Book towns and other developments

Hay Literary Festival may seem an odd event to be taking place in a small town of only 1500 people. Entrepreneur Richard Booth is credited with transforming the town into a global attraction for second-hand book lovers after opening his first shop in 1962. Booth, a native of the town, was explicitly looking for ways to boost the local economy and keep local young people in the town. He bought vast quantities of books in the USA where libraries were closing fast and shipped these by the container load  back to Hay-on-Wye, where he ended up storing them in empty buildings across the town.  His example was followed by others, so that by the 1970s Hay had become internationally known as the “Town of Books”.

It was out of this chance set of circumstances that the Hay Festival grew. The Hay Festival of Literature & Arts is an annual literature festival held in Hay-on-Wye, Powys, Wales for ten days from May to June. Devised by Norman and Peter Florence in 1988, the festival was described by Bill Clinton in 2001 as “The Woodstock of the mind”. Over the last three decades, Hay Festival’s audience has grown from 1,000 people to up to a claimed 250,000 visitors.

There have been attempts to copy the example of Hay, with limited success, at least in the UK. Attempts have been made to set up Book Towns in Blaenavon in Wales, Sedburgh in Cumbria and Wigtown and Dalmellington in Scotland. Dalmellington famously ended up as the Book Town with no bookshops, while Blaenavon foundered in disputes between some of the new businesses and the project manager (a former colleague of Booth).

As far as I remember Blaenavon, Wigtown and Sedburgh were all set up as the result of competitions, that curious selection process so beloved of government, deluding themselves – and attempting to delude us – that this in some way is the market at work. It isn’t of course, just the opposite. At the time it seemed to me to be unlikely that any attempt to impose on a locality, especially via government bureaucratic processes, the outcome of a chance set of  circumstances in a different locality, was almost certainly doomed to failure and the experiences of Blaenavon and Dalmellington seem to suggest my cynicism was correct. Such approaches ignore the existing strengths of a town and its local economic ‘actors’ and do more to demonstrate, yet again, the poverty of political thinking in the UK, especially the apparently inbuilt assumption that only centrally directed action can have any chance of success.

So how might a town like Devizes grow and prosper? Here are some ideas:

Economic Gardening  –

Economic gardening is an entrepreneurial approach to economic development that seeks to grow the local economy from within. First pioneered in Littleton, Colorado in 1989, its premise is that local entrepreneurs create the companies that bring new wealth and economic growth to a region in the form of jobs, tax revenues, per capita income, and a vibrant local business sector. Economic gardening seeks to focus on growing and nurturing local businesses rather than hunting for “big game” outside the area.

Littleton’s approach has resulted in a 71 percent increase in employment and a tripling of sales tax revenues (not adjusted for inflation) since 1989–a much higher rate than the region as a whole–while providing no incentives or tax breaks to recruit or attract outside businesses to the city.

Local collective marketing: 

“…a group of merchants on U Street in MidCity, Washington DC formed their own ad hoc group and began a monthly tradition known as the U Street Shopper Social, aka the Third Thursday Shopper Social from 5-8 pm. A dozen or so stores simply came up with their own unique specials, named the event, then let people know through their collective mailing lists. The buzz creates quite a bit of press as well, and recently became a fixture on the neighborhood commercial district’s online calendar.

Budget? Practically nil. Planning time from concept to execution? Days. Bureaucracy? None. Increased sales? A lot higher than that spent on the budget.

and a proposal from Vancouver

…entice a large enough group of businesses in some commercial district to set up a cooperative company that creates a subsidiary investment holding company that engages in stock swaps with each of the participating small businesses such that the holding company comes to own 49% of each small business while the small business owners each come to own some equitable part of the overall holding company. Neither the investment holding company nor the coop that controls it would ever gain controlling interest in any one of the small businesses, but the investment company itself would be one with considerable clout if it came to represent 49% of the interests of an entire district like Commercial Drive….

The holding company could additionally provide benefits to its owners by taking advantage of the economies of scale it could achieve on purchases of business supplies and services like insurance, courier costs, accounting contracts and more.

Enterprise Facilitation:

“Enterprise facilitation works because it encourages more people to seriously think about entering the business arena.”

We know that in a year, in a community of 10,000 people, between 150 and 200 clients will see the local facilitator. Out of these, between 25 and 35 will open a new business or expand an existing one. Between 25 and 60 new jobs will be created with a combined annual turnover of between $5 and $10 million.”

In the end though, progress in any locality depends on the ingenuity and creativity of its residents, not on some preconceived idea. Is it there in Devizes? What ideas are bubbling away out there?

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