THE PIONEER PROJECT: REVITALIZE A COMMUNITY
The young and educated populations have been leaving suburbia and rural America for a generation. In its wake, this exodus has left a countryside full of small town’s either dying or already abandoned.
By small towns I’m talking about the forgotten, idyllic main streets of Norman Rockwell paintings.
As everything is cyclical, my theory is that the next explosion in population growth won’t happen in the megacities of the US (NYC, Chicago, San Francisco) but in small and medium sized towns across the country.
First, we have to look at why people leave small towns in the first place.
The reasons are easy to sum up: better jobs, better education, better quality of life (more culture, more entertainment, etc…)
Our test model for this theory will be Hogansville.
Hogansville is a town founded in the 1800s. It went through a boom when the railroad came through, as people from Atlanta would escape the city and come here to enjoy the scenery.
Later it became a factory town, supported by a large textile mill looming over the city center.
In the 1990s it was fully rented, mainly by antique stores and a few restaurants.
Today it sits mainly vacant. There are few establishments on the Main Street that can really be considered succesful at this point.
So, how can we turn this around?
We need to explore some new models. I’m going to propose some city 2.0 ideas in rapid fire:
Anchor Tenant — Film Business
Georgia did $6 Billion in film business last year. It’s a booming industry in this state because of the tax benefits productions receive and the diverse locations and scenery this state offers.
During the year, 248 productions shot in Georgia…
Hogansville could tap into this cash inflow in a couple ways:
Form a film liason. Hogansville has a picturesque, idyllic main street. The city should follow in the footsteps of other nearby small towns and reach out to production location scouts and present a package for film shooting.
This package should detail the ability to shut down the main street section for 12 hours, easy access from the interstate, a local crew of qualified grips, electricians etc… Once Hogansville lands a few film cameos, the demand for its unique setting would rise.
In-town production house. This would be an anchor tenant. A production house would specialize in pre-production (writing, location scouting for the area, casting) to post-production (sound editing, special effects work.) Granted, this would take a big effort to recruit the top talent to a small town, but there’s a rising population of young professionals looking to start a family and they want out of the big city and the big city prices.
They want to leave behind hours of traffice every day and want to take a walk with their kids to the local community garden (see below). They don’t want to be expected to pull all-night shifts every week.
They want the small town rhythm and community.
The thought of a succesful production house operating in a small town isn’t as far fetched as one might think. As long as there’s reliable, high bandwidth internet (which is discussed below) a lot of the post production tasks can be handled remotely.
A Film School aimed at low income and unpriviliged youth.
Film is a language that brings everyone together, and a small school could be formed that would teach the area youth the basics of filmmaking: screenwriting, composition, editing, etc… This school could be staffed by volunteers from the above mentioned production company.
A good model is the Georgia Film Academy that is opening up near Pinewood Studios.
With today’s technology, it doesn’t cost an unrealistic amount to purchase the basic equipment for filmmaking.
The Multi-Discipline Cowork Space/Apprenticeship Model
Cowork spaces are exploding in a global way.
What is attractive about them? Why do people want to leave the comfort and freedom of their own home or controlled office environment?
As jobs become more remote, a lot of the serendipitous encounters that lead to new ventures are being reduced. This is solved by working in the same physical location as other likeminded and enthusiastic people. You could be taking a coffee break and run into the graphic designer for your new app idea, you could be eating lunch and discussing your business idea with an area entrepreneur.
But let’s take this a step further.
Why do cowork spaces only have to be centered around laptop based professions?
Imagine a cowork space where you can rent out a desk for the month, but you could also pay for the use of a wood shop to work on your small furniture business, or a leather working bench, or potter, or welding…
As today’s young people spend more and more time at a desk behind a computer, they miss the fulfilling experience of creating and crafting with their hands.
So by housing professionals who are physical-craftsmen and professionals that are digital-craftsmen in the same location, you’ll experience even more cross-pollination of ideas and talents than a strictly laptop based cowork space could ever provide.
And—the learning experience would be incredible:
“Friday nights are painting workshops, Wednesdays are music production classes and Tuesdays are e-commerce seminars.”
It would be a groundbreaking model that most young professionals would be eager to join.
The Apprenticeship Model
Using the same location as the cowork space, we would provide apprenticeship opportunities for the local youth.
Look at this stat:
While the typical graduate from a four-year private college in 2014 left campus with a debt load of $31,000 and started work earning about $45,000 a year, Apprentice School students emerge debt free and can make nearly $10,000 more in their first job.
Apprenticeship has been called the solution to the shrinking middle class of America. Instead of pushing all youth to enroll in four-year degrees, give them the option of apprenticing with a true craftsmen.
Create a roster of digital and physical artists that are willing to take on and mentor a couple young people in the some of the lost arts of handcrafted goods and the cutting edge fields of programming and digital design.
Bring a succesful small business into town.
In this case we have a pizza place a few miles away that has quite the foot traffic and a growing following. Why don’t we make it really attractive for this business to move downtown? That would immediatly bring this pizza restaurant’s built-in clientele to the main street area.
Right now the pizza place only serves dinner. We could encourage them to do lunch as well, improving the midday foot traffic.
This would be step one. Get at least one establishment that’s attracting some daily foot traffic.
High Speed Internet.
Gigabit internet is all the rage these days. Atlanta is getting it. Every day a new small town pops up that has released their own community gigabit internet. It’s revitalizing small cities across the nation.
What’s the big deal?
High bandwidth internet is attractive to entrepreneurs and businesses that work with media. It’s attractive to startups. It’s attractive to upcoming business models such as telemedicine.
If Hogansville had gigabit internet, attractively priced, they could rent out some of the large storefronts to startups, or even better, setup a city managed cowork space and rent office space by the month. That’s recurring revenue coming into the city.
