November 21, 2016|By Abbi Peters| Community Development

I was instantly blown away upon arriving for The Conservation Fund’s annual Balancing Nature and Commerce in Rural Communities and Landscapes workshop at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Everything about the design of the facility was so thoughtful. I was inspired, how could I not be? I was also excited for the opportunity to talk about the truly amazing things that have been happening throughout the Pennsylvania Wilds over the past 10+ years. Even though I was new to the organization at the time, I was not new to its work, mission or importance in our region.

NCTC ConservationLeadershipNetwork USFWS003Participants attend the Balancing Nature and Commerce workshop here, at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I was slated to present on day 1 of a 3-day course in which community-based teams focused on “the economics, community character, natural resources, and partnership-building skills necessary for creating sustainable communities.” As the workshop progressed through the day, topics included “Trends, Tools, and Sustainable Tourism for Rural Communities” and “Mapping your Assets,” which ultimately led to my presentation during the final session of the day “Case Studies on Thriving Rural Communities.” The group of approximately 30 was welcoming and warm so my nerves were quite at ease as I stepped in front of the room to discuss the various successes of the Pennsylvania Wilds.

I was so inspired by the workshop that I can’t keep this information to myself, so I’d like to share my top takeaways from the workshop with you.

  1. A city without a past is a like a man without a memory—so as a community, town, village, city or region tell your story. Even if it’s a bad one, you can always flip the narrative and bring out the good as a valuable learning experience.

  2. Be genuine and authentic. Did you know that to millennials interesting and authentic is more important than predictable and comfortable? (hello rapid success and popularity of AirBnB)

  3. Quality of life is key. Enough said.

  4. There is quantifiable evidence that a view has value. Rooms with a view are always worth more – remember this if your entire community is a great view – people will want to see it!

  5. Growth is about choices—so be a good neighbor!

  6. Good design is good for business. Design choices can create and enhance community character. Did you know that every chain retailer has 3 design choices for building their store? Plan A is cookie cutter, Plan B has a variation and Plan C can actually match the character of your community. All you have to do is ask. The PA Wilds Design Guide thoughtfully lays out choices for community character and recent Champion of the PA Wilds winner Subway restaurant in New Bethlehem is great example of the design implementation.

  7. The image of your community is vital to its success. Why would anyone want to invest in your community if you don’t want to?

  8. Leverage your partnerships. If group A will donate money then ask group B for volunteers and approach group C for additional funding based on the successes from projects with group A and B. Rinse and repeat.

  9. Community character matters. Refer to takeaways 1-7.

  10. The journey is as important as the destination. This is true if you are traveling through the country side or building a new community center – each step of the process is just as important as the final result.

  11. Assess your assets. Within your community/region you are surrounded by assets of historical, cultural and natural value. Link your assets/sites together and have the whole be greater than the sum of its parts.

  12. Be a placemaker! There’s a reason the quote “If you build it they will come” still resonates beyond a cornfield in Iowa. Each individual has the ability to contribute to the greater good of their community in a number ways, both small and large. It’s your place – why not make it great?

  13. MiddlesboroKentucky is a magical city. No really it is, you know why? Because as the community devised their improvement plan, they included that as a goal so they strive to achieve their magic in little and big ways throughout the city.

  14. Get up and do something creative in your community! Citizen-initiated actions can make your place better and cost $500 or less. Pop up events are a great way to get things moving for little investments. Better Block projects are happening across the nation so get inspired here. And once you do something share via social media #BetterPlaces #BetterMainStreet and email

  15. “I’m from here, I’m from here, now.” – Bob Dole. Say it loud, proud and with authority. You may be new to a place and people might want to know where you’re from, as a type of initiation or a way to build trust, and your answer should always be “I’m from here, now”. If you truly love where you live and have a passion to see it succeed it only matters that you call it home now.

CLN logoThe Balancing Nature and Commerce Workshop is a unique experience for any rural or gateway community to be inspired, just as Abbi was, to develop the skills and capacity to build a thriving community. At this 3-day course, your team will identify opportunities to differentiate your community based upon your unique assets, have the opportunity to hear the latest trends in sustainable economic development and safeguarding sense of place practices, and develop specific action plans for implementation upon returning home.

To learn more about the workshop and how you can form a team to attend the course, click here or contact Katie Allen, Director of the Conservation Leadership Network, at