6 Things I Learned about Community Economic Development During My Bush Fellowship
By Honor Schauland, Director, Friends of the Finland Community
When I applied for my Fellowship from the Bush Foundation, one of the original requirements was that I submit a final report at the end of my term and the length of my term was 4 years. I was awarded the Fellowship in 2012. It began in October of that year. This is November of 2016. It’s hard to believe it’s been 4 years.
My Fellowship Project was to create an economic hub that would support home-based businesses and other small businesses, and provide job training and other economic development activities, in an effort to create a more diverse and sustainable economy in the Finland, MN area. These activities do occur at the Clair Nelson Center (Finland’s Community Center) now, and we gain more knowledge and skills with each business that we help.
A huge part of the Fellowship was about developing myself as a leader. In particular, ways to rejuvenate my energy and avoid burnout, and to learn my own strengths and weaknesses. This was all extremely valuable, and difficult, and I struggle with all of it still.
I learned a lot during the active period of my Fellowship (the first 2 years), and I’ve learned a lot in the more recent 2 years too. Some lessons keep coming up.
One of the first things I learned is that Small (tiny!) businesses play a bigger part in economies than people realize. The US Small Business Administration defines a small business as one with fewer than 500 employees (It’s actually more complicated than that. Learn more here.) Most of the businesses in our area are actually microbusinesses. Microbusinesses have 5 or fewer employees. Many of them are simply operated out of people’s homes or garages, often unofficially. Many microbusinesspeople don’t think of themselves as business owners. These businesses don’t get much startup help, and most don’t qualify for loans either. But these are the people who keep the economy going on a very basic level.
Here’s another good one: The kind of economic development where towns try to attract businesses does not work. You know; the industrial parks with tax incentives? Nope. Those don’t work. Not only do they not attract businesses, they waste huge amounts of taxpayer dollars in the trying (see this study, particularly Appendix I: The Case for LOIS Economic Development on page 28. Also, read anything by Michael Shuman. This guy is well versed and writes skillfully about economic development.). This one came as kind of a shock to me. All over the Northland, every little town has an industrial park advertising tax-free locations for businesses. I mean, they all seem mostly empty, but the idea originated somewhere, it must have worked somewhere. Well, yeah, it worked once somewhere but not since then. Local economic development organizations are better off using their money to help out businesses that are already here in any capacity that works or makes sense.
This brings me to tourism. Like the strategy of trying to be something you are not in order to attract large businesses to your community, tourism isn’t a great economic development strategy if you have to promote your community as something that it is not. Doing so often attracts people who don’t appreciate the uniqueness of your community. Those people are more comfortable staying in the cookie-cutter “AmericInn’s Best Value 8” hotel that funnels more money to the corporation than the local franchise holder, rather than the cabin on the river. That cabin is a little funky, but it’s actually owned by a resident, and renting it out actually helps them make ends meet. If you have to be something you’re not in order to attract people you don’t really want to deal with anyway, why bother? On the other hand, many of the tourists that come back to Finland or Isabella or the Northwoods year after year are folks who really love these places and the community connections they offer as much as the scenic beauty that surrounds them. If we’re going to try, let’s try to attract more of these people: the Keepers; the ones who get it. These are the ones we want to see come back again and again. People we can be friends with. Folks who don’t treat us like local wildlife or complete hicks; we all know how degrading that can be.
And speaking of people we want to see come back again and again, we can’t forget about our young people. Supporting area youth and their development IS an economic development strategy. Investing in kids and young adults provides them with skills to start businesses, hold jobs, and function in society. Something like $1 invested in youth benefits overall society by $10. And that isn’t counting the cost savings to taxpayers that comes from keeping kids out of trouble. We work pretty hard at this at the Clair Nelson Center. The Finland Community Youth Program is going strong, and while we don’t know the statistics on how well we are keeping kids out of trouble, we know that kids keep coming, they keep giving us feedback, and we are having a positive impact. We’ve purposely created leadership roles for youth within the program, including occasional paid positions. We’ve tested out some youth-run business ideas as well. We have witnessed the strength and purpose and self-esteem this program gives these young people. We look forward to continuing this kind of work with them as they grow. And maybe we can figure out ways to build bridges that will allow them to get an education and to stay in this area or return to our communities as adults.
Real change takes years. It is adaptive fixes, not technical fixes, that actually work. What I mean is that it’s going to take years for us to realize the true benefit of our youth program, and all of the work that Friends of the Finland Community is doing here in Finland, MN. But we are already ahead of the game because we have begun the process of implementing adaptive, long-term solutions to some of our issues. And we’re going to keep on doing more of that, if possible.
“Too often our society treats problems (homelessness, hunger, poverty, low-performing schools, gentrification, racism, etc.) as technical challenges and implements technical solutions when they are far more complicated and requires getting people and systems to change and adapt.” – Vu Le, Rainier Valley Corps. from Who moved my unicorn: Adaptive versus technical challenges in the nonprofit field.
Finally, the biggest thing that keeps coming back to me is this: This place is unique. We are lucky. Despite the many challenges that exist in this area, the people that live here actually have and participate in community nearly every day. We know what it is. Community pervades our lives here in Finland, MN so much that we actually don’t realize how much of it we have until we go somewhere where it is absent. Many of us here don’t realize that there are places where no one is connected. There are places in the U.S. where people’s lives are incredibly empty; devoid of friendly neighbors, no nearby family, no complicated webs of relationships, nothing to do but spend more money and isolate yourself.
Our lives here on the North Shore aren’t usually like that. We know our neighbors (many of them, anyway). We know each others family histories, and if we dare forget, watch out! For example, we work with the aunt of the guy who shot up the ball field scoreboard, who also happens to be the aunt of the guy who mows the grass that called the cops on the guys shooting up the scoreboard, because he thought they were shooting at him! We might have gone to school with all of those guys. We certainly know some of their friends and relations, and we’ve probably had a drink or two with them down at the bar. Even folks who are recent transplants to the area quickly start to learn who is who. This person will plow your driveway. These people will teach you how to make maple syrup. Someone will weld your bicycle back together if you bring him some pickles. When someone gets sick or has a baby, people show up with hotdish and help with firewood. When someone falls on hard times, we have benefit dinners where people are incredibly generous.
This is our real wealth: not the money – the connections in this community. This, I feel, is the biggest and best lesson I have gleaned from these 4 years of work and study. My community amuses and frustrates me, astonishes and annoys, and sometimes twists my heart, but it feeds my spirit every day.