Small Town Character vs Economic Growth . . .

Noemi Kosmowski Painting a utility box by City Hall

Noemi Kosmowski Painting a utility box by City Hall

Engaging in a short email exchange with a colleague, Mark Iodice, recently, I was challenged whether it is possible to maintain “small town character” while having “positive economic growth.” Mark is a comparatively recent transplant to Glenwood Springs, but jumping into community involvement with both feet – which is absolutely wonderful. I can see a future leader in our midst. At any rate, I have been pondering this subject for a few days and decided to make it the subject of a blog.

First of all is the ever enigmatic definition of “small town character”. As I mentioned in a prior blog post “What is Small Town Character” a dictionary definition is elusive, but examples are clearer. However, I will start by referencing what has been called a must read for planning professionals – of which I am not. In his book Rural by Design: Maintaining Small Town Character Randall Arendt lists distinguishing features of a “traditional small town” including compactness, medium density, downtown “centers”, commercial premises, civic open space, pedestrian friendly and auto accessible, streets scaled for typical use and incremental growth outward. He also described a “sense of community” where a diverse population exists and people feel an attachment to their neighborhoods. Arendt references a book titled The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg that touts the value of gathering places like coffee shops, bars, and post office that offer a “third place” – somewhere besides work or home – to socialize and meet and talk with your neighbors. This “third place” is often missing in suburbia or larger cities.

So how does Glenwood meet the criteria of a small town as described above? We have a compact form with some civic open space and a quaint downtown center. We strive to be walkable yet co-exist with vehicles – not always successfully. We have several great “third places” including The Bluebird Café and Sacred Grounds, Doc Holliday’s, The Springs, Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company and of course the Hot Springs Pool, the Community Center and Two Rivers Park where there is music in the summer. But I think the key is the “sense of community.” Judging by the recent meetings over the Grand Avenue Bridge and Access Control Plan, people definitely have an attachment to our town and their neighborhoods.

Glenwood Springs has also received numerous “Small Town” accolades. Some of the more recent ones include being named by as one of the Top 20 Small Towns to visit in 2013. From their website, this is a description of their criteria:

“What makes a small town big on culture? For the second year running, we sought a statistical answer to this question by asking the geographic information company Esri to search its databases for small towns and cities—this time, with populations of less than 15,000—that have exceptional concentrations of museums, art galleries, orchestras, theaters, historic sites and other cultural blessings.

“Happily, the top towns also boast heartwarming settings where the air is a little fresher, the grass greener, the pace gentler than in metropolitan America. Generally, they’re devoted to preserving their historic centers, encouraging talent and supporting careful economic growth. There’s usually an institution of higher learning, too.

“Most important are the people, unpretentious people with small-town values and high cultural expectations—not a bad recipe for society at large.” counted Glenwood as one of the 10 “America’s Coolest Small Towns 2013,14/#candidate-detail12125

In 2011, Rand McNally and USA Today named Glenwood Springs as the “Most Fun Small Town in America.”

I’d say Glenwood Springs fits the bill as a “small town” and a very cool and unique one at that!

Now, on to Mark’s email. I was going to pull quotes and paraphrase but though it might be best in its entirety – so here it is:
“I don’t think the goal of maintaining a small town goal correlates with positive economic growth. In order to have substantial economic growth, you need to have an increase in capital (e.g., people, buildings, money, jobs).

“In my mind, there are many types of commercial development. The best type of community development is allowing businesses to do what they want with their land and money because it yields a higher return in capital. More capital means more tax revenue, so we can then rebuild our infrastructure, like Midland Avenue, provide health services for children or invest in our schools.

“Everything is interconnected in a small economy. For example, more car dealerships necessitates more workers, more workers necessitates more housing, more housing necessitates more construction workers, more construction workers necessitates more food service businesses, and so forth.

“In short, positive growth for one business results in positive growth for everyone.

“So if you restrict or regulate one business or land development, in actuality you’re restricting and regulating the entire local economy—which in turns results in a decrease in capital.

“However, not everyone thinks this type of commercial development is positive for good reasons (e.g., social problems, environmental pollution, and a higher burden on governmental services).

“It comes down to what the community wants for the future of Glenwood Springs.”

I don’t disagree with the premise of Mark’s thinking. It is the basis for a market-driven system. However, I am not sure he has made the argument that economic growth is not possible in the environment of a small town. I so love arguing with attorneys . . . so here are my thoughts about why it is possible and perhaps even more probable that in other environs.

Something was said at a meeting I attended last week, and my apologies because I cannot remember which meeting or who said it (Jim Charlier – was it you?) . . . but it was something to the effect that the best economic development is grown from within the community. If you have an authentic place that people want to “be” to live, work and play – then it will attract and hold the kind of people with entrepreneurial leadership that will promote and encourage economic growth and diversity. Glenwood Springs looks to be one of those places where that synergy can take place.

Glenwood is sought after because of its small town nature, beautiful vistas and recreational opportunities. But what we also have is an educated and able workforce, fantastic infrastructure, superior location along highway and rail corridors, and a cooperative attitude to economic diversity and growth. It is because we are a small town we can make things happen. We get together in our “third places” or in Town Hall meetings, or work sessions and work out our differences because we have that sense of community and of ownership and place. As Smithsonian pointed out we are “devoted to preserving (our) historic centers, encouraging talent and supporting careful economic growth.”

Yes, many people would like to keep Glenwood Springs exactly the same as when they first came, or as it was when they grew up here. There is nothing wrong with them feeling that way. It is an easy comfortable feeling – like an old pair of favorite jeans, or comfy shoes. But like those jeans or shoes, sometimes things need to change or be replaced. Sometimes you simply outgrow them. Sometimes change is simply inevitable.

The question then remains, are change and growth intrinsically bad or negative? To many people the answer is yes. For many of us that are getting older, change simply is happening too fast. I heard that many times at the Town Hall meeting the other night. People asked to slow things down, or take things one at a time. Unfortunately, in the real world, that is not always possible. But, no, change is not a dreadful thing. We have a few great examples of recent positive change. We have a new, much needed parking structure in the downtown area to support tourism and our downtown merchants and businesses. We are in the process of completion of a new library – an innovative partnership between Colorado Mountain College, the City of Glenwood Springs and the Garfield County Library. We have a world class whitewater park. We have relocated our sewer system from the confluence area, opening up many opportunities for that area. Were these projects without naysayers? Absolutely not. But in the long run, they were approved and will unlock even more potential for Glenwood Springs.

We are stronger, better able to adapt and grow economically because we are a small town. We have a sense of who we are. We also know what we need and will work tirelessly to meet those needs. Whether we are a town of 9,614 as we were in the 2010 census, or a town of 15,000 or a town of 25,000, if we maintain a sense of community and place, respect the significance of our history, continue a spirit of cooperation, and retain our small-town values, we will retain our small town character, and embrace economic growth and diversity. We are the small town that CAN!

2 comments on “Small Town Character vs Economic Growth . . .

  1. Love this subject, Kathy – it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I think it was Jim Charlier who brought up authenticity as an important economic development driver at the workshop. I discuss authenticity, small towns, and their appeal to Generation Y here: It’s one of the things that brought me out West from Chicago and we are planting roots right here!

  2. Dave Sturges says:

    Thoughtful. Thanks, Kathy.

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