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Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a two-part series.

Why are some communities unable to maintain their historic character and quality of life in the face of a rapidly changing world, or lose the features that once gave them distinction and appeal? How can a community grow and become better, attracting families and good-paying jobs while improving its natural attributes, aesthetics, and brand?

Every “successful” or “thriving” community has its strengths and weaknesses, but common characteristics appear necessary for a community to succeed and thrive.

Thriving communities always do three or four, if not all of the following.

1. Ditch the poverty mindset. City leaders must move beyond the poverty ingrained in their minds and into a future full of hope and progress. Great community leaders have a positive “can-do attitude” despite lacking resources. They develop plans and are willing to wait to execute them until a funding opportunity arises. Dreams are cheap, and resourceful cities always figure a way to find funding. Having a poverty mindset over a long time will make a community poorer and blighted as new or needed investments aren’t completed because of the lack of funding. Eventually, what was once just a perception will become the reality.

2. Pay attention to community aesthetics. This one is so easy; I don’t understand why so many communities are so terrible at it. Mark Twain once said, “We take stock of a city like we take stock of a man. The clothes or appearance are the externals by which we judge.” Thriving communities don’t ignore weeds, trash or unrepaired infrastructure; they plant trees and flowers, control signage, protect scenic views and historic buildings, and encourage new construction that fits the existing community. They pay attention to where they put development, its arrangement and appearance, realizing that the aesthetics of one’s community has been shown to be directly correlated to its economic well-being. Special attention is always given to the community’s gateways, the first thing a visitor sees.

3. The community has an inventory of its assets. Creating a vision begins by inventorying a community’s assets: natural, architectural, human, educational, economic, etc. The old economic development paradigm was about cheap land, cheap energy and cheap labor. It was about shotgun recruitment and low-cost positioning. In today’s world, highly trained talent is more important than cheap labor or land, and investing in education is far more valuable than widening the highway or overpass. Successful economic development is rarely about one big thing; it’s about many little things working synergistically together in a plan that makes sense.

4. Have a long-term vision for the future. Thriving communities always have a plan for the future. Not having a strategy means planning to fail. Communities with a vision for the future will always be more successful than communities that accept whatever comes along. Consistent long-term leadership by a visionary leader can help but studies show that the average mayor in America serves only four years, not enough time to make a significant difference. Without long-term elected officials or staff that stay on task with the vision at the City level, an active community organization can be the keeper of the long-term community vision, ensuring that it doesn’t get extinguished by poor or ineffective leaders. Change doesn’t always have to happen from the top-down. Sometimes, a robust bottom-up organization can be just as effective. Regardless, any visionary plan needs regular updates and measurement of progress. Indeed, as it is often quoted, “what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.”

5. Use education and incentives, not just regulation. Thriving communities use education, incentives, partnerships and voluntary initiatives, not just regulation. Why education? Because education reduces the need for regulation. Visionary leaders understand that regulation by itself can only prevent the worst in development; it rarely brings out the best. Communities need to use carrots, not just sticks, and use a variety of creative ways to influence the development process outside of the bureaucratic regulatory process. Lastly, community education is essential because citizens have a right to choose the future, but they need to know what the choices are. To effect change, thriving communities must include their residents in determining and planning for the future and partner with all who share the community vision and goals.

Gary Walton is an ex-banker turned general contractor and is current president of the Gilroy Downtown Business Association and vice president of the Miller Red Barn Association. The views expressed are solely his own and do not express the views of any other organization he may be affiliated with.

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