Rx for LF

DSC00705My intent for Ask Little Falls was to write one blog post per week for a year. I’m slightly ahead of schedule in terms of time, but this post is #52 out of 52. That means within the next couple of posts I’ll be wrapping up the blog.

I’ve been keeping a notebook of post ideas for Ask Little Falls. Back in May, I jotted down a list of actions for the city to strive toward in making Little Falls, MN, a progressive place to live. While progressiveness is often assumed to be political, this isn’t necessarily what I’m referring to. Instead I’m thinking of a broader definition of progressiveness: “favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are.”

This entire blog has been an effort to examine why it seems so difficult move the city forward, to implement change that improves lives for the city’s residents. The biggest issue seems to be the economy … providing a variety of living wage jobs locally for residents so they can live and work here without having to commute, giving them more time to contribute in other ways to the community.

Without further ado, here is my prescription for Little Falls:

  1. Cultivate a culture in which all skills and talents are seen as valuable, no matter what job sector they fall into, whether agriculture, manufacturing, technology, knowledge work, or service.
  2. Create natural gathering places for people in the city, places they are drawn to often so we can get people connecting with each other randomly to trade ideas.
  3. Look at tweaking existing zoning laws in the city in order to allow for mixed use that brings more people together. For example, the old neighborhood groceries stories allowed people to get to know each other while also contributing to the economy. Are zoning laws in Little Falls currently set up to allow stores in residential neighborhoods? Do zoning laws allow for internet-based businesses run from homes? How about for contractors that work from home?
  4. Encourage  and support local entrepreneurs and small businesses (fewer than 20 employees). Little Falls, like most cities, seems to be casting about looking for a major employer from outside to come in and save the city. Large businesses are attracted to vibrant communities that prove they have the talent and economy to support their concerns. If Little Falls can’t attract businesses from the outside, we’ve got to work on building up the entrepreneurial talent that’s already here, even if those businesses employ only a couple of people.
  5. Work on providing some sort of post-secondary educational opportunities. Post-secondary schools, whether colleges or technical schools, draw young people to communities and contribute to a city’s economy. With today’s students facing too much student loan debt, the rising costs of college, and the changes in education society is seeing due to the internet, this post-secondary option need not be a traditional school. Perhaps LF could invent some other post-secondary opportunities for students of all ages. (Atomic Learning could serve as inspiration.)
  6. Teach citizens how to analyze data and put it to good use in improving the community. (Larger cities host hack-a-thons to take advantage of open data. Little Falls has a great example of students learning to analyze data in the form of the Econ Challenge that high school students have won numerous times at the national level.)
  7. Learn to go around institutions that aren’t working. There is no rule that says we have to wait for existing organizations or governmental units to solve our problems, even if it’s in an organization’s mission to tackle a particular problem. Little Falls residents can band together and work on an issue without the assistance of an existing organization.
  8. During community planning meetings, once goals are agreed upon, we must break them into action steps in order to effectively achieve them. No more plans gathering dust on shelves, please.
  9. The City of Little Falls needs to update its website regularly and make it more active. It also needs to make video of its meetings available online, not just on the local cable access channel. There are a lot of people who don’t have cable, preferring internet-based television. The City needs to follow trends like these in order to help residents stay informed.

What might you add to this prescription for Little Falls?

How Do You Know When You’ve Been Heard?

DSC00779This post was inspired by the thoughtful comments I received on last week’s post about The Fear of Speaking Publicly. If you haven’t already done so, hop over and have a read.

Last week’s commenters felt that when they spoke up, city leaders found ways to silence them and that people and the media were not willing to listen when they expressed their opinions.

This gets kind of deep, but I think it’s at the root of the issue: When you are expressing an idea or opinion, how do you know you’ve been heard? What does the listener have to do to make you believe that your idea or opinion is not being summarily dismissed? Is there some specific action or words the listener must take for you to know you’ve been heard?

As Shelby said last week, “We are becoming a community where people react to others opinions and not respond to another person.”

How, then, do those in the city’s power positions respond rather than simply react? Going a step further, because WE, THE PEOPLE, are part of this democracy, how do we learn to listen and respond so that others feel heard, rather than simply reacting?



The Fear of Speaking Publicly

DSC00816When I started Ask Little Falls last October (2014), the intent was to ask the citizens of Little Falls, MN, open-ended questions about the community in order to allow for discussions that would hopefully improve life in the city. I was hoping to hear from voices that we don’t typically hear on the community stage.

