Total Town Makeover with Missouri Humanities

by Sydney Boyd, Humanities in American Life project manager

“The size doesn’t matter, it’s the mindset,” Andrew McCrea said on January 21 in part one of “Total Town Makeover,” a Missouri Humanities two-part series drawing from McCrea’s book of the same name. Focused on rural economies, the series takes root in questions like, why does one small town thrive while another declines? What makes people want to live and work in one community but not another?

McCrea is a farmer and rancher in northwest Missouri, and he also hosts the radio program American Countryside. Traveling around to towns featured on the program, he said he has inadvertently gathered a lot of stories about people and places that are doing great things.

“People began to ask me, ‘Well, how did that town do that?’ or ‘What did they do?’ And suddenly the lightbulb went off” McCrea said. “And I began to examine, well, what are some of these communities doing well, what are they doing right, and what could we learn from them?”

McCrea identified three common things across the successful small communities he visited: economic vitality, vibrant communities, and investing in our youth. These three things, McCrea noted, are essential individual aspects of every prosperous community but are often hard to separate from one another–each can cross over and affect another aspect.

Beginning with economic vitality, McCrea noted there are two main questions to ask: What makes your community uniquely special? And what do people routinely go somewhere else to purchase or find?

He’s seen a wide range of wonderful ways people have responded to these questions in flourishing rural towns from “The Big Pump” tourist attraction in King City, MO (population 943) to the “Second Best Toilet in the World” in Lucas, KS (population 370) and the Red Cloud Opera House, which celebrates Willa Cather’s life and work in Red Cloud, NE (population 1095).

“There’re so many towns that never take this step to connect,” McCrea said of the Red Cloud Opera House, “In this case to something in the past, but they made it very much part of their present and future.”

Moving to vibrant communities, McCrea emphasized taking small steps toward growing together and gave examples like a carousel in Faulkton, SD, an array of blossoms in Vernal, UT, and a recreation and fine arts center in Osage, IA—all projects that were done mostly without any tax dollars.

“It was the power of bringing these groups together in a shared vision,” McCrea said.

When McCrea arrived at how to invest in our youth, he noted that it’s clearly something most people want to do but have trouble knowing exactly how to do it. McCrea also underlined that communities shouldn’t feel bad if people graduate and leave.

When a couple came up to him after an event and said, “We have three kids and all of them left town and we just feel bad they did,” McCrea said that he told them: “That isn’t bad, the key is to make sure that young people feel like there are opportunities where I could either stay here or I could come back here sometime in the future, and that’s the key—have we created a place where people could make a home, feel good about it, create a business.”

McCrea said there’s also a lot of untapped potential in businesses that already exist in small towns. In St. Johns, MI (population 7,865), Agro Culture Liquid Fertilizers is a booming business now, but it grew from a small fertilizer company over many years, and when it chose to build its headquarters at the corner of two gravel roads outside of town, it also included an agricultural discovery museum and a free community space for the people to come together—one year, it even hosted prom.

“I know it’s tempting for us to say well, that’s a wonderful story, but that looked like 30 years to play out, and I agree,” McCrea said. “And so that’s why you have to do some things simultaneously….You begin with little things.”

Learn more about this program and watch the two-part series here.

Photo Credit: Missouri Humanities

This post is part of “Humanities in American Life,” an initiative to increase awareness of the importance and use of the humanities in everyday American life.