Boomtown USA

I just started reading a new book called Boomtown USA – 7 1/2 steps to big success in small towns. In this book, the author looks at over 300 small, rural towns, picks out the successful ones and then trys to distill it down to a few key elements that can be replicated in other small downs. Judging by the early success of the book, he may be on to something. The author has been on the road all over America getting paid large sums of money to impart his wisdom to small communities from Tennessee to Oregon.

But as I read the opening chapters and his basic assumptions about small towns and rural communities, I couldn’t help think that I am not sure they apply in the Atlantic Canadian context. I don’t mean to be rude or hostile but I am just not sure. For example, here are some of his assumptions:

  1. Small towns are known for people with a very strong work ethic that will work 12 hours a day or more without complaining.
  2. Small towns are much more cheaper to do business than large ones.
  3. Small towns are open and friendly to foreigners moving in.
  4. Small towns have a much stronger sense of community.
  5. Telecommunications provides a level playing field for small towns.
  6. Small towns are eager to support new business and economic growth.

Now, in many ways, these basic assumptions seem correct. However, let me point out a few observations.

  1. After having interviewed dozens of small businesses and entrepreneurs in rural Atlantic Canada in recent years, I can say that, in many cases at least, small towns in this region are not known for a strong work ethic. In fact, they are more known for the ‘big stamp’ and for striking against their employers than for strong work ethic (again not to generalize but in many cases).
  2. I am not sure that small towns in Atlantic Canada are cheaper to do business. My experience is that some employers have had to pay an ‘EI premium’ wage to attract workers to work year round. A call centre tried to set up in rural NB (and another in rural PEI lately) paying $9/hour + benefits and onsite daycare and they couldn’t get workers. They moved to an urban centre and found workers.
  3. Again, without generalizing, I have heard the term ‘come-from-awayer’ an awful lot in recent years. I am not convinced that all small towns in New Brunswick welcome people with open arms – especially those with coloured skill or an accent.
  4. I am not qualified at all to comment on this one but my observation would be that some communities are not very community-minded.
  5. This is the biggest fallacy of them all. Senior government officials in the mid 1990s in Canada said that telecommunications would level the playing field and open up rural communities for population growth as people fled the cities for more pristine environs. Well, since the mid 1990s we have seen the opposite. In New Brunswick, the out-migration started accelerating at about that time (although this may be more tied to the other elements here).
  6. All I can say is that I have heard small town councillors and mayors say things that would not indicate much interest in attracting new businesses.

I am not trying to be mean or bash small communities. I am from a small community. My parents live in a small community. I frequent small communities. I also fundamentally believe that if Boomtown USA’s basic assumptions about rural communities were accurate (in the Atlantic Canadian setting) we would see much more economic and social success.

Remember, in Boomtown USA, these were his basic assumptions. He holds these true for all rural communities. He then goes on to develop the main additional keys to rural economic success.

It sounds to me like we need to work on getting the basic assumptions right before we do anything else.

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