This piece is inspired by Bo Wright’s recent article about his move to a midsize Rust Belt city and away from a small southern town as well as by a recent Strong Towns podcast episode that featured Catherine Austin Fitts, who shared the concept of a “Popsicle Index”. Today, Strong Towns member Haile McCollum is making the case for why she's staying in her small southern town
Having bounced from coast to coast and a few places in between (5 states before my 19th birthday) I found myself with a profound need to find my place, a place that I felt fully at home. A place to put down roots. A place where my future kids could walk to get a popsicle.
14 years ago we chose to move to a small southern town called Thomasville in southwest Georgia, where both my husband and my mother both grew up. We did this for a handful of reasons:
Property was incredibly cheap.
It had a walkable downtown, a deep appreciation for historic preservation and good schools.
It had a history of 100 years of pretty good civic decisions behind it.
It seemed like a great place to raise a family.
All of that seemed good on paper, but we did have to take a big risk. Neither of us had jobs, and those are hard to come by in small towns.
I started a small printing and design business that, within three years, was employing 11 people. My husband bought a 1,200 square foot 1920s bungalow for $35,000. It didn’t have sheetrock, HVAC, plumbing or electricity. He lived in a Shasta camp trailer (an old one, with wings!) behind an insurance office in town until the house was ready to live in. He rehabilitated about 10 houses and sold them for a profit (not a big profit, but an incremental one) in the first few years. He eventually built this start into a successful real estate brokerage firm.
Today, I'd like to reflect on why we are staying in Thomasville. It’s not that we don’t think about other places—we play the “if you could move anywhere” game pretty often—but here's what's keeping us in our town:
We both started businesses from scratch. Both of our businesses are what I would call place-based. My husband’s real estate brokerage is more successful than my branding and design business if you measure in dollars. However, I’d say mine is pretty successful if you measure it based on impact on the community. I’ve built a better community by helping businesses to build better brands. We have both built capital over the last 14 years and our city is part of our success. Neither of us can imagine doing what we do anywhere else. Our businesses are built to serve the community we live in.
The Chance to be Change Agents
We both have a desire to be change agents and to give back to our community. In a small town it’s easy. You just need to show up. My husband has been, and is about to be again, the President of the Board of our local preservation non-profit, Landmarks. I am currently serving as the Chair of our city’s Planning and Zoning commission, on the local bank board, on our private school board and as the Chair of our hospital board. In a small town, you can move the needle, make a dent and make a difference. Small southern towns need change and they need folks who can lead it.
Chuck Reese, Editor of The Bitter Southerner, sums it up pretty well in this essay. There is something in the duality of the south that makes you feel deeply. The tension between pride and shame wakes you up and forces you to both share and defend your choice to live in the south.
In a small southern town, you talk to people. A lot. I learned to add on 15 minutes when I go downtown to run an errand (likely to a locally owned shop) so that I can stop and talk. This took some getting used to, but I look forward to it now. Southerners like to be together, in church, on Friday nights at football games, at family reunions and at funerals. Yes, our small southern town is still very socially segregated. But, I’m optimistic about the conversations we are starting to have, the new friends I’ve made in the last few years, our shared sense of place and our common hopes and dreams for our town. We are about halfway through our comprehensive planning process. It has truly been a community building exercise, with over 650 residents showing up at charrette sessions, and it will set us all on a solid path for the future.
At a Crossroads
We are at a crossroads. It’s an exciting time to be working in and on our community. Our population is projected to become older and decline in numbers. Our future depends on recruiting and retaining people who will start businesses, rehabilitate our dilapidated housing and contribute to the community over time. Small southern towns like mine are a good choice for people who want to own a business, rehab a house, start a family and become involved in their city. We have inexpensive office space, high speed internet (our city owns our utilities), empty houses with front porches, good public and private school choices and over 100 active non-profits to get involved in.
Our city is not a good choice for someone who wants to work for a large corporation, pay lots of rent to live in a new high-rise apartment building, drive to a Whole Foods for their groceries and drink micro-beer in a different brewery each weeknight. But I’m not sure I want to live next door to those folks anyway.
We need to continue to make sure that our Popsicle Index rises by keeping a laser focus on making our community more wonderful. This includes ensuring that our businesses are locally run, that more money stays in our community instead of being sucked out by large corporations and that we are making decisions locally which will serve us well into the future.
Our city is well funded—even our pension plan is fully funded. Our city has no property taxes. Our city can control suburban development, encourage infill and offer incentives because they own the utilities. Our city is building a community trail that will connect our parks, schools and neighborhoods. Our city is focused on recruiting businesses that will make local decisions and keep dollars here. Our city supports historic preservation. Our city is not without challenges, but it’s moving in the right direction.
I want to share our city’s possibility with a broader audience to make sure that our city remains a vibrant place to live and work. I want to make sure our intellectual capital doesn’t walk out the door. And I want to make sure that my children might even want to raise a family here.
I don’t have to ask permission, I’m showing up and moving the needle. That’s why I’m staying put.
(All photos by the author)
About the Author
Haile McCollum is the Owner of FM Brand and Design, a three-woman design studio. FM Brand and Design helps communities, small business and non-profits with brand strategy and visual identity projects. In addition to running her brand and design studio, Haile’s is the Creative Director of Thom, a bi-annual arts and culture magazine. Haile has a B.S. in Human Development from Vanderbilt University and an M.F.A. in Graphic design from The Savannah College of Art and Design. She lives in a historic house in Thomasville with her husband, Ben, her two boys, Parker (123) and William (10) and their two Spaniels, Max and Judge.