Recently, I traveled at the invitation of the Wiregrass Foundation to the Bentonville-Fayetteville area in northwest Arkansas. The purpose of the trip was to research the area’s embrace of the arts and how the movement correlates to the area’s momentous economic growth and stellar education systems. The trip was very transformational, as I learned about how the arts affect an area’s quality of life and how that can transform a sleepy community in middle America into a dynamic, attractive place to live.
Here are my immediate takeaways:
» Americans are fleeing the high cost of living, over-regulation and soul-crushing traffic of major cities. They are moving to smaller towns with vibrant downtown environments, great school systems and lower costs of living, yet with amenities similar to those of larger cities. Additionally, they desire communities that are welcoming to outsiders and those with a dynamic environment for entrepreneurs.
Our area is one of the cheaper to live in the country, but that isn’t enough to make people want to move and do business here. Other areas, like northwest Arkansas, are still cheap compared with major American cities. If we are going to compete in the modern world, we must not be afraid to invest in our educational systems, park systems, the arts and other amenities. It might mean that our cost of living goes up slightly, but it will still be cheap compared with almost anywhere else in the developed world and we will have amenities attractive to those looking to relocate. Additionally, we’ll have more things for our own residents to do.
» Speaking of amenities, we need to step it up, and not just in Dothan. The area of northwest Arkansas has many small towns, none much larger than Dothan, with world-class museums and trails. In fact, The Greenway, as it is called, is a trail system that connects the cities in the region. More than 60% of the riders of that trail are from outside the area. Not only does a regional, interconnected trail system provide places for exercise and recreation for local residents, it also attracts tourists and their money from outside the area.
What is stopping us from building a trail system radiating from Dothan to Ashford, Cottonwood, Rehobeth, Taylor and Wicksburg? What is stopping us from having a county park system where people in the outlying communities have places to relax, enjoy a walking trail or hold a family reunion? With the will, the determination and your support, we can make it happen.
» We must do whatever it takes to make our local education systems competitive on a national level. It is not enough to have a “good” school system relative to those around us. We are competing for people on a national level, and as such, we must have a nationally competitive education system.
» We must be unique. If you were on a trip to the beach and you awoke from a nap while you were on Ross Clark Circle, how would you know you were in Dothan? What would be the unique characteristics that you’d see? What would draw you off the beaten path of the circle to further investigate this community of ours? Where would you go to take a selfie and announce to the world that you were in an exciting community in southeastern Alabama? To be as successful as possible, we need to find answers to those questions.
» Successful rural American towns should concentrate less on recruiting major manufacturers and more on building a quality place to live. That isn’t to say we should not go after companies looking to relocate or open new plants, but with a higher “quality of place,” the major manufacturers we so desperately covet will be much, much easier to recruit.
Companies may exist to make money, but they are run by human beings. Humans want a high quality of place. They aren’t willing to sacrifice their child’s education and their own happiness in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
» We must break down the invisible barrier between art and the everyday resident. Art shouldn’t only be sequestered away in sterile museums, kept safe for only the “artsy” to appreciate. It should be something we live, breathe and experience in our daily lives. It should be in the medians of our highways, on the corners of our streets, on the walls of our public buildings, in the music we create, and in the architecture of our spaces.
» Finally, we need to “solve for yes.” These things may be hard; they may take strenuous effort, but they are not impossible. Instead of coming up with reasons why we cannot do anything, let us instead think of what we can do — and solve whatever problems stand in the way of making it happen.
I invite every resident to begin having these conversations. Discuss what amenities we should invest in and how they will make our area attractive to outsiders and better for the people already here. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Let’s take that first step.