Profile Your Community and Set Development Goals

A blog, Wiki, website or online community space can be a terrific asset for your small community, but those aren't really development goals. Those are really a means to an end.

Before you do anything like that, you need to profile your community and set some development goals.

Development goals are things like alleviate local poverty or improve local health. Of course those are both really broad goals and you will want to profile your community in order to be able to set more specific development goals pertinent to the needs of your community.

Alleviating poverty might involve attracting employers to the area, encouraging locals to raise some of their own produce, attracting tourism dollars or helping locals establish an online income.

Improving local health might involve putting out information on nutrition, starting a community garden to help people access fresh produce affordably, starting a walking club, or putting together a list of the nearest health care providers even if they are all in towns an hour away and there is nothing truly local.

Please note that specific goals may serve more than one of your broader goals. Starting a community garden or otherwise encouraging people to grow some of their own produce can be a means to both alleviate local poverty and improve local health.

While "alleviate poverty" and "improve local health" are general goals that most small communities may aspire to, you don't get there by stating a broad goal and then picking random ideas out of a hat. You get there by writing up a profile of your community and coming up with goals and means that are a good fit for local conditions.

A website intended to foster homegrown vegetables will look very different from one intended to attract tourism dollars, which is why "start a website" is a means to an end and not a development goal. You need a clear goal before you start a website (and I recommend reading this before you start any kind of website or online space for your community).

Profiling Your Community

You will want information on three broad categories: people, place and things. But first let's talk a bit about the process of getting that information.

For a really small community -- say a hundred people in an unincorporated area -- you may be heavily relying on firsthand observation of local conditions for your profile. But for most communities, you will want to use a mix of firsthand observation and data you can readily find online.

If you are privy to other data, that can be very valuable as well. For example, you may have access to local reports via email that aren't published anywhere more public.

You don't necessarily need hard figures, but I strongly encourage you to put your profile in writing. But do not publish it on the internet.

This should be "the good, the bad and the ugly." It will look very different from a PR campaign that emphasizes the positive.

Of course, a PR campaign shouldn't actually lie and you may want to touch on some of the challenges your community has when you do publish information about it, but your internal profile should look different from published info in some important ways. Your internal profile will include sensitive information that you don't really want to make available to the general public.

I will reiterate what I said above and again recommend reading this before you start any kind of website or online space for your community. It talks a bit about problems like creating an attractive nuisance or making yourself vulnerable because of things you are publishing on the internet.

Now let's talk a bit about each of those three categories of information. You will want to look for both general information and details about what makes your community unique. What sets it apart and makes it someplace special?

People

Start with demographics. Who lives there? How old are they? How do they make their money? What are their ethnicities, religions and so forth?

Again, this doesn't have to be hard numbers. You don't absolutely need to be able to say "Out of 5000 people, 500 are retirees over the age of 65." but it is helpful to know that "This is a community with a lot of elderly retirees."

If you can get some firm figures, that can be great, but keep in mind that all data is out of date pretty much the minute it is gathered. It can help to make notes that "This is data from the 2010 Census" or "This figure is current as of 2018" to help give you some idea of how reliable the information is.

For what makes it special, you might want to read up on local history and find out if anyone famous was born there. Also, are there unusual population characteristics that show up in the demographics?

I will be profiling Aberdeen, Washington (below) and this small town is home to Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana. The area also has a lot of artists and musicians generally.

Place

In addition to information about the local population, you will want place-based information. This will include things like climate and weather, terrain (mountains, rivers, etc) and natural assets.

One of the most interesting college classes I ever had was a class on Economic Geography. Local geography is hugely important to development goals.

Most major cities are on or very near a coastal area with a natural port that has been developed into a commercial port. Local industrial development is heavily influenced by things like local natural assets, such as lumber and specific mineral ores (gold, silver, copper, etc.).

So, for example, if you want to build adobe homes, you can't do that unless you set up your business someplace with the right kind of soil for making adobe. You generally don't want to import a basic material like that from too far away because it raises your business costs too much.

For what makes it special, look for unusual natural assets or assets found in an unusual combination. Reading local histories can sometimes point to what's unique about the area and how the local natural assets fostered whatever development currently exists.

For my profile city, Aberdeen Washington sits at the confluence of two rivers and is not far from the Pacific Ocean. In spite of its small population, it is the largest city near the Pacific Coast of Washington state. It was historically "the lumber capital of the world."

Things

Last, you will want to list existing man-made infrastructure and assets. This will be things like transportation infrastructure (sea ports, airports, highways -- how do people and goods get there?), governmental bodies (both local government entities and nearby cities) and educational assets.

Commercial development is heavily influenced by transportation. Educational assets are important for developing social capital critical to economic development.

Silicon Valley became a hotbed of economic development due in part to access to local colleges. Business tends to thrive where social capital -- such as knowledge, skills and ideas -- connects with other kinds of capital, such as financing and/or access to the right natural resources.

For what makes it unique, look for uncommon types of infrastructure, old infrastructure that has been "grandfathered in" or unusual combinations of infrastructure.

Old infrastructure is sometimes especially valuable because the US has zoned out of existence a lot of things and you can no longer build some types of things. Some of those old things are very valuable assets, such as a historic mixed use walkable downtown area.

My profile city of Aberdeen is not far from a local deep water port that is a day closer to Asia than any other port on the West Coast and the downtown is at the confluence of three historic scenic highways. This means highways that are normal streets, not limited access roadways. So we get a lot of traffic in our downtown area directly on our downtown streets.

We also have a historic mixed use walkable downtown that has seen better days. If we could resolve certain barriers to development, our downtown is very much a diamond in the rough with huge potential. Because it is a haven for artiss, we also have a lot of public art here.

Online Resources

Here are a few websites that may help you put together useful information to profile your community: Most places have a Wikipedia page. If you are someplace really small, there may not be much info there about your tiny community, but you may want to look up info about the county, state, nearest incorporated city and similar and Wikipedia is often much more useful for getting some basic demographic and geographic data than the official city website or county website.

Having said that, you may also want to look for the following:
  • Official websites of local government entities, such as city, county and state.
  • Your local Chamber of Commerce website.
  • Websites for local or neaby major infrastructure, such as a sea port or airport.
  • Websites for other nearby assets, such as a National Park, military base or National Lab.

Case Study: Aberdeen, WA

Once you have profiled your community, you will need to set both broad goals and specific goals. Both types of goals need to be firmly rooted in the details of your community profile.

I live in Aberdeen, Washington. I will use it as an example to help illustrate this process, though this will be really brief and nothing in depth.

Profile

Aberdeen is around 16,000 or 17,000 people, depending on which resources you cite. It is the largest city in Grays Harbor County and a commercial shopping hub for the region.

It has a temperate climate, though it rains a LOT. It sits at the confluence of two rivers and is about twenty minutes from the Pacific Ocean.

It was historically "the lumber capital of the world" and is the hometown of Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana. There are a lot of artists and musicians here and a lot of retirees.

Although lumber is still an important asset, trees were historically clear cut which is not sustainable, so the future of the area needs to move more towards tourism and become less dependent on those historic natural assets. The town is something of a shadow of its former glory because of that reality.

Three (or more) historic scenic highways run through here and the downtown sees nearly 10 million cars annually in each direction. There is also an important sea port not far away, a local jet-capable airport in nearby Hoquiam and we are less than three hours from both Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon.

Currently, that traffic is a burden on the community because too much of it is through traffic, so we get the pollution and road maintenance costs and don't make enough money from the vehicles passing through to elsewhere. It represents untapped potential for bringing more money into the community if we can do a better job of getting people to stop here.

Also, remember some of the details from above, like we have a lot of public art.

Goals

General Goals: There is a lot of poverty here and high unemployment. We need to do a better job of helping locals earn an income and we need to do a better job of capturing tourism dollars. We get a lot of traffic, but too much of it is through-traffic headed to the beach and not enough of it stops here and spends money locally.

Specific Goals: When I was involved for a time with some local non-profits, my vision was to develop a map and online walking tour of some of the local public art to encourage more people to stop their cars, get out and walk around. I also was trying to think up ways to get the word out that "We have a walking tour" and I never really made headway on that.

That goal was only partially met. There is a website with a "walking tour" (in other words, information about some of the local art) but no actual map ever materialized and I never made the connections I needed to make to try to find ways to effectively promote the existince of our partially developed walking tour website.

I have no idea how much impact that has had on capturing traffic. Probably little or none because the map and other pertinent bits never happened. I have walked away from the project and it is unlikely to get further developed by someone else.

I also really wanted to make low-cost websites available to local artists and help them figure out how to make money via internet. I did do websites for two local artists, but that goal really never went anywhere for various reasons.

Footnotes

Aberdeen is a small town where "local resident" often means their family has been here for generations and they can tell you stories about when their grandparents lived here. So it's particularly hard to get traction as an outsider and I was just never able to get people to really take me seriously and trust me and those ideas really didn't get off the ground.

I had applied for a job as the Executive Director for a local non-profit doing economic development. I really had a lot more goals than what I have listed above, both broadly and specifically.

But this write-up is just intended to give you an example to help you understand the process, so I'm trying to keep it brief so as to not overwhelm you. This isn't remotely a comprehensive overview of what I had envisioned.

Also keep in mind that I have glossed over some things. Because this website is public, I have intentionally left out sensitive information that would be potentially harmful to Aberdeen to highlight, so this profile is somewhere between "the good, the bad and the ugly" and a public relations style write up.

So don't get too bent out of shape if your community seems like there is a lot more "ugly" than the above profile. It is possible that all that really means is I haven't really told you the "ugly" stuff about Aberdeen because I don't want to cause problems for the town I live in!

Also keep in mind that if you are successful in doing development, you will need to periodically update your profile and update your goals. If the community profile never changes, then you aren't really developing it.

So this will be an ongoing process and not a "one and done" thing.

The old D & R Theater in downtown Aberdeen, WA.

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