Every successful economic development project begins with an idea.
During 2012, the Sauk Valley Media Editorial Board sought to encourage more such ideas through two community book read projects.
The first book was Richard Longworth’s “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.”
The second was Jack Schultz’s “Boomtown USA: The 71/2 Keys to Big Success in Small Towns.”
Longworth spoke at Sauk Valley Community College on Feb. 23 to an audience of about 200. Schultz spoke at the same venue on Oct. 3 to a similar-sized group.
Both men addressed problems faced by small and medium-sized communities in the Midwest. Their approaches to overcoming them, while different, are worthy of consideration.
Longworth spent much of his book identifying the problems faced by Midwestern communities and what caused them. Globalization’s impact was the No. 1 reason. For many readers, his interviews and research were enlightening, if not somewhat depressing.
But then, along came Schultz with his can-do attitude and multistep program for towns to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and rescue their futures.
Earlier this year, we observed: “Old ways of thinking have not spurred enough economic growth in the Sauk Valley. Different ideas and approaches are needed to bring different results.”
Also, “What we are doing has not distinguished ourselves from anywhere else that has experienced the pain of recession.”
The region’s unemployment remains too high. We calculated in October that, to achieve full employment (4 percent unemployment rate), Lee County would need to add 1,000 new jobs, and Whiteside County would need 1,700 new jobs – that, while retaining all the existing jobs in both counties.
The loss of jobs from the region’s manufacturing heyday has led to fewer students in schools, fewer young families, more “exporting” of our best and brightest students to other areas, more poverty, and the aging of our population.
All are signs of stagnation and decline.
But a new year is on the horizon, and with it the opportunity to continue a transformational process that leads people to think and act differently.
We note that organizers of an educational summit over the summer linked it to Longworth’s writings. Organizers of the Bridge of Art project in Sterling and Rock Falls pointed to Schultz’s book as inspiration.
Regionalism. Shaping visions. Leveraging resources. Embracing immigrants. Raising up strong leaders. Working together.
Those concepts and others are needed to help improve the region’s economy and overall quality of life.
As Longworth noted, communities must have an economic reason for existing or they will wither away.
As Schultz noted, big success in small towns can still be achieved in the 21st century.
Throughout 2013, we hope their words continue to inspire action in the Sauk Valley.