Thinking About the Future
Small towns in Illinois need a strategic economic development plan

Donald E. O’Neal, Ph.D
Professor of ManagementUniversity of Illinois at Springfield

Rural America has changed dramatically since the 1940s. Many of the small towns that were then the focus of farm life are now in serious decline. What happened? A major factor has been the changing size of the family farm.

The typical Midwestern farm of the 1940s was about 160 acres, planted in corn, soybeans, wheat and hay, with a few acres of pasture. Crops were diversified, not to maximize income, but for cash flow, and to hedge against crop failures and price fluctuations. Most of the labor was provided by family members, probably one reason families were larger then. Farming was a way of life, not just an income.

Equipment was modest: a couple of tractors, a planter, corn-picker, combine and, perhaps, a grain bin or two, although most often crops were sold and stored by local grain elevators. The grain elevator was as much a landmark of the rural community as was its water tower.

The town, itself, was almost as important to the farm family as its barn; valuable not only as a place to sell grain, but for its churches, school, post office, lumber yard, drugstore, restaurant and grocery store. The town was the hub of a wheel, and the spokes were the roads leading in from nearby farms.

These towns were usually built on railroads, for access to grain and livestock markets, and were generally from five to 10 miles apart, close enough together so that no farm was more than a short drive from a grain elevator.

But the importance of the small town to the farm began changing when the veterans returned from World War II. These young men were eager to return to farming, and they had new ideas about how to farm – big ideas. They didn’t just want newer equipment, or more equipment, they wanted bigger equipment. And with bigger equipment, they needed bigger fields, so they tore out hedge rows and fences, and soon were literally farming from road to road, with equipment so big that a single farmer could farm hundreds of acres, instead of just 160.

And the inevitable happened: bigger farms meant fewer farmers, fewer farm families and less demand for the services provided by farm towns. As business in the town declined, so did jobs, and people began moving to larger towns and cities where jobs were still available.

Today many small towns are desperately searching for ways to bring jobs back. They’re eagerly pursuing opportunities like those associated with the resurgence of coal mines, the demand for ethanol plants and biodiesel facilities, and wind farms. While these trends can be golden opportunities, there is the risk that desperation might drive a community to jump into anything that offers the potential for jobs, without taking time to consider the long-term consequences.

But it’s easy to avoid that risk by taking time to think about the future – five, 10, or even 20 years from now – then creating a plan based on what’s best for the community in the long-term. With a strategic plan, the community can develop an economic program that’s sustainable for years to come, rather than see-sawing back and forth between whatever looks most convenient, easiest, or most attractive at the moment.

A town’s most urgent need is a new purpose, a new mission, a new focal point, and all it takes to find one is to answer three questions:

  1. What needs should this community try to meet?
  2. Whose needs should it try to meet?
  3. How should it meet those needs?

The third question is the key to developing a uniqueness that makes the community different from other communities, in ways that make it attractive to its future customers, its future inhabitants. The real question is, “What should this community become known (and respected) for?

When it finds answers to those questions, the community will have taken a big step on the road back.


More Information

Donald E. O’Neal, Ph.D, Professor of Management at the University of Illinois at Springfield, is a former business executive, and author of Managing Strategically for Superior Performance (American Press, 2003), and If Not Now, When? (Airleaf Publishing, 2006)