Volume X | Issue 2 | Fall 2010
A restored trolley line attracts thousands each year to the town of Astoria. Photo: Branden Wilson

Shared vision drives economic vitality

It takes vision to pull together the components of prosperity

It’s almost impossible to read the news and not find a story about a community in trouble. We hear about high unemployment rates and low graduation percentages, empty storefronts and crowded food banks.

And yet, at the same time we hear about communities that are making it—expanding and attracting businesses, providing activities for their youth, and developing resources for their older population. 

I have seen the power that people have to shape the future 

How do some areas prosper in hard times, but others wither away? And most importantly—how can you make sure your town is one that flourishes? The questions are of such importance to our rural communities that we are devoting this entire issue of Community Vitality to the answers. We will look at what it takes to create a healthy, economically thriving community, from supporting local businesses to attracting new ones, from training the work force to building infrastructure and quality of life. 

Begin with the end

Imagine building a house without knowing what you want it to look like. It’s impossible. Steven Covey, in his signature book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, describes the second habit, “Begin with the end in mind,” as the habit of vision. This habit teaches that mental creation precedes physical creation.     

In my work with The Ford Family Foundation, I have traveled throughout our region, and I have seen first hand the power that people have to shape their future when they share a vision for their town. 

“The first step for creating economic vitality is developing a community vision and a plan,” says my colleague, Craig Smith, the executive director of Rural Development Initiatives. And he’s right—coming to a shared understanding of what defines your community is the vital first step toward planning your future.  

Some may argue that we’re doing just fine, and everyone knows where we’re going. However, when I ask rural citizens where their community is headed, they often don’t know. If we don’t know what we’re trying to create, then how can we create it? 

To the moon

President John F. Kennedy understood the power of vision. Prior to 1961, the U.S. scientific community was engaged in extensive but disconnected efforts to beat the Russians into space. Then, in a speech on May 25, 1961, Kennedy shaped a vision: 

“I believe this nation should commit itself, to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

Suddenly, everyone knew what we as a nation were going to do and when. Communities as well can galvanize action by creating a common vision.

The coastal town of Astoria gives us an excellent example. In the early 1990s, town leaders began developing the Riverwalk along two blocks fronting the Columbia River.  “Astoria is defined by being at the mouth of the Columbia River,” Skip Hauke, executive director of the Astoria Warrenton Chamber of Commerce, told the Oregonian. “The river is Astoria. The plan was to show off the working waterfront. I don’t think they’ve wavered from it at all.”

Today, a five-mile section features restaurants, hotels, parks, a museum and a restored trolley line, attracting thousands each year. At one point, developers were clamoring to build multilevel condos along the waterfront. Town leaders instead produced the Riverfront Vision Plan, which formalized their vision by protecting the working waterfront at the expense of private development. It is a vision that is paying off for Astoria. The effort is chronicled in the book Boomtown USA: The 7½ Keys to Big Success in Small Towns (reviewed in this issue of Community Vitality).

Each region has its own “sense of place” with different strengths. Some are defined by natural resources. Others may define themselves by a focus on sustainability or food availability for all. The most important thing is that the community comes together in dialog and defines its vision. Only by beginning with the end in mind can one choose the right path to get there.   

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