Thinking Small, Living Big: A new definition of ‘best’

Was paging through a magazine over lunch and noticed a “Best Places to Live 2011” story. There’s nothing unusual about that – magazines do that same tired story relentlessly… probably because it sells an extra stack of issues in whatever cities make the list.

Usually they all come out the same: Leave skid marks, hicks. move to Seattle, San Diego, Miami, Denver or wherever else they have lots of trendy clubs populated by people in desperately slinky clothing, and lots of restaurants where you pay $300 for a meal the size of a quarter surrounded on the plate by a dipsy-do drizzle of Peruvian chocolate. Cities with big malls with fashion stores that sell mink sweat pants and big gyms and jobs in glassed-in skyscraper offices and singles condos with hot tubs in the living rooms.

But wait, what is this? This list, courtesy of Men’s Journal, uses a different set of criteria – green spaces, bike trails, farmers’ markets, low house prices, the kind of funky little stores you might actually enjoy shopping at. This is a major reversal in thinking, people. Perhaps America is really starting to realize that bigger isn’t necessarily better.

And I was proud to note that Storm Lake has a foothold in nearly every single criteria for happy living mentioned in this particular “study.”

indeed, the worm has turned.

when I was a rookie reporter here, and SLADC was just getting started in Storm Lake, the conventional thinking was that you had to chase development at any cost, you had to have a bigger warchest than the next town, and you had schmoose more creepy corporate CEOs at more cocktail parties than the next town.

It was a “bigger is better” mentality. I typed the quote “you’re either growing or you’re dying” a lot of times. It never felt right, but we spent a lot of time and cash chasing smokestack industries that didn’t necessarily provide very good jobs for people. we would have done anything to get big-box stores or a cookie-cutter shopping mall, or even more chain fast-food joints.

these days, not so much. We’ve realized we don’t need polluting industries or ill-paying, low-benefit jobs. we don’t need developments that waste our water resources and demand giant tax concessions from our taxpayers.

We’ve started to realize that we do big things by doing small things. We’ve started to encourage small local developers to build houses, and done it ourselves with Habitat for Humanity. We’ve started to see development as fostering an idea by a small local entrepreneur for a business or store. We’ve started to look to expand trails and make skating rinks on the lake. We’re talking about a community arts center and a cultural designation. A bigger library. Nature center. Skate park. We’ve added waterparks, two new beaches, disc golf course, better camping, cabins, concerts on the lakefront, better youth and college sports facilities.

We’re starting to realize that lifestyle has more to do with trees and water and music and snow sculpture and unique meals that somebody actually makes with their hands right here. Our newer stores sell funky trade goods from around the world, or health food and artisan handmade goods.

Just the kind of things the magazine’s “Best Places to Live” cities have done.

in places like Storm Lake, we may not often enough stop to consider all of the good things we have going for us.

I have friends in L.A., New York, London and other major cities who just can’t imagine how I am able to live “in the sticks.” they make it sound like a scene from “Deliverance.” until they visit here, and don’t want to leave.

To start with, I can breathe here. I might not make big city money, but neither do I need to spend $2 million for a decent fixer-up two-bedroom abode. I can jog at 2 a.m. through the parks and downtown and never worry. I don’t burn gas for an hour commute in heavy traffic to get to work every day, I bike it in 13 pretty minutes. I have a beach, woods, rec trail, upscale restaurant, golf course, garden with fountains, playground, outdoor concert site and marina within walking distance out my front door. I don’t move a block in any direction without getting a friendly wave from somebody, and I know most of the names of the dogs people walk past my place. High fashion here is fleece and denim, and I’m comfortable with that.

I believe this is what you call “lifestyle.”

All this means we’re good, not perfect by any means.

we can learn from the list of best Places – like a municipal Robin Hood, steal ideas from the rich.

in Boulder, Colo., nearly 15 percent of residents volunteer on a committee the constantly builds and maintains trails. in Durango, “Happy Hour” isn’t a bar – it’s a 5 p.m. Friday ritual with everyplace shutting down to go float past town on inner tubes.

in Memphis, a LaunchMemphis program is a boot camp to get young entrepreneurs funded and started in promising local businesses. Project Green Fork certifies restaurants that serve locally-grown food.

Fargo has revitalized an aging downtown into a hip historic area to live, work and visit, and in the process, achieved 96 percent employment.

Northhampton bought 120 acres of historic agland and started a community farm that attracts urban refugees like a magnet, does a booming business in organic foods and keep local food pantries stocked.

Frisco, Texas, puts a large percentage of its tax revenue straight into fitness and athletic facilities, and as a result has tripled its population and reduced median age to 32. Minneapolis has developed 128 miles of rec paths and encouraged the country’s highest bike commuting rate, with so much parkland that it can say no resident of the city is ever more than six blocks from a greenspace. (Turning old downtown buildings into awesome loft apartments didn’t hurt, either.)

Grand Rapids boasts Momentum, which awards budding entrepreneurs start-up cash and is in part responsible for the highest percentage of LEED-certified eco-friendly buildings per capita in the counrty. It offers a prize competition for local artists which has spurred development of a great arts colonly. A culinary training program utilizing local talent has already churned out ten grads who have established great new restaurants, and 10 craft breweries.

Portsmouth has Portsmouth Listens, small study groups around town that guide city planning in innovative ways. one resulting development is a community greenhouse that makes a huge farmers’ market a year-around attraction. Jacksonville, Oregon has an outdoor music festival where people go every evening for a picnic and tunes, making it the place for up-and-coming bands to base.

Philipsburg, Montana established an old-fashioned soda fountain that draws in tourism. Lousiville, Kentury has Whiskey Row, converting old warehouses into trendy little businesses and eateries. Greenville, SC, has NEXT, where start-up techies share coffee, funding and ideas. Cedar Rapids, Mich. hosts kayak laps on the river. San Luis Obsico actually banned fast-food drivethroughs.

the best are now developing vibes, not just factories.

Thinking Small, Living Big: A new definition of ‘best’

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