Two weeks ago, I was in the beautiful City of San Antonio, Texas for the Texas Economic Development Council’s (TEDC) annual conference. There, 450 economic developers from around the State came together to learn about new opportunities, share updates with one another, and connect in order to discuss the daunting issues that we each face in the journey toward helping our communities to be economically viable and sustainable.
Straight from San Antonio, I flew to Indianapolis, Indiana for the International Economic Development Council’s (IEDC) annual conference where I was able to accept an award on behalf of the City of Saginaw. This organization is the big brother of TEDC; bringing together more than 1,400 professional economic developers from democratic countries around the world for a four-day marathon of trainings, seminars, roundtables, sessions, a massive exhibit hall, and more.
I’ve returned from these conferences with a few things I didn’t have before I left: new ideas for ways that Saginaw can compete in the North Texas market, new professional colleagues and commercial connections that are interested in learning more about this community, insight into projects and programs that other communities undertook, and a few truths that I think are worth sharing. Over the next few blogs, I’d like to talk about each one of these truths, starting with the big one:
I think it is really important to address the fact that Saginaw is not a small town any longer. Although it might have the small town charm of knowing your next-door neighbors, saying hi to the local business owners when you see them, and feeling quaint and nostalgic- from a numbers standpoint we just aren’t in that category. One of the most experienced advocates of Texas small towns and rural sustainability, Lorie Vincent with Acceleration By Design, spoke at one of the sessions about how to define these terms. Lorie has spent her entire career focused on the unique needs and issues facing small towns.
She pointed out that there are only 285 cities in the United States today that have populations in excess of 100,000. Not only does that include major cities like Dallas (pop 1.341 million) and Fort Worth (pop 895,008), it also includes cities like Frisco (186,000), Plano (286,057), Lewisville (106,586), Arlington (392,772), Grand Prairie (193,837), Denton (136,000), McKinney (191,645), Allen (103,383), Carrollton (136,879), and more. In fact, in the DFW Metroplex there are 14 cities with populations larger than 100,000 people- or almost 5% of all cities of that size in the entire United States. And all of this incredible population wealth is consolidated, along with 200 other cities and 30 unincorporated places, in less than 9,000 square-miles.
For small and rural communities, officially defined as those with populations under 10,000, there are a whopping 16,475 of them in the U.S. Why are some of these considered ‘small’ and others considered ‘rural’? That all comes down to their proximity to other places. A ‘rural’ town is one that is isolated from other communities, amenities, and major metropolitan areas. On the other hand, a ‘small’ town such as Roanoke is definitely not isolated from development. As you can imagine, a ‘rural’ community of 5,000 people in the middle of west Texas likely has VERY different concerns and needs from a ‘small’ community of 5,000 in the middle of DFW. If there isn’t a grocery store in a rural town, residents may need to drive miles and miles to fill those needs. That becomes a serious quality of life issue. On the other hand, if a small town of the same size doesn’t have a grocery store, their next door community likely does. They have access readily available to them for what they need. That is because the small town is operating in a larger market due to its proximity to other development.
With a population of over 23,500 (according to ESRI demographic data for 2019), the City of Saginaw is more than double the size of which is defined as a small town. Due to the proximity of Saginaw to Fort Worth, the 13th largest city in the nation, and as part of the massive DFW Metroplex market, we certainly aren’t rural by any stretch. In fact, other than man-made city boundaries that were established at the time of Saginaw’s incorporation in 1949, there is nothing economically that points to Saginaw being small by any means! Our market area is one of the largest and most robust in the nation!
We already have amenities and opportunities within a reasonable commuting distance that most cities in the nation (and across the globe) would be THRILLED to have. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 97% of the nation’s land mass is considered rural, yet only 19.3% of the nation’s population lives in these spaces. Talk about low density! We may feel discouraged that the closest IKEA is 33 miles away from Saginaw, but most cities in the U.S. wish they even had a hospital within that same distance.
When most people say, ‘small town,’ what they mean to say is ‘hometown.’ Being a ‘hometown’ has nothing to do with size, population, market pull, etc. A ‘hometown’ is all about the feeling you have by living in the community and feeling welcomed, valued, noticed, and impactful. It is about neighbors dropping food off to welcome you or when you’re going through life’s ups and downs. It is about communal events and celebrations where you and your neighbors come together to enjoy family, friendship, and kindness. A ‘hometown’ is one that is both familiar and proud- safe and never lonely. And if that is your definition of what being a ‘small town’ is all about, then Saginaw most definitely fits that category.
There are communities all over North Texas, the State, and the nation- cities of ALL sizes- that embrace a hometown mindset and celebrate their hometown pride. Take, for instance, the Town of Flower Mound, where I previously served: In a community of over 73,000 people, we still had neighbors dropping off food to one another and throwing potluck block parties. In Lewisville, with its more-than-100,000 residents, they still have music and movies in the park and people wave and honk at one another everywhere you go. When you go to the grocery store in Keller (47,266) you are almost sure to run into people you know- same for playgrounds or in the line at the Post Office. In the City of Grapevine (53,982), their Main Street is vibrant and often bustling with families and friends catching up and enjoying fresh air. It is certainly true from real examples all around us, that the feeling of comradery and local pride a hometown has comes from the willingness of neighbors to interact positively with one another – not because of the number of people or acreage your community may boast.
What a beautiful thing to keep in mind; that we each can create, with our words, our actions, and through reaching out to welcome newcomers, a beautiful, vibrant, healthy, and happy hometown right where we are, regardless of formal definitions, statistics, or data.