I last left off this series by discussing how local businesses may be inadvertently encouraging the success of Wal-Mart. To refresh your memory, the question under discussion is “Under what circumstances does having a Wal-Mart seem like a good idea?”

Now lets look at the vision Little Falls has of itself and see if there are contributing factors.

Quick, without thinking, what is the economy of Little Falls based on? If you answered agriculture and industry, you’re correct on one score. That is precisely what most everyone in this area says the economy is based on. Have you noticed that most family farms have been replaced by a few large corporate farms? Have you noticed that the creameries in Little Falls are gone? We have a couple of feed stores, sure, but how much of our economy is truly based on farming anymore?

Now let’s look at industry. Well, we do have a few big ones. There are the boat works, Larson and Crestliner. We have some machine shops, the ethanol plant, IWCO, the Little Falls Granite Works . . . hmm . . . if you were to add up all of the people employed by businesses typically classified as industry, how many people would that be? Enough to say that our economy is based on industry?

Industry is fine as far as it goes, but when a local economy places great stock in one or two large industries and those industries suddenly see a down-turn, there goes the economy. Small businesses are actually the saving grace of the economy and they employ more people in aggregate in Minnesota than large businesses do. It took me only a few keystrokes to find this information online, so this is fairly common knowledge, yet it seems that Little Falls doesn’t exactly act on this knowledge when it comes to economic development.

Community Development of Morrison County, an organization which has its office in Little Falls, concentrates almost exclusively on trying to attract big industries to the city. Community planners trip all over themselves in order to land the big fish, yet shrug and walk away from individuals who express an interest in starting small businesses. The City has no formal way to deal with or keep track of home businesses, which have exploded in popularity with the internet. (I’m not indicating that the City should micro-manage home businesses or place ridiculous restrictions on them or tax them into oblivion. Quite the contrary. There are plenty of state and federal laws and local zoning ordinances for home-based businesses to follow. I’m merely passing along the suggestion of a friend that there be some sort of registry of home businesses kept by the City, with a nominal fee to cover the cost of the registry.) How many home-based businesses are already employing people in the City? How much money are these businesses bringing into our economy? Wouldn’t that be interesting to know?

Speaking of the internet, if you’re reading this, you are assuredly aware of how the internet has changed our lives. We are now in the Information Age (rather than the Industrial Age), yet the City seems to have missed the memo on this. As the county seat, Little Falls should have been the first city in the area to offer internet access to residents, but it wasn’t. Upsala was. (Go, Upsala!) In fact, the City does not yet have its own website, although I’ve heard that one is in the works. Come on, people! You’ve got at least ten years of catching up to do on this account. If you want to get up to speed quickly, go talk to Ron Kresha of Atomic Learning. That guy’s got technical know-how and creativity oozing from his pores.

So, here Little Falls is, missing the boat because we still think our economy is running on ag and industry. We don’t seem to have the will or creativity or vision to yank ourselves out of this hole. If we did, we might be able to attract or create businesses that would be viable for our local economy in terms of paying living wages, life satisfaction, keeping our brightest young people in the community, and supporting our infrastructure, along with a myriad of other benefits. Diversification – not putting all our eggs in one basket – that’s the answer.

Our vision of our city is not the only thing preventing the development of innovative businesses of all sizes. We also have issues in dealing with competition. In short, existing businesses don’t want any, even though competition is a great prod in improving business practices. It’s not just existing businesses that actively work to keep competition out, but other organizations involved with community development as well. In seeking the cooperation of existing businesses, these organizations tend to cater to them, and thus don’t encourage competition. Mustn’t step on anyone’s toes, even if it works to the detriment of the community as a whole.

What local businesses must realize is that we no longer live in a world where the only competition out there is the shop down the street. With the internet, businesses everywhere are now competing on a world-wide level. That certainly increases the market, doesn’t it? With an internet connection and a credit card, consumers can shop wherever they like and – this is key – they don’t owe local businesses anything. Not one red cent. Local businesses have to earn their customers’ business. Those are the breaks, kid. Better get used to it.

I seem to have rambled a bit with this post, but creativity and vision are important to this discussion, as is the willingness to deal with competition. All are risky activities and most of us are pretty adverse to risk. Having a Wal-Mart, rather than building an economy based on a wide variety of businesses, is the easy route to take. And that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Going googly-eyed,

Phineas F. A. Pickerel

(To be continued.)