How do you pick the winning ideas? What are the best bets to improve a town?

Which idea would you support to revitalize your town: 

  • a town-wide beautification project like America Blooms
  • a tourism promotion that leverages small investments by locals
  • a rock hunt

Which way would you vote? 

It’s a trick question. All of those have succeeded, just in different towns. 

  • Castle Rock, Washington, adopted an America Blooms beautification project. It went a lot further than planting some flowers. It has reconnected and reinvigorated the community. One of my favorite parts is the new raised bed vegetable gardens at the elementary school, where students and elders will tend the plants together. Check out the Castle Rock Blooms video here
  • Elkin, North Carolina, invites locals to invest $100 at a time to create events and experiences that will draw visitors and also happen to make Elkin a better place for locals at the same time. Read about Elkin’s $100 at a time project in the Daily Yonder
  • Bolivar, Missouri, was the first town I heard of that ran a rock hunt. It took off and spread like wildfire through the community. Everyone got involved in painting and hiding rocks. Families were out together in evenings hunting for rocks. Visit Bolivar Rocks on Facebook 

You could name a half-dozen other towns that have tried these exact same ideas and failed.

I’m sure each of these projects had their nay-sayers. In Elkin, one of the main organizers thought it would last about 6 months. It’s lasted two years so far. No one in Castle Rock told me about them, but I’m sure they were there. In Bolivar, a town official was quoted as saying, “If you set up 10 different things and said, ‘Which of these things do you think will spark the community and take off,’ I don’t know if this is one I would have picked.”

And that, friend , is the point. You can’t pick, not accurately. There is no predicting which one idea will take off and spark your community. Stop trying to predict the winners in advance. 

Let people try their ideas, all their ideas. Just encourage them to try a really small test first. 

Most ideas will fail. That’s just life. Why not let all the ideas get a small but interesting try, rather than miss something wonderful because it didn’t sound like a winner at first? 

Beautification? That’s just a bunch of flowers. Tourism? That doesn’t matter to locals. A rock hunt? Are you kidding?? And yet…. 

If your town hasn’t been swept by a winning idea like these, maybe you’re killing the best ideas before they can spark just because they don’t look like winners to you. 

Resolve yourself to stop raising objections. Stop questioning people about their ideas. You think you’re helping, I know. Remember there’s only one question to ask: 

What would you need to test that idea in a tiny way? 

Say that out loud just to practice it. Get used to how the words feel. Because you can’t pick the winners. 

Keep shaping the future of your town, 

PS – What have you tried to improve your town? Anything? Dr. Dave Shideler with Oklahoma State University is working with us on the next Survey of Rural Challenges, and he’d like to add a question to find out different things people have tried and how effective they’ve been. You can help us come up with a preliminary list by replying with a short description of anything your town has tried. Thanks!