As I sit in front of my computer on the other side of the globe, I watch as my hometown continues to face the battle of surviving. Since leaving my job as a community leader my perspective has not changed, but grown and been reinforced with my travels.
I am currently on a small island off the south coast of Australia. The island is double the size of Tillman County but the population is within a couple hundred of Frederick's. Everything here is rural and far apart. (My closest neighbor is ten minutes away.) There are only three paved roads on the whole island. There are no nightclubs. There are only a handful of restaurants and the only bar around is the beer selection at the cafes. Does any of this sound familiar?
There is no shopping mall, no Walmart, not even a movie theatre. From where I live and work it is a thirty minute drive to get groceries, gas or supplies. Most people on the island have to drive even further. If you want to shop for anything more than necessities you will have to hop a ferry and a two hour bus ride to the nearest big city. De ja vu?
The economy here used to be highly dependable on agriculture but sadly with the change of times and technology many farms have closed. So what's driving the economy for this island now?
It is the same driving factor that keeps all successful small towns alive.
It isn't a huge corporation swooping in and creating hundreds of jobs.
It isn't the government's wonderful assistance in funding.
It isn't an influx of new people moving to the island.
It's the locals doing what they do best, only more intentionally. It's the businesses pulling together to recommend each other to the visitors. It's the friendly face on the street willing to answer questions and point tourists in the right direction. It's the marketing force that works together to promote the island as a whole, instead of one individual business.
Tourism is keeping the community alive.
There is no way the business I manage could opporate without tourism. Eight months of the year are dedicated to showing visitors why the locals love to call this place home. And you know what? The tourists love it. They love it because it's raw, it's real, it's a natural place that is void of concrete and skyscrapers. It's beautiful because it's unique. They come for the boutique shops and the unique local produce at the restaurants.
Every customer that walks in my cafe asks about the local menu, the closest attraction and if the business is family-owned or not. They ask these things because they understand the culture here is laid back and rural. These people travel a minimum of two hours to get here. Most of them have travelled across the country or like me, even further.
Kangaroo Island is still young in it's tourism venture but it is definitely headed in the right direction. Every day a bus company drives hundreds of people from the nearest big city to the island. Visitors tour the island for anywhere from two to seven days. I remember when people said I was crazy for making a three-day itinerary for visiting Frederick. Yet here I am on an island pretty similar to Frederick and people love the fact that they can tour a sheep farm, eat local honey or visit an art gallery of a local artist. We have all those things in Frederick! We have more than that. We have museums and concerts and music. We have the most wonderful people in the world and they're all tucked away in a safe corner of the world where their children are free to graduate with the same people they wore diapers with.
Our sense of community in Frederick is strong. In fact, it's untouchable. But we have to pull together to promote ourselves as a whole, not just as individual businesses. No one is going to drive two hours for one business. But they will drive two hours for a couple days worth of adventures in agritourism, WWII history and boutique shopping. Market that. That is your ticket.
Plan some very unique and purposeful events that you can't find anywhere else. Pin everything else around those events so that people will have a very powerful pull to come visit during that time. Most importantly, don't split your locals up. Everybody has to be pulling for the same event, at the same time or it's not going to work. Too many times I've seen each organization go in it's own direction and that doesn't help anyone. We are too small to do that.
The final step is learning how to market yourselves to a population so opposite of you that they have to come look just to ease their curiosity. I'm talking about city folk. Give them a way and a reason to come down here and they will.
They will come and they will love you simply because of who you are.