Small towns need not be dying towns.
That’s the message brought to Estill County on Friday by Becky McCray, co-author of Small Town Rules and owner of acclaimed website Small Biz Survival.
McCray was the keynote speaker for #Estill Rising, a one-day conference organized by Estill Development Alliance and funded by an Appalachian Regional Commission Flex-E-Grant.
Her message was that small towns are bouncing back as the trend in business is toward small, with good customer service.
“Small towns have a future,” McCray said. “Small e-commerce is going big, with access to the internet.”
But e-commerce, or business conducted over the internet, is not the only reason small towns have a future, she pointed out.
Big boxes are going small, and the trend is toward “community-oriented retail” where the customer feels loved, said McCray, as she shared photos of cities building shopping centers that look like small towns.
McCray also said that travel motivations are changing. Tourists are looking for “quirky destinations,” and they want to visit places with regional appeal. They want to have an “authentic local mom and pop experience.”
McCray was but one of several speakers who presented at #Estill Rising who had messages of encouragement for small towns in decline.
Lynn Tatum, director of the Rockcastle County Development Board in Mt. Vernon, and Jason Medley, mayor of Livingston, shared how becoming a trail town three years ago has created a renaissance in Livingston, a tiny city with a population of less than three-hundred.
Tatum said the turn-around began in 2009 when the town began a beautification project. With the help of some grant dollars, they began to put up new awnings, paint storefronts, and created a streetscape plan and a new logo.
At that time, said Tatum, the town was at an all-time low. Once a thriving railroad community with triple the current population, businesses were closing, the school was closed after the county school board decided to consolidate schools, and drugs were becoming more and more of a problem.
However, Tatum and some area residents were determined to save their community. They formed a Trail Town Task Force, and began to identify what they already had that they could market.
They have the Red Hill Horse Camp, and the Sheltowee Trace nearby. They had the Rockcastle River and the Creek.
They marked trails and created brochures and a website.
Mayor Jason Medley said the community began to reclaim the old school room by room. They created a welcome center in one room, and turned the old library into Space2Creat, a preschool play and learn area. They renovated the cafeteria for a space to hold birthday parties and family reunions. In one room. Celebrate Recovery classes are taught.
Three years ago, Livingston became the state’s second Trail Town, and since then, several new businesses have opened.
“When positive energy comes in, there is no room for the negative,” said Medley, who said many of the problems Livingston saw with drugs have moved out.
The Estill Rising event began at Irvine City Hall with introductions by Joe Crawford, director of the Estill Development Alliance.
Participants in the conference then separated into groups according to the track sessions for which they signed up.
The sessions included one on trail town development, one focusing on the “Return of the Mack!”, one for business leaders which taught that marketing to visitors is different from marketing to locals, an arts track, and a community history track.
The groups dispersed to empty downtown buildings for their sessions, gathered for lunch at downtown restaurants, then returned to their sessions. Participants finished the day with an art project that will soon be displayed publicly.
More than 30 people attended the event.
“I am tickled to death over how everything went. Our track leaders were outstanding, and Becky McCray was a fantastic keynote speaker,” said Crawford. “…many who attended have talked about how they feel refreshed or renewed.
“Sometimes we just need a reminder that we live in a great community full of great people, and the opportunities for us to get even better are endless. We just have to work together and not give up!”