By Dean Whittaker

The play the Music Man that I saw at the Goodman Theater recently reminded me of economic development. The play was written in 1957 and is about the misadventures of a traveling salesman posing as Professor Harold Hill, a music instructor, who attempts to bilk residents of a
small rural Iowa community by selling them musical instruments, sheet music and lessons. He convinces all but the mayor and the town librarian that the community needs a boys band to keep the boys from being corrupted by hanging out in the new pool hall (owned by the mayor).

Over the course of a few days, Professor Hill signs up a number of boys in the band and collects deposits for the purchase of instruments, sheet music and uniforms. Throughout the play, Professor Hill tries to win-over the librarian but she discovers his credentials are fraudulent. Lacking eligible bachelors in the small, rural Iowa community, the librarian’s mother encourages to accept the advances of the traveling salesman.

By now, you are probably wondering what this has to do with economic development. For me, the “music man” is the newly hired economic development director that has sold the local board on hiring him/her to restore the economic vitality to the rural communities that have lost
their economic reason to exist. These farm-to-market towns once served a thriving farming community. Over time, farming changed from being a family farm of a few hundred acres to the corporate farm of several thousand acres. The efficiencies achieved by farming large tracks of
land with massive equipment by the corporations displaced the small family farmer and the need for the businesses that supported them.

Today, we see “trouble in River City” with boarded up hardware stores, drug stores, implement dealers, and even the grocery stores have closed. Schools consolidate as population declines with the young moving to the “big city” for better economic opportunity. Yes, there is “trouble
in River City” as the play says. I grew up in one of these rural farming communities, Earlville, IL. Pop. 1,500. All that is left of its once thriving retail sector are three bars, a Casey’s gas station, a bank and a new Dollar General store at the edge of town. Groceries are a forty mile round trip to a Walmart. Those who own some of the most productive land in the world, now lease it to the corporations to farm. Rural farm-to-market towns have lost a large part of their economic reason to exist.

Economic Development is about hope for a better future. Is there hope for these rural communities? Yes, I think so. I think the hope lies in a digital future enabled by broadband fiber services that allow for remote digital work to be done in these bucollic, low stress, non-urban environments, especially those within an hour to two of a major metropolitan area.

Currently, remote work is being performed by over 30 million workers on a full or part-time basis. Hope is in connectivity. Work moves and people stay put. As the “music man,” I have spent a career doing my best to help communities improve their local economies by dreaming of a better future and turning those dreams into a reality. In the meantime, I did fall in love with the librarian, married her and just celebrated our 25th wedding

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