A manager from a small town wrote to me asking what trade would work on empty land.
This city had acquired an old industrial site with 30 acres of empty land in the middle of the city. They would like to build a city in a city, perhaps a mix of residential and commercial. To get there, they drew up a list of businesses and other uses that could work.
Do not plan!
Rather than creating a complete plan, I proposed many experiments to determine what could work in their specific situation.
I have no list of companies that will work, because of course they differ from one place to another. The right answers will emerge from tests, experiments, temporary projects and tiny essays. That's how you learn what will work.
Experience your path to prosperity
Here are the steps that I think would make sense to occupy any empty parcel of land in a small town:
- Ask many people in the area what they want to see in your city. Start a public discussion. Talk to everyone about your goal. Ask everyone in town what they want to see. Ask the schoolchildren, ask the adults, ask the elderly, ask people from different ethnic or linguistic groups. Organize a contest of ideas, sketches, models or company plans. Start a hashtag online. Let everyone add their photos, ideas, thoughts and opinions.
Your goal is not only to receive ideas, but also to make everyone think about the role they could play.
This is essential because it is not just the small group of people officially in charge of making the decisions; it's about bringing the whole community together to come together to create it.
- Start with events and temporary projects right now. At each event, post pictures and sketches of what it could be, many different versions, and invite people to add items. What kind of events could you do? Organize a picnic and talk about what the region might be like. Make pop-ups in stands, tents or trailers. Organize a dance party. Even if the floor is rough, you can drag and smooth a little space to use it. Our article on roofless buildings contains many other ideas. Do a lot of things at the same time, or let them overlap, or let the groups work on different things at the same time.
Your goals are to start using this space to spark your enthusiasm and have a lot of people test different ideas to see what works in your city.
- Build gradually. After learning about your pop-ups and your temporary fun, add temporary structures. Think of garden shelters like Tionesta, Pennsylvania. Cleveland, OH, used shipping containers. (Las Vegas, Tulsa and other big cities as well.) Temporary structures offer a little more permanence at the lowest possible cost. It is a step forward.
You are not risking millions of dollars to redevelop the entire territory in one go with an untested plan. You are using what you have already learned and you are giving people more places and better places to experiment more.
Add some permanent structures, such as fully constructed buildings, at a time, and discover proven ideas for using them. All these temporary tests give you proof of what works here. And you can continue doing all the temporary things that still work, in addition to continuing to experiment. Let things change according to what you learn. Do not be afraid to change plans or remove something that does not work.
- Include a lot of tiny spaces. Right now, there are people in your city who have the seeds of a business. Maybe they only have the idea and want to try, or maybe they sold to friends or at an event. The next thing they need is a small space to grow. The best thing for them to do is to make one of these small spaces available. Include minimal retail spaces, tiny office spaces, tiny workshops.
Shared spaces allow more people to try ideas, which allows you to create a continuous pool of potential new entrepreneurs.
When you create small spaces, you allow more small entrepreneurs to grow. When you create more small entrepreneurs, you fill the pipeline with future successful businesses. When you create better businesses, your entire city thrives.
In the event of major development of vacant land, public servants will be in great demand to develop a master plan and stick to it. This is the biggest mistake you can make. There is no way for an expert to predict what will work next year or in 50 years. But your own people can come together, experiment, have fun, try things and gradually build something that is a great asset to your entire community for decades and centuries to come.
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About Becky McCray
Becky launched Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share stories and ideas of building businesses and rural communities with other small businessmen. She and her husband own an Alva, Oklahoma liquor store and a small ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.
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