Lodging — Create Some Lofts
There’s been a couple of second floors in Hogansville renovated into stylish, modern lofts. These would make the town even more attractive to an internet based startup.
Cheap cost of living, cheap office space and high speed internet. Central living where someone can walk to work and a local grocer, park, tennis court, etc…
Create a Business Bureau
What kind of business makes sense in Hogansville at this point?
Not really a business based on foot traffic.
But what about those Etsy type shops that only have a storefront for minor transactions? They do the majority of their business online and ship their products out. That would be the perfect setup for Hogansville.
A big concern for many of these businesses is that they feel they are too small to foot the bill of a build-out and monthly lease.
They need to save that money for photography and marketing. They’ll continue operating from home, even if they’re outgrowing the space.
What if Hogansville had a business bureau that mentored new businesses through the growth stage into a brick and mortar establishment?
A business comes into a store that is 90% built out. They only need to add decorating touches. No long term leases the first year. Month by month until they get their feet under them — provide a runway for young businesses.
Hogansville has a contracted photographer that is able to give the business a good rate on product photos.
There is a local web designer that sets the business up with an affordable web page and marketing campaign.
Basically, the city is offering a turnkey solution for businesses looking to get out of garages and into storefronts, without the risk.
Hogansville has one of the more iconic old cinemas in the Southeast. Sadly, it’s now being used as a city hall.
Renovate this. Start showing films, both new releases and well curated older films. Partner with the pizza place to offer a meal before the film for a package price. This will start bringing in clientele from nearby cities looking for a unique, family friendly evening out.
For the size of Hogansville, it has a HUGE amount of parking. Parking is considered UNUSABLE space in city planning.
What does this mean? Parking can’t be used for walking, for dining, for sitting or shopping. It’s just there as an eye sore.
In the above google map, the red is all parking space. Does Hogansville really need so much? What if we take over some of the main street parking?
Hogansville has enough parking behind the main street strip to eliminate some of the parking on Main Street. Even if this stretch of parking was eliminated, there would be PLENTY of parking behind the buildings.
Turn this parking into usable area. Planters, benches, cafe dining.
Instead of a wide strip of asphalt running down the city center, we would have a European style, pedestrian friendly area that would be enjoyable to spend time in. Also, the decreased width of the street would make it far easier to cross and increase the amount of store fronts the average pedestrian could visit.
A key element most young families are looking at when considering an area to live is schooling. They want their child to have the best education possible. Sadly, rural America is falling well behind most of the world in this regard.
The public school system has a myriad of problems, but with technology there is some exciting new advancements in the education realm.
There are some developing models of small classroom style schools where the students have a course load custom fitted to their learning style.
AltSchool prepares students for the future through personalized learning experiences within micro-school communities.
Such a model would be exciting to offer the local population of Hogansville, who feel the public school is not offering the education their kids deserve.
A Community Garden — Healthy Eating Establishment
Elon Musk’s brother, Kimbal Musk, is spearheading an effort in the US to educate the public on healthy eating. Nothing more needs to be said about the obesity epidemic, which is hitting rural America the worst. A big part of changing this is learning how to grow your own food, and what makes a meal healthy or unhealthy. A healthy meal doesn’t always have to cost twice the amount of cheap carbs from a fast food place.
The idea of a community garden isn’t new, but if this garden partnered with a local restaurant that served healthy, affordable meals with the vegetables that this garden(and other local farmers) produced — that would create a model where one would be excited about eating in a wholesome way.
“You grew this tomato, now experience how good it tastes on a slice Mozzarella Salad.”
Could a restaurant like this break even in a place where healthy eating isn’t the norm? It’s a challenge. But if the food is well priced and tasty, it stands a good chance of attracting a loyal following.
LATER: Down the Road
Markets and local stores.
As the population expands, the city will be able to support some interesting models downtown. One of the reasons people enjoy living in the city is walkability. They can walk to the grocer, the pharmacy, the park.
The city should aim to attract a downtown market for those living nearby.
It’s a difficult business to make a profit, but the city could make permissions for them to have a longer runway before break-even (discounted utilities, taxes, etc…) The added benefit of having such businesses downtown would pay for itself.
The Third Location.
The famous third location.
When I first discovered in the early 1980s the Italian espresso bars in my trip to Italy, the vision was to re-create that for America — a third place that had not existed before. Starbucks re-created that in America in our own image; a place to go other than home or work.
Howard Shultz — Starbucks
A cafe/bookstore. A place for people to gather and share. A community place.
The Grand Hotel
This magnificent building is begging for an interesting model. A school? A center for workshops? Something big could happen here.
The grand hotel has nine rooms, two kitchens, a garden and beautiful common spaces.
Bus System to Atlanta
Right now, a large part of the population that lives in Hogansville commutes to Atlanta for work. Even though a rail line passes right through the city, there is no passenger rail into the heart of Atlanta proper.
What about this idea: A comfortable commuter bus with several daily trips to Atlanta and back.
This would be a comfy ride, and until the passenger load picks up, it could also stop in some cities to the north to supplement volume.
How nice would it be to walk to the station, step onto a bus with comfy seats, WIFI, small desks for working and refreshments while you’re driven the 50 minutes to downtown Atlanta?
The city of Hogansville could run this system and with a simple site and app setup you could sign up for a monthly service or daily rides.
CONCLUSION AND WHERE WE ARE.
We’ve just launched stage one under the heading of Pioneer. This is our creative space and business incubator.
This is a space where we’re intentionally cultivating a community of leaders, thinkers and doers that can reach their potential, and in the process revitalize one of America’s forgotten towns.
These days community doesn’t happen naturally, but everyone is naturally desperate for it. True community happens when people realize that life is about how we contribute to one another.