Throughout America, from coast to coast, some small towns are flourishing and finding creative ways to maintain their character and quality of life. But what makes a community the kind of place people crave?
Successful communities have a plan for the future, a vision of how to maintain their character, and a sense of community while sustaining a prosperous economy. It takes strong leaders and involved citizens to create places where people want to visit, live, grow, and play. In Secrets of Successful Small Communities, Edward T. McMahon talks about tourism. “…Tourism is about places that are different, unusual, and unique. …In today’s world, community differentiation is an economic development imperative.” The four communities that follow demonstrate how implementing a vision, cooperating with neighbors, and taking advantage of natural resources led to recreation that makes life better for those living in the town and draws visitors in droves.
The town of Crosby, 125 miles north of Minneapolis, was once a hub for iron ore mining, but that was a half-century ago. In the 1980s, leaders from Cuyuna Range Economic Development Inc. petitioned the state to create a recreation area on the former mine sites and surrounding land. The Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area was officially established in 1993, and in 2011 became the state’s first mountain bike park, featuring 25 miles of red dirt trails.
Since the mountain bike trails open to cyclists, 15 new businesses are thriving in Crosby, and last year an estimated 185,000 people visited the trail system. This has given the local economy a $2 million increase in direct spending. According to the Cuyuna Lakes Chamber of Commerce, people flock from all over the globe to “shred the red” on the mountain bike trails. “Now we’ve come back as a tourist destination that is nationally acclaimed for its bike trails and the community as a whole has worked very hard to bring that about.” Once the 75-mile trail system is completed, town leaders predict a local economic impact of $21 million.
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Roanoke sits along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile National Parkway connecting the Great Smoky Mountains and the Appalachian Trail, a 2,180-mile hiking trail running from Maine to Georgia. In 2000, the city initiated an extensive public participation process to develop a vision for the future, and making outdoor recreation an economic driver was at the forefront. In 2006, the Roanoke Regional Partnership started branding Roanoke as a premier spot for outdoor recreation, The partnership and the city are using the area’s natural assets to attract tourism, outdoor-oriented businesses, and new residents. Between 1995 and 2012, 26 miles of greenways were built in the city and surrounding area.
The area is now host to the Blue Ridge Marathon event series and attracts a growing number of visitors from outside the region. Since its inception in 2009, the event has generated more than $2 million in regional economic activity.
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A bridge built in the 1950s connects Chincoteague Island to Assateague Island and what was once a small fishing village today attracts more than one million visitors. They come for the downtown walking tours, the beaches, to hike, bike, bird watch, horseback ride, and fish, but there is also another attraction that draws many from all over the world—the famous herds of wild ponies that call Assateague Island home. The ponies have inhabited the island for hundreds of years and, as the story goes, they most likely got to Assateague from a shipwreck. Today, pontoon boats take tourists on guided nature tours that bring them up close to the pony herds. The ponies live on The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, a 14,000-acre wildlife preserve of beaches, birds, dunes, and trails. The ponies are there through a partnership with the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company who own them.
Chincoteague has an active business community that has been instrumental in making downtown Chincoteague what it is today. According to S. Scott Chesson, Owner/Manager of Best Western Plus on Chincoteague Island, the area is home to 962 hotel rooms, 1143 camp sites, and 670 rental homes and cottages.
Image courtesy of BLM Imaging on Adobe Stock
Rock Hill was a textile industry town, centered primarily on cotton. City planners knew they had to do something to make their town viable. That’s when Cherry Park was created, a 68-acre amateur park and sports complex that has five softball fields and five multi-purpose fields. In later years, the Rock Hill Tennis Center, Manchester Meadows soccer complex, the Rock Hill BMX Supercross Track, and the Rock Hill Velodrome cycling facility were added. In 2019, the Rock Hill Sports & Event Center opened to accommodate a variety of indoor events. In 2022, sports tourism brought in over $99 million of direct economic impact to the local economy.
Image courtesy of City of Rock Hill