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by Mark Cheffey
Taking Palmyra to a brighter future was the top of a round-table discussion in the Sesquicentennial Building Thursday.
Deb Brown, an authority on creating thriving downtowns, led the discussion as part of an effort in northeast Missouri initiated by the Mark Twain Regional Council of Governments.
Brown’s goal was to learn more about the Palmyra community and generate ideas for improving Palmyra, to prepare for a return visit to offer her assessment later this year.
“I’m not here to tell you what to do. I’m here to get you talking and sharing ideas,” Brown told the small gathering of city officials and others from the community.
Brown, who is associated with SaveYour.Town, an organization dedicated to helping communities continue to thrive, went around the table and asked each attendee, a simple question: What would you like to see in your community?
And she received some general answers including more downtown retail businesses and fewer empty buildings, as well as specific ones such as more daycare providers and a place to eat breakfast.
In discussing the answers, Brown offered suggestions she has seen work elsewhere such as ways to help entrepreneurs start new businesses and ways to make downtown properties more attractive, as well as ways to draw in volunteers and organize a more unified local effort.
Brown emphasized there is no easy fix, and it will require strong, sustained local effort keep a community strong.
“There is not going to be a store or factory coming in and saving the town,” Brown said.
Rather, she said, it’s about getting the community on the same page while being open minded to new entrepreneurial ideas from people who are not afraid of early failure.
“It’s about finding those folks and giving them an opportunity to try something else,” Brown said.
She noted there are initial hurdles for people trying to start new businesses, such as obtaining capital not only to get going, but to stay going before that investment bears fruit.
Brown suggested ways to help those starting businesses such as store-front owners offering three months free rent, with the tenants paying utilities.
“It’s better than a building sitting empty, “ Brown said. “And, if they fail, it’s okay. It’s not a major investment.”
She also said there are government funded new business programs available for helping obtain start-up capital and business-model assistance to make the business more sustainable.
“People are looking for a chance, and they’re not likely to have $100,000 to start a business,” Brown said.
The continued deterioration of small downtown buildings was also an issue discussed, and Brown offered ideas.
“If you don’t do anything to buildings, they fall apart, and that doesn’t do anybody any good,” Brown said.
She noted that, often times, it just takes one building owner to spruce up one, spurring others to do the same.
Brown also said it is helpful when local building inspectors are not confrontational, but try to work with property owners to solve their building code deficiencies.
But if the building does have to come down, leaving an empty space, she said there are ways to make that space useful and a plus for downtown such as using it as a farmer’s market or an outdoor event center.
Brown said volunteers are a major untapped resource in efforts to improve communities. And she said it is important to attract new blood with new ideas rather than depending on the same volunteers who can burn out over time.
“Most communities that are open to new ideas are the ones that thrive,” Brown said.
A native of rural Geneva, Iowa, and who has lived in small towns and cities as well as a major metro city, Brown draws upon her experiences gained from leading a small town chamber of commerce, foreign casualty insurance underwriting, bartending, retail management, selling knives, and working with small towns.
She now lives in Webster City, Iowa, and travels to many others to help as a self-described relentless optimist who knows how to build possibility in a small town.
After doing similar round-table discussions in counties served by MTRCOG service area, Brown plans on making a return visit sometime in October.
To find out more information about Deb Brown, visit SaveYour.Town.