Small Towns, Big Ideas is the result of an intensive, yearlong effort to identify and document the stories of small towns that are surviving -- and, in some cases, thriving -- as hubs of civic and economic activity. This publication includes stories about planning and implementing economic development strategies in 45 small towns with populations of fewer than 10,000 residents. Half of the towns featured are from North Carolina, and half are from other states. This collection of case studies is a response to the demand from civic leaders in North Carolina for real stories, from real places that are confronting real challenges similar to those facing small communities everywhere. Stories are told in a narrative format and are intended to provide concrete ideas, inspiration and hope to civic leaders working in small communities and to policy makers dealing with rural development issues. The lessons section draws a series of conclusions, from across all the case studies, about economic development in small communities.


The Small Towns, Big Ideas project began in mid-2006, when the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government partnered with the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center to identify 50 small towns that were implementing successful or innovative approaches to community economic development. Project faculty and staff established a set of screening criteria and assembled an advisory committee to guide the selection of communities. The author visited and conducted on-site interviews with leaders in 10 communities. These are documented at length in the publication and represent comprehensive approaches to community economic development, including an analysis of how and why a particular set of strategies seemed to have worked within the local context. Telephone interviews were conducted with representatives from the remainder of the communities, which are documented in a shorter format and represent incremental strategies for advancing a community’s vision.

Towns and strategies

The communities profiled in Small Towns, Big Ideas stretch from Oregon to south Georgia. They range in size from Chimney Rock in North Carolina with 175 people to Helena-West Helena in Arkansas with 15,000. The economic development strategies at work in these towns include industrial development, tourism, downtown development, entrepreneurship and arts- and cluster-based development. Case studies also describe a range of strategies for building local capacity for economic development, including innovative organizational structures, partnerships, leadership development and finance. Most case studies include discussion of more than one strategy. To provide the reader with an overview of the types of communities in the publication, towns were divided into four categories:

  • Small towns that are recreation or retirement destinations or adjacent to an abundance of natural assets
  • Small towns with historic downtowns or prominent cultural or heritage assets
  • Small towns with or adjacent to a college campus
  • Small towns adjacent to a metropolitan area or an interstate highway

The case studies also have been indexed by each community’s strategy (or strategies) and population.

Lessons learned

Seven themes emerged from stories in Small Towns, Big Ideas.

  1. In small towns, community development is economic development.
  2. Small towns with the most dramatic outcomes tend to be proactive and future-oriented; they embrace change and assume risk.
  3. Successful community economic development strategies are guided by a broadly held local vision.
  4. Defining assets and opportunities broadly can yield innovative strategies that capitalize on a community’s competitive advantage.
  5. Innovative local governance, partnerships and organizations significantly enhance the capacity for community economic development.
  6. Effective communities identify, measure and celebrate short-term successes to sustain support for long-term community economic development.
  7. Viable community economic development involves the use of a comprehensive package of strategies and tools, rather than a piecemeal approach.
Public Officials - Local and State Government Roles