Australian consultant talks up development for small communities

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

An Australian community development consultant laid out a game plan for success for small towns Thursday at Buena Vista University in a conference for northwest Iowa Iowa State University Extension staff.

David Beurle, from Melbourne, Australia, was the keynote speaker at the Anchors Away conference attended by 120 ISU Extension staff.

With 80 percent of new jobs in the U.S. coming from small business startups, Beurle said it is critical that smaller communities help by providing a supportive economic environment.

Beurle cited a phenomenon in which people from California and the East Coast, for example, are moving to the Midwest because of social and environmental issues.

"The values shift I see in America is leaning toward family," Beurle said. "Today people want to be able to make a change."

Beurle, who has provided consulting services for Emmetsburg and Hartley and Jackson, Minn., said that a community of even just 1,000 population has a potential annual expendable income of $15 million.

Smaller communities need to address synergy, vision and partnerships within their communities. One of the downsides of rural leadership programs, unfortunately, said Beurle, "is that people up and go." Volunteer leaders may find themselves carrying the whole weight and experience "burn out".

Economic development requires new creativity where new ideas can flourish," said Beurle.

"There's no rocket science in this," Beurle said. "The answer is obvious.

Three things necessary in community development are commitment, capacity or skills, and a structure "that gets all those arrows in the same direction," Beurle said.

In a question-and-answer session that followed, Beurle addressed the issue of commuter communities.

"I always come at it from why do you live here," Beurle said. "People can connect the dots. You just need to show them how to connect the dots."

Community leaders need to make their communities attractive places to live and to provide jobs. And, due to people in urban areas feeling the need for a "sea change" in a more values-oriented culture, the development potential for rural America is not a matter of "if" but "when". And those communities that are ready to accommodate new people will be the first to succeed, Beurle said.

"I think we're seeing the tip of the iceberg in rural America," Beurle said. "Metropolitan urban America is becoming increasingly less attractive for people."

As a case in point, Beurle said he has found people in western North Dakota who migrated from California. Others migrated from the Minneapolis and Chicago areas to the rural Midwest.

"That tip of the tip of the iceberg phenomenon I assure is coming," Beurle said, noting that communities just need to make themselves attractive to take advantage of new people.

With the influx of new people comes a creative entrepreneurialism. Telecommuting, once the stuff of science fiction, has now become the norm for some occupations. In one instance, people from Seattle, Wash., came to North Dakota to start a dinosaur museum. The reason was simple. North Dakota has a plethora of dinosaur fossils in one particular area to the extent that they're poking out from the hillsides.

The company Beurle cited started a bidding war between two major corporations for a complete tyrannosaurus rex skeleton - one piece at a time. The final bid came to $8 million.

As for the characteristics of communities with an entrepreneurial culture, said Beurle, "It's what we call a can-do community. Any idea is worth exploring. That kind of activity can only rise in a community where creativity is fostered."

Even if a community does not have the right attitude or culture, that can be changed, Beurle said.

"You can change the culture if you follow the right steps," Beurle said. "How do you start this unleashing in a community?" Beurle followed up his own question by comparing community development to a wildfire in which fuel and oxygen are both necessary.

The fuel would be the creative ideas needed to foster and sustain vision. "The problem is communities is we're very practical, tangible oriented," Beurle said. "The oxygen is the conversations in the community."

Beurle said single-day events, such as annual celebrations, should be a capstone for the economic strengths that already exist in a community.

"The community itself doesn't make a living off tourism," Beurle said. "It's an added component. There are already existing major drivers in the economy. You have to add some small component to it." One-day events, said Beurle, "are the cherries that are on top."

To get everyone headed in the same direction, Beurle said, requires a discussion about where a community is going. "Most communities have never answered that question," Beurle said. "Is the vision of the community defined. What's your role in that vision. The vision is something that's bigger than the individual members of the community.

Beurle has consulted with communities in an eight-state area with support of the Horizon Program, a program of the Northwest Area Foundation. He is known worldwide as an expert on rural leadership and innovative community economic development.

As founder and managing director of Innovative Leadership in Australia, Beurle has transformed the economy and culture of communities throughout his home continent and in the United States as well. His innovative approach to building vibrant communities has inspired people of all ages to get out and make a positive change in the world they live in.

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