Cornerstones Blog

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

Hometown Pride is Good for Business in McComb, Ohio

image of parade float

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.

image of shop owner

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.”


Where does a town turn after 44% of its tax base evaporates? Heart & Soul

image of mill  

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.