I have been working away at realsmalltowns.com for more than a year now --mostly in isolation, as it is, at this point, just me. So it caught me off-guard last week when an old friend of mine asked for some clarification on my mission, parameters, and business model. Because all of these things are so formed and clear in my own mind, it caught me by surprise that a good old friend might have some questions! But questions help clarify, and I took the opportunity to articulate the concept in writing for others who might be interested:
1) In the big picture, I am trying to promote local economies and strong communities. There seems to be a small but growing movement in this direction, and I would like to help bring attention to those communities that are embracing the values of local economy and having some success with it.
2) The towns that seem to be embracing these values tend to be progressive/forward thinking -though each in their own individual way.
3) The towns that I am looking for are vibrant. They have a very strong sense of self that often revolves around some shared values and vision. So far, most of the towns embrace a respect and reverence for the outdoors and some form of environmentalism, though I can see that as the site grows, there might be other binding community tenets as well. In general, the communities that interest me are both creative and committed to sustainability --economic, environmental, and collective.
4) The towns that I profile generally have populations between 200 and 10,000, but most are 7,500 or fewer. There are a couple that fall a bit outside of this parameter (Truckee, CA is the only one posted so far) and I am open to larger towns (up to 25,000) that share the qualities I am committed to, once the core of the site is built up a bit more.
5) The towns need to have some basic amenities: at least a couple of decent places to stay and eat, and things to do --outdoors (As a rule, I try to promote "silent sports" such as biking, hiking, bird-watching, fishing, snow-shoeing, skiing and the like), arts, music, workshops etc. I usually try to consider whether or not I would enjoy spending at least two full days in a place.
6) The people that I see using this site are typically curious, open and adventurous.
7) Site use/purpose:
I envision the site being used by those who want to plan a vacation that is an alternative to what they may already have on their radar. For instance, let's say someone from the E. coast wants to go mountain biking for vacation. They would most likely have heard of Moab, but would find a great alternative to Moab in Torrey, Utah, and might just prefer the less-touristy option.
As the site develops, I also see it being used by people who are traveling across the country and looking for places to stay that depart from the typical highway-exit-offerings.
Furthermore, people who are looking for inspiration and ways to re-vitalize their own communities, could use the towns featured on the site as a resource.
Finally, most of the towns that I have featured so far seem to have pretty strong artists communities, and I am realizing that those artisans who choose to advertise on the site could use it as a way to present their work to a larger audience by linking to their websites.
8) I am hoping to fund this project by selling ad spaces to local businesses. In my town write-up I might write about certain businesses that stand out to me in one way or another but those write-ups will be totally independent of who chooses to advertise on the site. I'm fairly sure that I could get bigger, national brand advertisers on the site in the way that many bloggers do, but I really want to stay committed to my mission of supporting local businesses, and feel that my current formula is the best strategy in this regard. Corporate ads would not only take away from the aesthetic of the site, but would also diminish the strictly local feel of it. Obviously, if I cannot get enough support from local people I might have to reconsider this plan. (In keeping with my mission, I am trying to keep the cost of my ad spots very low in price ---$99/YEAR (< $9/month) for a listing in the town directory, and $299/YEAR ($25/month) for one of the "featured sponsor" spots running down the side of the page. These spots will be limited to 8/town and if folks click on a "featured sponsor" logo it will take them to that business's website.)
As far as the final assessment of whether a town qualifies or not, I must admit that much of it is intuitive, and I have to stand by that. I know this may be a difficult for some business-minded people to wrap their minds around, but in the end, that's what it boils down to. There are certain guidelines in place, but a place just has to feel right. Towns can be similar to people in this regard...you know how sometimes you meet a person and immediately there is a spark of interest and delight? That's what I like to feel when I am visiting a real, small town!