Saturday, April 28, 2018

Encouraging rural entrepreneurs can go hand in hand with revitalizing central business areas of small towns

One of the more visible aspects of rural economic development, revitalization of downtowns, could benefit greatly from an aspect that doesn't always have a high profile: the encouragement of entrepreneurs who can occupy buildings that are vacant or under-utilized. That was one of the key points of a panel discussion at the 31st annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference, held Thursday and Friday at the Hindman Settlement School. It followed an earlier session about lessons learned by Hindman, a county-seat town of 800 people.

Entrepreneurs need space for offices, not always for retail operations, and owners of vacant buildings need buyers, lessor or renters. Lora Smith of the new Appalachian Impact Fund said communities recruiting entrepreneurs need to have appropriate space for them. "We see it as key to promoting that entrepreneurial ecosystem," she said.

Also, filling vacant space can help attract more entrepreneurs, not just in downtowns, she said: "People will drive through a downtown to get a sense of the heart and soul of a community." To attract young entrepreneurs, towns need amenities such as broadband and entertainment venues, said Ray Dafner of the Appalachian Regional Commission. Smith said high-quality day care helps, too.

Those involved in Hindman's revitalization had these lessons: It takes a long time; have a vision; collaboration is a necessity; when something goes wrong, adapt; housing, a persistent obstacle, must be addressed; no one thing gets it done (no silver bullets); deal with cultural resistance to change; use technology and advanced manufacturing; facilitate the transfer and use of property; enhance livability of the community with wi-fi, alcohol, murals, green space, rooftop gardens and live music; celebrate small victories when they happen; and never say "mission accomplished."

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