Community has role in developing entrepreneurs

By : 
Reflections from my Notebook

During one of the community meetings evaluating the first year of the Rural Entrepreneurial Venture (REV) program, of which Lanesboro, Spring Grove and Spring Valley are taking part in, the subject of community came up. The discussion touched on dozens of wide ranging topics, but it was interesting that the social aspect of community would be such a key issue in a program that focuses on business.

The discussion was initiated when Jenn Slifka, a young business owner in Spring Valley, pointed out that her third grader is learning about geography now, and one of the key subjects is “community.”

“He’s learning what community is, but then at the same rate those kids are going home and their parents are on their phones ordering things online and they are using technology, but they’re not necessarily out in the community, so our kids are learning things differently than what we’re showing them,” she said.

As the abstract lessons fade in their minds due to lack of real-life examples, will these future adult citizens ever be able to grasp what makes a collection of residents a true community?

“I think that goes not just for the kids, but that’s just everyone in the community. Too many people have lost that sense,” chimed in Julie Mlinar, who was recently chosen Spring Valley’s Citizen of the Year for her volunteer services.

As discussion continued, Slifka said that people in her age group often work all week, many of them out of town, and then spend most weekends going outside the community for shopping or entertainment, or spending most of their leisure time online and ignoring what is happening in the community they call home.

They are more familiar with what is on certain websites across the world than what is going on right outside their windows. That can make it hard for communities to rally their citizens together or even engage in basic communications.

It’s not just REV cities that are struggling with the changing sense of community. Many civic leaders find concerns about community often begin with an economic focus — getting people to shop locally or trying to attract and expand businesses as the REV communities are doing. However, digging deeper into the problem, often the focus expands to the lack of connection residents have to the community and how that is holding back the health or vitality of a community.

Those community connections seem to be weakening in our modern society and it isn’t just technology that is tearing at the fabric of communities.

Rural towns have lost many independent, locally-owned businesses in recent decades, creating a gap or even a void. Main Street business owners have a stake in the community, and they often rallied together to take care of — through financial contributions, goal-setting or volunteer labor — many issues in the community. Even their support of small-scale causes throughout the year is invaluable to the fabric of the community.

Commuters have become a staple of our communities as many jobs have also left, causing people to seek employment in larger centers. That change hasn’t turned our cities into bedroom communities, but many commuters don’t have the attachment to their communities that people working locally and spending the day in the community do.

Nationwide, it seems, bigger has become better. Businesses consolidate, new tech jobs are often located in already healthy cities with a large labor pool and services are centralized. In Minnesota, local government aid that is a major source of revenue for small cities has been stagnant and state school funding relies more and more on local taxpayers though referendums.

While those trends are mainly economic, they have social repercussions, which have as much, or even more, of a bearing on strong communities.

A 1986 study on sense of community by David McMillan and David Chavis of Vanderbilt University, which is still relevant today, found four factors that consistently show up as attributes of a good community.

• Membership: Residents feel that they are invested in the community, that they have a right to belong and feel welcome.

• Influence: Residents sense that they have some say in the community issues that affect them and that their perspectives are appreciated and respected.

• Integration and fulfillment of needs: The community has numerous opportunities for both individual and social fulfillment, including basic goods and services needs, recreation and desirable social interaction — meeting the needs of the “whole person” in all his or her roles.

• Shared emotional connection: Residents share a part of the history, sense of community and quality of interactions within the community.

In essence, vibrant communities are full of residents with a strong connection or attachment to the community.

Although many leaders chase economic growth in pursuit of a stronger community, the reverse is also true as a strong community can lead to economic growth. A later study by the Knight Foundation found that those communities with the highest level of community attachment also had the highest rates of growth in local gross domestic product.

While the REV program is all about entrepreneurship, it is also much more than that as revealed in the discussions that have unfolded after the first year of the exercise. Building up entrepreneurs in the community may just be about building up the community first.

How to build that strong community foundation is the challenge in a world where the trend is toward technological connections, centralization, mobility and detachment from social institutions.