While I’ve received some feedback (thanks to all of you who have left comments!), there hasn’t been enough to represent a good cross-section of residents. I also heard from someone who said I should shut down the blog because no one was reading or commenting on it. At that point I shifted focus away from straight questions to providing commentary on life in the city as I see it. (It is by no means the only valid viewpoint of the community.)

It may not be obvious from the comments, but Ask Little Falls does have readers. Privately, people have told me they read it and have provided a number of reasons for why they won’t leave comments. It boils down to a fear of backlash, which keeps people from speaking publicly in any forum.

In a small town, backlash is very real. Your organization (business or nonprofit) may be ostracized and ignored. Personally, you might be called uncooperative and a crank. People may shun you for speaking up. It’s an ancient fear. When shunning meant casting someone out of a village, survival was at stake for the person being shunned. We don’t want to be cast out of the village, so we say nothing.

Believe me, I have dealt with no small amount of fear in operating this blog. I mull posts over thoroughly, choosing my words with care. Having been a blogger for the past 9 years, I have encountered trolls of a serious (as in making-personal-threats serious) nature. I have also dealt with backlash due to speaking up in other forums. Why don’t I just shut up? Go away and live my life quietly? Stop fretting about how Little Falls operates?

Because that’s exactly what those in power positions want citizens to do. Allow them to direct community affairs unopposed, as they see fit, whether it’s good or effective for the citizenry or not.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a benevolent dictator who could find a way to make everyone happy without anyone else lifting a finger?

That is not how American society was set up. The government at all levels is supposed to be “by the people, for the people.” Nonprofit organizations are also supposed to be accountable to the public in exchange for that nonprofit status. In order for this “by the people, for the people” accountability to happen, we have to have the courage to speak up … and the persistence to keep speaking when it seems no one is listening.

(That doesn’t mean becoming an annoying pain in the tuchus by getting grumpy about every petty little thing. Choose your battles carefully.)

If more of us had the courage to speak, fewer of us would be ostracized or shunned. If one person complains, it’s easy to shut him out. If 100 or 1,000 complain, not only is it practically impossible to shun them all in a town the size of Little Falls, the din of the collective voice is bound to be heard.

Raise your voices, people!

(No questions this week. Feel free to leave a comment about whatever is bothering you in Little Falls. And if fear has your tongue, remember that you can use a fake name when you leave a comment.)

A 10-Percent Solution

DSC00676The title of today’s blog post sounds vaguely like a Sherlock Holmes story, although that isn’t my intent. Instead, it’s my way of thinking about something I heard on Minnesota Public Radio within the past few years. The segment being covered was about alcoholism. A nurse was the guest and she indicated that we as a society keep trying to get alcoholics to completely give up alcohol. That the only cure is total abstinence. But the nurse had another more practical solution. Why not get alcoholics to reduce their consumption? She had observed that even a modest reduction in alcohol consumption led to a number of positive health effects. Sure, the ideal for an alcoholic is to give up alcohol altogether, but this can be difficult to achieve, so why not do the next best thing?

In attempting to improve living standards and the economy in Little Falls (or any other community), our goal may be to fix everything to some philosophical ideal, but how likely is it that we’ll reach that ideal? Particularly if each citizen is running around with a different ideal in his or her head? Plus, if we ever were to reach this Utopia, how long would it actually last? Nanoseconds, probably.

Why not aim for a measurable goal, a 10-percent solution?

How would life in Little Falls change if there were 10 percent more businesses? According to U.S. Census QuickFacts, there were 764 businesses in Little Falls in 2007. What if there were 76 more operating in town? How might that change the economy and employment opportunities?

The census reports that the percentage living in poverty in Little Falls between 2009 and 2013 was 19.8 percent. Can we decrease that by 10 percent, drop it to 17.8 percent?

How could we increase the median household income by 10 percent, from $34,990 to $38,489?

Is there a way we could encourage 10 percent more of the city’s youth to return to Little Falls after graduating from college? Or perhaps encourage an increase of 10 percent of young people from elsewhere to join the community?

How would increasing the number of volunteers and donations to local nonprofits by 10 percent assist them in meeting their missions? What else might they be able to accomplish with this boost in time and funding?

How might we increase social connections by 10 percent? Or creative output?

Bringing it back around to alcoholism, how could we reduce binge drinking in the community by 10 percent?

Setting a measurable goal for each aspect of the community and making that goal something achievable is an element that has been missing from local planning sessions.

For example, saying we want a bike-friendly community is too vague. What does that mean? Saying we want to provide dedicated bike lanes along 10 percent of the city’s roads is an achievable goal.

What aspect of life in Little Falls would you like to see improved? How would you make that improvement measurable?

Nonprofits in Little Falls

DSC02922The United States has a lot of nonprofits, approximately 1.5 million, in fact. Little Falls has its share of nonprofit organizations, all of them set up to meet some need at the time of formation.

I happen to work at one of them and have served on the boards of others, so I have a solid background in nonprofit management. I also have experience in operating a couple of businesses. In comparing nonprofit management to business management, hands-down, running a nonprofit is more complicated. When it comes to business, you need to please your customer with the product or service you’ve promised and money is exchanged as part of the deal. Meet the need and your customer is happy.

Because of its tax-exempt status, a nonprofit must meet the mission it promised within its Articles of Incorporation and follow a number of other IRS rules in order to keep that exemption. These rules can be complex, so it is no easy task to keep up with them all. Nonprofits have to please a variety of stakeholders, including grantors, foundations, governmental units, members, donors, volunteers, clients/customers, and the general public.

In addition, while it might seem that tax-exempt organizations don’t pay any taxes (it’s in the definition of being tax-exempt, right?), there are occasions when they do pay taxes. If they have employees, they are kicking in the employer portion of payroll taxes. When making purchases at local stores, if they don’t have an exemption form on file with the store (a royal pain for an occasional purchase), they pay sales tax too.

Due to all the requirements and rules involved with running nonprofits (not to mention regular organizational duties, fundraising, and the perpetual state of having more work to do than people to do it), it should come as no surprise that many people don’t know much about what it takes to run a nonprofit.

One of the trends I’ve seen among nonprofits in Little Falls is the drop in the number of people available to volunteer, whether as a member of the board of directors or on tasks related to daily operations or special events. This tracks with societal trends mentioned in “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” by Robert D. Putnam. Fewer Baby Boomers or Gen Xers are volunteering than the generation prior to the Boomers.

Couple this drop in the volunteer pool with the general lack of knowledge of what it takes to operate a nonprofit and you’ve got a serious problem developing among local nonprofits. Who is going to be around to run them as people age out of them? (Understand that many people who are currently volunteering are retired from the workplace and are using their retirement years to fill these roles in the community.)

Nonprofits in Little Falls need to consciously work to address this issue, finding ways to transfer knowledge of how to run nonprofits to younger generations.

The public, too, has a role to play in this. Members of the public need to know how to judge the effectiveness of a nonprofit organization. Understanding that nonprofits are required to be transparent in their operations and are not allowed to provide private benefits to specific individuals or organizations with their resources are crucial aspects of being able to judge that effectiveness.

If a nonprofit won’t provide its annual IRS Form 990 upon request or explain how its board is elected, those are red flags that show the organization lacks the required transparency. (If you’re at all interested in seeing a nonprofit’s Form 990, sign up for a free account with Guidestar and do a search for the organization. Guidestar provides 3 years worth of 990s for most nonprofits.)

Knowing the difference between nonprofit designations also helps. The two most common types of nonprofits in Little Falls are 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(6). The IRS provides a definition of 501(c)(3) organizations here and 501(c)(6) organizations here. To further your knowledge of nonprofits, check out this page of links from the IRS. While it might seem to be dry reading, when you’re looking into how a nonprofit is supposed to function, it’s very useful.

Do you feel you have the necessary knowledge to serve on the board of a nonprofit in Little Falls? If not, what information would be helpful to you?

Do you think Little Falls has too many nonprofits, just the right amount, or too few?

How should local nonprofits go about finding new volunteers?

Could Little Falls Be an Enclave for Entrepreneurs?

DSC02328When people discuss what’s wrong with Little Falls, MN, they keep coming back to the economy. One of the persistent problems in the city is a lack of jobs that pay a decent wage. How do we improve the city’s overall economy so that we can address low wages and other problems facing the city?

In my continued reading of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” by Robert D. Putnam, one of the prime factors in improving the economic outlook of a community is to improve the social capital of citizens. Cities have got to find ways to get people interacting with each other in order to build trust, social cohesion, and creativity. Social capital builds economic capital.

So, social capital is important, but how might we address economics directly?

There’s an idea I’ve been noodling for months. Why not focus on helping local residents become entrepreneurs?

My husband and I have owned two businesses in the community over the years and I’m continually amazed at how many people are running small businesses, many of which are part-time ventures. Residents have had to be resourceful because so many of us have low incomes and need to figure out how to survive. Being scrappy is a good characteristic for an entrepreneur.

