The traditional economic development model concentrated on searching for big piles of jobs. Communities made efforts to attract major employers and worked hard to keep companies from leaving their town. But it’s pretty obvious when looking around rural America that this model stopped working somewhere along the line. I visit far too many communities that have lost big employers and that are not finding anybody to replace them. This is due to some degree to the overall huge decrease in US manufacturing jobs. But it also is due in part to the general decline of businesses located in smaller communities.
Wilson is a community of around 50,000. Historically the city was known as the ‘world’s greatest tobacco market’ in the 19th century and tobacco was huge in the area until a few decades ago. Wilson was also the birthplace to BB&T bank, which is still the largest employer in the city. But like happened with many US cities, Wilson also went through a decline. Some small manufacturers closed and the tobacco business died. In a scene that is familiar across the country the downtown business district dried-up as retail moved to other places.
Wilson started its fiber optic business in 2008 under the tradename of Greenlight. They were one of the first cities in the country to offer gigabit broadband to residents. And that fiber network was the linchpin for the city in developing their new vision of economic development.
The concept behind Wilson’s vision sounds simple. They figure that that the best way to attract jobs to the community is by working to make their community a place where people want to live. They want visitors to the city to like it enough that some of them will want to move there. And they figure that when they reach that goal that businesses will naturally want to locate there. So they are looking to grow their economy by concentrating on and improving the assets they already have.
Of course, this is anything but simple. Many cities have tried this and only a few have found a way to rebound from the decaying downtowns we see all over the country. Wilson is making the turn by concentrating on the downtown area. They lured the Wilson Times, a local daily newspaper, to refurbish an old building and move back into downtown. They raised the money to renovate an old theater to create the Edna Boykin Cultural Center. There is a project to build new housing downtown next to the whirligig park (the picture accompanying this blog). They attracted Peak Demand to make a $2.6 M investment to manufacture electrical components in an old tobacco processing plant. And these investments are bringing back other businesses. There are new restaurants and two brew pubs that have opened in the downtown.
Wilson is using an approach that other cities should consider. They involve all of the stakeholders in the community in the effort to improve quality of life there. That includes working with Barton College, a 1,200-student liberal arts university and nursing school. They challenged the arts community to move and grow downtown and have a thriving art scene. They put an emphasis on buying local, which we all know has a tremendous local economic multiplier effect. The various constituencies in the city meet often to discuss ways to make the city better.
But they credit the fiber network for being the change that started everything. While big companies and big employers are important to every community, Wilson understood that the work-from-home entrepreneur movement is creating a lot of jobs and a lot of wealth. And so they foster innovation in a number of different ways and strive to make small and new businesses successful.
The big shame is that the North Carolina legislature passed a law to prohibit other communities in the state from following the Wilson model. Cities are no longer allowed to become retail ISPs in North Carolina. If they build fiber it has to be operated by somebody else – and we know that is a far harder model to make work. One only has to look at what’s happening in Wilson to understand that fiber is an important component these days for economic vitality. But fiber alone is not a guarantee for economic success. It takes a community-wide effort like the one in Wilson to take advantage of what fiber offers. Wilson still has a way to go, but you can feel the excitement in the community – and that is what makes any city a place where people want to live.