What Makes a Small Town Successful?

26 Feb 2019

Arts and Culture

mural grain elevatorWhy is it that some small towns languish while others thrive? As much of rural America has been struggling to retain jobs and residents in recent years, researchers have been trying to answer this question.

Towns that fare better than others seem to have a number of key characteristics in common, including an engaged citizenship, community pride, a forward-thinking approach and the willingness to take risks.

Faulkton, South Dakota exhibits these traits. Residents have long subscribed to the positive mantra, “We believe in possible.” It’s a fitting motto for a town of about 800 people that has the cultural amenities of an exponentially larger city.

muralEngaged citizens are one of the primary reasons the town is thriving. The town has a vital arts community. For more than 40 years, the Faulkton Area Arts Council has supported artistic endeavors in the area, organizing top-notch events and opportunities for area residents, such as an annual art fair, artist residencies, public art projects and a murder mystery dinner theatre.

Though the arts are commonly viewed as gratuitous, some take a different approach, recognizing their value in helping to define commonalities and forge partnerships to better the community and local economy.

Faulkton’s legacy of rich artistic initiatives helped engender broad-based private support for the commissioning of a massive mural by world-class artist Guido van Helten. The artist conceived of the piece after spending a considerable amount of time researching the town and its people.

The mural is a fine example of the power of place making. It’s a defining point in the community, which elicits a sense of community pride and will impact the town well into the future.

Such projects demonstrate the type of transformation that’s possible through forward-thinking, creative partnerships. When such collaborations succeed, they have a ripple effect.

Communities that foster the arts don’t just improve quality of life for residents. There’s evidence to suggest that support for such artistic endeavors can also spark commercial creativity and innovation.

There are plenty of examples of entrepreneurs taking risks and forging their own opportunities in Faulkton. They’re finding success, in part, because the town chose to cultivate a supportive environment for out-of-the-box thinking.

“Faulkton residents made a decision long ago to actively encourage creativity and open-mindedness, rather than subject ourselves to the stereotypical limitations of a rural town,” says Linda Bartholomew, who serves on the Faulkton Area Arts Council and the Faulkton Area Economic Development board.

This approach has served the community well. Faulkton’s focus on the arts is making it a destination for tourists. The completed mural project brought Faulkton state and national attention. It also serves as a source of continued inspiration for what might be possible in a small town.