have happened without Heart and Soul? I don’t know what path we’d be on, but it’s a byproduct of seeing that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that things are happening, and that we are in control of what happens to us.”
Bucksport, Maine, is just off U.S. Route 1, the highway that takes millions of tourists along Maine’s famous coastline. Locals here sometimes quip that the secret to the town’s prosperity lies getting people to turn left off the major roadway.
Tourists don’t turn in part because they are within striking distance of Bar Harbor, a popular destination. Another reason is Bucksport’s most prominent waterfront feature is a behemoth paper mill, with boxy blue metal buildings and towering smoke stacks.
“There are 2.9 million visitors a year going to Bar Harbor. We have to figure out how to get them to turn left,” said Rich Rotella, Bucksport economic development director.
The left turn conundrum developed a new sort of urgency when the mill closed in December 2014, and about 44% of the town’s tax base evaporated. About 570 jobs were lost and roughly 160 of those were Bucksport residents, Rotella said.
Last fall a group of residents, determined to chart a new course for the future, came together to create Bucksport Heart & Soul. The town dispatched Rotella to manage the Community Heart & Soul™ project.
Bucksport is a town of 5,000 at the head of Penobscot Bay. Many residents commute to nearby towns of Belfast, Bangor, and Ellsworth for work. Main Street runs along the waterfront and is lined with locally-owned shops, including BookStacks, a book store/wine shop; Wahl’s Dairy Port, where people line up at the window for ice cream; MacLeod’s Restaurant; and the Alamo, a restored movie theater that is home to Northeast Historic Film, a non-profit devoted to archiving film from the region. Elegant 19th century clapboard homes, some with widows’ walks visible on rooftops, some showing the effects of coastal weather, overlook Main Street from the hill that rises steeply from the bay.
People like Leslie Wombacher see lots of possibility. Because of the mill, Bucksport has amenities one wouldn’t expect to find in a town its size, such as fire and police departments and a strong school system, she said.
“This town’s a lot more than that one address,” said Wombacher, referring to the mill. She is executive director of the Bucksport Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.
Today, much of the mill is being demolished. What happens next is a popular topic of conversation. With a power station, deep water port, rail service, and a natural gas line all serving the property, many see a unique opportunity for economic development on the 250-acre mill site.
Bucksport resident John Paul LaLonde, who worked as a wood buyer at the mill for more than three decades, is hopeful that Heart & Soul will make a lasting impact. Heart & Soul emphasizes reaching all residents, including those that don’t typically participate, and engaging them through unconventional means like block parties, story sharing, and pot-luck dinners.
He likes the idea that by reaching as many people as possible, and finding out what matters to them, a vision for Bucksport’s future will emerge that everyone can get behind. This vision will create a solid foundation for economic development, he said. He also would like to see Heart & Soul inspire new people, particularly younger residents, to get involved. He hopes that extensive community engagement becomes business as usual.
“I hope, in the future, Heart & Soul becomes a way of life in Bucksport--that the processes we use will be incorporated into how the community and town officials go about making decisions,” LaLonde said.
Does it feel like every time you walk downtown one more storefront is vacant? Combating the downward momentum of vacancy and neglect is no easy feat. Here are eleven ideas for spurring investment in downtown businesses that can put your town on a path toward revitalization.
On May 15, Rick Hauser joined CommunityMatters® and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design™ for a 60-minute webinar. He offered new insights into a longstanding challenge for towns and small cities—getting the ball rolling to overcome vacancy and neglect in key downtown locations.
Watch the webinar recording:
Image credit: WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/53RyB1
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It’s a great time of year to be in Vermont: summer has arrived and it’s taken its sweet time to get here so we appreciate it all the more. In a mostly rural state, many communities have pinned their abilities to grow and thrive on the constancy of the cycle of seasons. A successful harvest or a big snowfall is not only beautiful to behold—they’re economic indicators as well, and the collective identity of the people who live here depend on that.More
Sara Grier is External Relations Manager for ShickshinnyForward.
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