Why don’t we make Little Falls an enclave for entrepreneurs? I’m thinking about businesses that employ no more than 10-20 people, tops. While people may think it’s a wasted effort to have a bunch of one- and two-person businesses (Mom & Pop shops), when you’ve got one or two people self-employed, they’re still employed, and that’s a good thing.

LF could become an enclave for entrepreneurs by offering the following in a cohesive and consistent fashion:

– Capital for small businesses (Rather than sinking large amounts of cash into big, established ventures, how many small businesses could get a foothold with a $10,000-$20,000 loan or grant?)

– Create a business incubator space with a sliding scale for rent (There could be more than one business incubator, one that’s a workshop space and another that serves as an office-type environment. I’m thinking of a non-profit incubator along the lines of one called Church & State in Utah.)

– Provide a pop-up shop space – a short-term retail space downtown that allows small business owners to test their product ideas

– Keep a registry of empty buildings to help entrepreneurs find space

– Provide a variety of classes in entrepreneurship (Classes on bookkeeping, marketing, dealing with taxes, selling online, legal issues, etc. Make these regular classes that aren’t too expensive and that are taught by those who have run businesses.)

– Rework the city’s home occupation ordinance to be more friendly to residential businesses. (If you look at the current Little Falls ordinance on home occupation, it is so restrictive that an area like Grand Avenue in St. Paul, which is a lively mixed residential and commercial district, would be unable to exist. Remember the social capital that’s supposed to be so important to a local economy? One way to build social capital is to get people mingling regularly with each other. Mixed use is a good way to do this.)

It’s too easy for communities to fixate on the one giant business that will move in and employ a large chunk of local residents. We need to quit looking for a savior from the outside to fix the city’s economic woes.  Why not create the conditions necessary to grow small businesses locally? A variety of small businesses help hedge a community’s bets against the crash of a large business. (Hennepin Paper, anyone?)

I found some confirmation for my entrepreneurial idea through this article:

For Cities, Big-Box Stores Are Becoming Even More of a Terrible Deal from Planetizen

The article discusses the many ways big-box stores have figured out to strip resources from communities, thus making communities poorer for having brought them in. The end of the article provides an alternative to the problems caused by big-box stores: Encourage locally-owned businesses.

How can we create the conditions necessary in Little Falls to grow local small businesses?

Connecting People in Little Falls

DSC00581Back in February I wrote a post discussing how difficult it is to have a social life in Little Falls, MN. The city seems to have been designed to keep people apart, with the best gathering places being Walmart and Coborn’s. (Seriously.) We’ve followed strict zoning regulations to keep businesses out of neighborhoods. Due to the hours and types of businesses downtown, residents find little need to be downtown in the evenings. (Great River Arts and the movie theater, along with bars, are the few evening draws.)

This lack of easy places to socialize has been bothering me. After reading Chapter 7 in the book “Imagine: How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer, now I know why. The chapter is called Urban Friction and it discusses how big cities that have the right kinds of neighborhoods give residents plenty of opportunities to randomly bump into each other. This increases creativity, which in turn increases productivity and innovation.

From page 187: “According to the equations of [Geoffrey] West and [Luis] Bettencourt, every socioeconomic variable that can be measured in cities — from the production of patents to per capita income — scales to an exponent of approximately 1.15. What’s interesting here is the size of the exponent, which is greater than 1. This means that a person living in a metropolis of one million should generate, on average, about 15 percent more patents and make 15 percent more money than a person living in a city of five hundred thousand.” (Lehrer, Jonah, “Imagine”)

The chapter continues by pointing out that there are certainly differences between big cities in their levels of creativity, with some being much more creative than others. What West and Bettencourt, both physicists by training who came to the field of urban statistics, discovered was that the faster people walked in a city, the more creative the city was. The more people had a chance to bump into each other through urban design, the greater their ability to turn those impromptu meetings into activities that generated creative and economic growth.

Cities that “focused on mitigating unwanted interactions, trading away crowded public spaces and knowledge spillovers for single-family homes” experience “poor performance on a variety of urban metrics.” (pg. 190-191)

In other words, if your city is designed to keep people away from each other, as Little Falls is, it’s going to be much harder to advance as a thriving community.

How do we get more people in Little Falls interacting with one another? Is it time to rethink how Little Falls is zoned, perhaps create areas of mixed use in order to encourage more interaction?

Note: As there has been some question about the veracity of portions of Jonah Lehrer’s work (see this article for details: http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/writing/188506/why-jonah-lehrers-imagine-is-worth-reading-despite-the-problems/), here is a direct link to the paper “Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities” by Luis Bettencourt et. al., which provides the background on the quotes above: http://www.pnas.org/content/104/17/7301.full.pdf.