Assessing Our Community

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Benson and Swift County sit on the eastern edge of the Great Plains. We lie just at the very edge of the Minnesota lakes country. We aren’t a regional hub of business, medical services, entertainment or shopping.  But despite the seeming disadvantages, Benson and the county do have some positive attributes that make us attractive to businesses looking for a place to locate and a place for people to settle down.

Our challenge is identifying the strengths we have so we can build on them as well as the weaknesses we face so that we can do our best to overcome them.

“Assessing needs or values can help you figure out what to market in your community, what is good about it, what competitive advantages is has to offer over other communities,” Doug Griffiths and Kelly Clemmer write in the book 13 Ways to Kill Your Community. “I am always impressed – negatively – by the failure of communities to market their own strengths and advantages both to their own community members and to the outside world,” they add.

Conducting a self-analysis is a way for a community to discover things about itself, good and bad, so it can move forward. We live in a challenging time for small, rural communities. We have been losing population for decades, watching our school enrollments decline, our main street lose businesses, and our ability to provide services to our residents weakened.

A self-analysis is about recognizing those challenges, but also identifying strengths we have so we can overcome the obstacles standing in the way of progress. Too many communities have a fatalistic attitude, simply accepting what is happening to them without a good fight to set a new direction.

“When you fail to do a needs or values assessment and completely fail to recognize your weaknesses and your strengths, those marketable things that differentiate you from the pack, you will fail perfectly. Success means selling the town, not selling lots,” they write.

By not selling lots, Griffiths and Clemmer mean that simply advertising that you have cheap building lots for sale is not much of an incentive for people to move to your community. The same is true by simply saying that you have jobs available in your town. Many, many towns have lots for sale and many more are seeking employees to fill job vacancies. There have to be other incentives that draw people and businesses in.

Most communities would look at their weaknesses as a liability. That is not what Griffiths and Clemmer believe. “Assessing your community’s strengths and advantages is critical, but when you assess what your community’s weaknesses are, that is often when you find the most opportunity for growth and for change,” they write.

Of course, getting started on assessing your strengths and weaknesses isn’t just an exercise for the coffee shop discussions. Those conversations tend be dominated by those complaining about what is happening in a community with very few, if any, constructive suggestions on how it can improve. A local government entity or group has to take charge of the process and get rolling with it.
 

The group that is formed to make this assessment of the community needs to be a mix of people from all walks of life and from all age groups. Choose a group that is too similar and you end up missing a lot that might be good, and bad, about your community.

The group also needs to be made up of people who are influencers and doers. While it appears that those in government – those sitting on the council, county board, school board and other public bodies – are in charge and have the power to get things done, that isn’t always true.

There are influencers and doers in the community who are just as important. These people work behind the scenes to get things accomplished. Often, these same people are listened to by others in the community and can play a key role in turning around a community’s outlook through action.

When a community sets out a list of things that need to be done to improve a community, it doesn’t have to be full of grandiose and difficult tasks. It can include a list of small goals, like painting an old building or seeing that a junky abandoned site is cleaned up. Post the list of things a community needs to get done around town for everyone to see, they suggest. You just may find that an individual or group will take on that small challenge and get it solved. The next time you see the list posted somewhere, one item will be checked off. That accomplishment can motivate others. Soon, a few more items are crossed off.

“When a small group of people identifies a small problem that can easily be remedied it will usually get remedied – provided it gets identified,” Clemmer and Griffiths state.

We can sit back and watch as things slide downward, or people in the community can get motivated. Persistence in seeing things get accomplished builds confidence and pride in a community that is infectious. Soon, rather than hearing coffee shops complaining, you might be hearing compliments. You might even hear people talking about how they can contribute.
 

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