Building Main Street, not Wall Street: Building a community transformation army

John Newby

John Newby

I came across a LinkedIn post by Jeff Siegler, he lamented how his community kept asking for support for their various planning, chamber, water, and economic development boards. He felt jilted after submitting responses to these requests for four years, with no response. Obviously, they were going through the motions making it appear they were seeking help, but not really wanting it.

This reminded me of a comment by the visionary business leader Tom Peters, he said, “Community organizing is all about building grassroots support. It’s about identifying the people around you with whom you a create a common, passionate cause. And it is about ignoring the conventional wisdom of community politics and instead playing the game by very different rules.”  

The above quote is true for local communities attempting to transform themselves. The dynamic I find with nearly every review of a struggling community is the following. The same dozen or so people dominate nearly every board position in town. It doesn’t really matter whether it is the Chamber board, Main Street board, planning board, economic development board and the list goes on.

It is the same group with a few minor musical chair variations on each board. It has usually been that way for decades. This is one of the biggest issues standing in the way of transformation. One is foolish believing the same group of people overseeing the downward trajectory of the community will be the group that leads a transformation. 

Most successful communities have discovered they need an army, an infusion of new blood, oftentimes, younger blood to spark change. While easily said, it is difficult to do. The old guard isn’t quick to relinquish the reins of control, they cling to that power, even while insisting they welcome new ideas, innovations and thought processes. This is a very real and difficult issue in many communities, one the community must get beyond to succeed. How is the best way to deal with this and create that army needed to adopt or implement change and transfusion?

The fastest way to build an army capable of transforming your community is usually with the assistance of an outsider with no dogs in the hunt so to speak. Kind of like parenting, when the neighbor says the same thing the parents have been saying for years, children listen to the alternative voice. You must piece together a small group of like-minded and energetic community members understanding the need to transform. You then cast a wider net reaching as many community organizations as possible providing a wider array of members representing all age and ethnic groups within the community. All organizations being represented is critical.

What does “all organizations” mean? You need representation from the healthcare arena. You need veterans’ organizations such as VFW and American Legion and others. You need the civic clubs such as Rotary, Kiwanis and like organizations. You must have many of the local church groups. You need representation from education, preferably all levels of education. You need 1st responders meaning police, fire, and rescue. You need the local businesses represented.  After you successfully gather the above, you then need to add the Chamber, Main Street, city government and so forth into the mix – not their leaders, but some of their members.

All these groups have armies of volunteers ready and willing to serve. They often already are asking what they can do to serve their community? Once this group is successfully organized, you will have an army ready to help transform your community one project at a time.

The next step is critical, selecting projects that can excite your local community.  The selection of this project must be one that can be done quickly and effectively. This project must show the power of working together and the rewards of doing so. Next week’s column will cover ideas regarding the perfect projects that begin this process and drive new revenue to the community quickly. Always remember, transformation is a marathon, not a sprint, you must enjoy the workout. 

John Newby, Pineville, MO. is a nationally recognized publisher, community, business & media consultant, and speaker. He authors “Building Main Street, not Wall Street,” a column appearing in 50+ communities. The founder of Truly-Local, dedicated to assisting communities create excitement, energy, and combining synergies with local media to become more vibrant and competitive. His email is: