No matter how good an idea is, or how much support and resources are provided, economic development ultimately needs people who champion projects and see them through. Merriam-Webster defines an entrepreneur as someone who “organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise”. Taking smart risks is key in community development, therefore the institutions that support, educate, and empower new leaders are key to their success. Jessalyn Sabin, cofounder of the Iron Range young adult community ReGen, shared with us her concern that leadership is not fostered in rural areas.
“We don’t really focus on young people [on the Iron Range] because there’s this assumption that they don’t exist, they leave, they don’t come back, and the ones that are here aren’t engaged, so they are ignored” (Jessalyn Sabin, ReGen, Hibbing Community College).
Leadership and entrepreneurial problem-solving are crucial ingredients in creating vibrant towns, and young, potential leaders need institutions and programs that catalyze them.
Located in southwest Colorado’s La Plata county, the city of Durango started as a boomtown supplying mining camps in the surrounding San Juan mountains. Although it still impacts the economy, mining declined in the 1950s, and Durango shifted to become a tourist destination with investments in quality of life. It succeeded, livability.com recently ranked Durango the 3rd most livable small town in the US. It has exciting festivals, and its downtown buzzes with more restaurants per capita than Denver.
On its surface, Durango has very similar assets to towns on the Iron Range. It is over 200 miles from a metro area, has a stock of old buildings, quality educational institutions, a similar sized population, strong outdoor recreation options, and a heritage of mining. We think Durango can provide lessons on successful community engagement and entrepreneurial leadership. We hope these cases will show what is possible in small towns for fostering a strong community of leaders and entrepreneurs.