The Niche I am Looking to Fill

Eclogiselle is intended to be a compendium of free resources for small communities with paid services available below $5000. In fact, I hope to be able to offer some services for well under a thousand dollars.

I am looking to serve small communities that would have trouble hiring someone at all to do planning and economic development work for them. I am hoping to find creative ways to provide useful resources for communities who often either cannot afford paid staff or cannot find someone willing to work for them for what they can afford to pay.

The small town I live in made an offer to a candidate for their city manager position and the candidate turned them down and took a higher paying job elsewhere. That seems to be par for the course.

Years ago when I was looking to become a professional planner, I haunted the online job listings. A lot of small communities kept the same job openings available for months at a time because of the challenges they face in filling such positions at all.

I have first-hand experience with my local Main Street America program. This is the leading voice for preservation-based economic development and community revitalization across the US.

It is aimed at revitalizing small towns. In order to be an accredited Main Street program, you need to have an executive director:
  • 0-2500 people = half time volunteer Executive Director
  • 2500-5000 = half time paid Executive Director
  • 5000+ = full time paid Executive Director
So this well-established program doesn't expect a town of less than 2500 people to be able to pay their economic development director at all. It's a part-time, volunteer position for such communities. It's basically a labor of love.

For towns between 2500 and 5000 people, they only expect them to be able to pay for a part-time director. It's only for communities above 5000 that they expect you to have a full-time paid executive director for this non-profit economic development entity.

Please note that if they have a full-time executive director, this is probably their only paid employee. There will also be a board running the non-profit and those are all unpaid positions.

So all the evidence suggests that small communities have trouble hiring planning and economic development staff at all, whether it is a city job or a job at a local non-profit trying to fill in the gaps in their small town. And when I asked around, the answers I got suggest small communities face additional challenges when they look to contract out services instead of hiring paid staff to serve them.

In one reply to my query, I was given a link to an article from 2012 where The Land Conservancy of New Jersey was offering to do an Environmental Resources Inventory (ERI) for Kinnelon, a burrough in New Jersey. They were offering it at a discount and the price was expected to be $10,000 (back in 2012 -- no doubt, prices have gone up since then).

The Land Conservancy of New Jersey is apparently a non-profit land trust that has a goal of protecting open space. The person who left the link implied that this is probably a typical fee for non-profits and universities serving this space for small communities.

Non-profits and universities are supposed to be the good guys, the affordable option, the folks doing it out of idealism and not to make a quick buck. But it doesn't take much digging to be suspicious of this $10,000 ERI and why it is being pushed.

In the article, one person objecting to paying for the ERI said, in part, All we do is keep spending money and no ones giving us money. I pulled up the Wikipedia page for Kinnelon, New Jersey and, unsurprisingly, this is a wealthy suburb.

According to Wikipedia, in 2012 they were among the top 500 most expensive zip codes in the US. It lists them as at number 462.

A quick search tells me there are nearly 42,000 zip codes in the US. If you pull out a calculator and divide 462 by 42,000, the result is 0.011. So we are talking about people who are just outside of the One Percent.

I read this article and I see vague, hand-wavy claims that this ERI is "useful for planning efforts" and I also see people complaining about a pattern of being bled for money over the years without getting results. I can readily believe they are being taken advantage of.

I can believe that people keep going to Kinnelon burrough, selling them services "at a discount" (because "we are the good guys") for thousands of dollars -- because these people can come up with the money -- and the services aren't actually useful for development.

The other thing I was told was that most for-profit, private planning firms do not actively seek out projects that are below about $5k. If you approach them, they might do a small project for you, but chasing it down isn't worth it. It doesn't pay well enough.

Before life got in the way, I wanted to be a professional planner. I've spent years around online planning forums and attending local meetings and what not and I think I would have trouble finding a private planning firm.

They seem to me to not be very visible. I'm not exactly an insider because I never got the career I wanted, but you would think this would be less opaque to me.

So my impression is that planning firms are hard to identify by small communities, aren't actively seeking business from small communities because it doesn't pay well enough and may not even take a bid from you even if you approach them. If it's only a few thousand dollars, they seem to feel like they are doing you some kind of favor if they are willing to work with you.

I am in Aberdeen, Washington. It is in a region I have dubbed The Pacific Coastal Region of Washington State or CoastalWA.
This is a region with a sparse number of small towns and a large number of unincorporated communities. There is at least a half million people, two or three dozen incorporated small towns and probably upwards of 200 unincorporated communities.

And most likely an influx of people will be coming here in the next few years because it is a relative safe haven from things like climate change. So I think the many small communities in this region need to begin preparing for growth if they don't want a bunch of well-heeled outsiders to come in and run rough-shod over the people who are already here. So I think there is tremendous need for free and low cost economic development and planning resources and services that would work well for small communities. The only question in my mind is if I can figure out how to package up offerings that make sense for both me and them and find a way to connect with the people who need it.
The Map on this page is by Stamen Design and is being used under CC BY 3.0. Map Data by OpenStreetMap, under ODbL. It has been edited by Doreen Traylor.

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