Driving across state and county roads is a great way to see some of the most beautiful spots in America and gauge how different parts of the country are doing, both economically and socially. It's not for anyone who is in a hurry.
However, it's something that my husband and I do quite frequently because driving to many places in rural America is usually easier than flying. For example, it would take a couple of flights and several hours of drive time even if we tried to fly to our farm near Almont, N.D., or my hometown of Marengo, Iowa.
I recently took the "backroads" from a meeting in Nashville, Tenn., to our office outside of Camdenton, Mo., (population 3,000). It was almost 500 miles and much of the drive involved curvy, windy roads through the Mark Twain National Forest.
But what a beautiful drive it was. Blessed with beautiful trees, lakes, streams and very productive bottomland, it's easy to see why this area would be an attractive place to live — especially for those who love the country life.
I saw new roads and businesses being built in quite a few towns — usually a good sign that the population is growing and the tax base needed for these investments is expanding.
But many of the small towns on my route offered barely more than run down houses, empty storefronts and a post office — a remnant of what used to mean that this town was a central hub of economic activity and now, the only lifeline of some commercial activity.
What makes the difference between a successful small town and another one on the decline?
Part of the answer has to do with local leadership. For every town that I've seen with nice looking storefronts along their city squares and new businesses popping up on the edge of town, I know that there are local leaders who are willing to step up to do the sometimes difficult work required to maintain and attract those entities.
And if you already have a strong tax base, it's easier to make sure there is ample water, sewer, electric, and broadband access that most businesses demand in today's interconnected world.
It doesn't do any good to have a so-called "smart phone" if you can't connect to anything on the internet.
But activity that provides good utilities and economic development is not the only factor attracting people to live and work in small towns, according to David Peters, associate professor and extension rural sociologist at Iowa State University.
In his newest publication "What Drives Quality of Life in Iowa Small Towns?", Peters looks at a variety of factors that attract and keep people in small towns in rural America.
"I have always thought high quality of life was associated with higher incomes, lower poverty and lots of jobs — typical economic factors," Peters said. "What I found instead was that there was no difference in income, poverty levels and mix of jobs in high and low quality of life towns."
The data on quality of life and social conditions used in the publication are from the Sigma Study, a long-term U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded research effort in Iowa. Residents of 99 small towns (population between 500 and 6,000) were surveyed in 1994, 2004 and 2014 and were asked to subjectively rank their community on things like overall quality of life, jobs, medical services, schools, housing, child and senior services, retail and entertainment.
"The strongest driver of quality of life were social capital and civic measures," Peters said. "This study shows participation in a community and whether the community provides social supports, those intangibles are more important. So there are opportunities to increase quality of life in a community without creating more jobs."
Recruiting large businesses to a town can be expensive, time consuming and take a large coordinated effort. Peters found that investing in social capital projects are much less taxing on a small town's limited resources and conceivably, easier to deliver.
"It is within a community's control to get people to participate in projects and efforts within that community," said Peters. "These type of initiatives do not cost a lot of money. The degree in which people participate in the town and feel safe, supported and trusted in the community is something a town can do to better itself."
Raising a town's quality of life can then make it more attractive to others. But certainly, it's not the only thing. That's why it seems important for community leaders to look at the mix of services and cultural amenities offered in each town.
"The hope is that if a town does have a high quality of life, it might be more attractive to new residents or smaller firms that might not create a lot of jobs but who want to be in a community with a quality of life that matters to them," Peters said.
According to the study, overall quality of life has improved in Iowa's small towns over the last 20 years. The only area to decline in that time period has been senior services.
"As the population of small towns age, having quality senior services is more important than it was 20 years ago," Peters said. "Communities are going to need to make a larger effort into making sure seniors have access to good services in those towns or they will risk losing these people, many who have lived in that community for a long time and are leaders in the community, to larger cities where they have access to the services they need."
So, there's probably no silver bullet for making your small town successful. But take a road trip and see what others are offering. Maybe you'll come home with new ideas to make your small town successful.