“Being cooped up, limited, frustrated, depressed, and feeling beaten, our town is doing what the Midwest does best, rolling up our sleeves and fighting back against all odds,” said Ryan Fairchild, resident and new business owner in Great Bend, Kansas.
He says it’s exactly the proud stubbornness Midwesterners are famous for that is generating amazing results for his small city.
“Covid created a bottle of want and realization; people are ready to do things and get things done,” he explained.
Great Bend has a lot to work with. Its traditional Midwestern square, centered around the courthouse, features a historic theater, a plethora of coffee and foodie spots, a music shop, a busy farmer’s market, and a regularly used bandshell.
Fairchild’s new venture, Dry Lake Brewing, is one of the most recent additions to the downtown area. Citing a lack of any goings-on past 5 p.m., one of his goals for Dry Lake was to bring some life to the town beyond typical shopping hours.
“Fast forward to today and nightlife has returned,” he said.
Unused Main Street in the evening is a frustration for many rural communities. Much has changed since the 1950s downtown when shoppers likely knew each proprietor personally.
“More and more these relationships that we had with our economy became fragmented and disconnected,” said Rik Ekström, Assoc. AIA, research and design director, strategist, and educator.
While rural communities vary greatly, some similar factors hinder new connections. Fairchild says in Great Bend, one obstacle is apathy, the classic teenage perspective that “Nothing ever changes, and there is nothing to do.” Getting out in front of this pervasive messaging is an ongoing effort.
Industry—its history and future—can be a staunch adversary, as well. Great Bend used to be, and still is to a degree, an oil town, but with the advent of green tech, all that is changing. Fairchild admits, “Adaption is rough,” but adds that the community has dealt with it in stride. “Small business is big business still in our square of the prairie,” he said.
Perhaps the greatest challenge is simply humans being change-adverse. But calm discussion and information exchange have been key in turning the tide. Sara Hayden, president of Great Bend Economic Development (GBED), has played a critical role, first by listening and then through action.
“The residents of Great Bend are begging for new industry. In order to accommodate that goal, GBED has been tackling the prerequisites,” she said. Those include housing, which has resulted in a $1 million incentive for downtown property owners to finish upper floors into loft living; childcare, which is being addressed with new centers throughout the county, and small business, which has catalyzed the creation of an entrepreneur competition in the style of “Shark Tank.”
The city is also launching an entertainment district in the downtown corridor to be followed by multiple parklets. Hayden added that existing “incubator space, maker space, and mentorship opportunities set us apart in the region.”
Continued diversification is exactly what’s needed, Ekström said.
“To adapt to the New Economy, our Main Street habitat could, by necessity, become a more complex, diverse, and interdependent agglomeration of private business entities, public-private business projects, social services, cultural attractors and public space,” he said. Infused with networked technology and interactive user interfaces, together they would thrive.
In his mind, these spaces lean toward natural systems and further from urban planning.
“They’re complex; they’re complicated, and, at the same time, it’s not the type of complexity that requires a doctorate,” he said.
What our downtowns do need is a sense of urgency. The first driver is climate change.
“The built environment is a huge contributor to the loss of biodiversity in our environment,” Ekström said. The focus must be to do no harm where the planet is concerned.
Secondly, it’s time to take advantage of people’s current leanings toward the natural, illustrated by trends such as biophilic design. Nature is diverse, and so are we. Our downtowns should reflect the social and economic diversity that is truly at the roots of our rural communities, as different as each one may be.
Ekström says this can be accomplished through more shared public space and increased collaboration between public, private, and institutional entities. Stakeholder needs must be identified, zoning modified, when necessary, and all measures evaluated and adjusted as needed after implementation. Great Bend is engaged in this process, “with leaders coming from all walks of life. Those whose job it is to lead and those who are ready to affect change,” said Fairchild.
Their strategies will need to look ahead, incorporating technology to embrace the values and habits of what Ekström describes as “a new generation of digitally native, socially conscious and diverse young people who have different expectations about their communities than their parents and grandparents did.”
A demographic historically excluded from meaningful placemaking, the younger generation is comprised of the same people most rural communities are desperate to attract and retain.
“If this demographic is the future, we have to make our downtowns more familiar with and accommodating of them,” said Ekström.
With a push from the pandemic, these spaces will also be expected to be useful for a blend of activities, including work, education, and play. As offices become less centralized, Ekström believes people will increasingly look for those “third place” fillers, traditionally locales like coffee shops.
“But in the future, the concept of a space that exists between the formality of the office and the relaxed privacy of home will be expanded,” he said. For these new places and spaces to be successful, they will no longer depend on corporate branding but, as Ekström puts it, “on authentic, local culture that is inclusive and accessible.”
Now is the time for more nuanced conversations that not only acknowledge but also place value on the surprisingly diverse perspectives in our rural communities to develop robust policies that lead to a stronger, healthier future. As Ekström said: “We need to address these issues with a new way of thinking that’s more holistic.”
Caroline Tremblay is a freelance writer and assists in the news coverage of Radically Rural, a two-day summit on key rural issues, September 22-23, in Keene, New Hampshire.