What would your hometown do with $3 million?
On Wednesday, 15 small American towns learned that they've been selected as semifinalists in competition that will award the winner with a $3 million prize.
America's Best Communities, which is sponsored by Frontier Communications, DISH Network, CoBank and The Weather Channel, is intended to spark entrepreneurialism and revitalize U.S. towns with populations between 9,500 and 80,000. Investment is sorely needed in many small communities, which are still struggling to get back to get their economies back to where they were before the recession. In mid-2015, rural employment was still 3.2% below its 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while employment in urban areas has surged well above its pre-recession peak.
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Launched in 2014, the competition began by winnowing down the 400-plus entries to 50 quarterfinalists in April of last year. Each one was given $50,000 in seed money to create a plan to boost the community—and paired with a corporate sponsor to provide advice. From that first cut, the following 15 communities have been selected to continue the process—which will ultimately award the winner $3 million and the second and third place finishers with $2 million and $1 million, respectively. Those prizes will be awarded in April 2017.
The program is the brainchild of Maggie Wilderotter, now executive chairman of Frontier Communications, and previously the company's CEO for more than a decade. (CEO Trivia alert: Wilderotter is also the sister of Campbell Soup Company chief Denise Morrison.) She stopped by Fortune on Wednesday to talk about the competition.
The idea was sparked by Wilderotter's visits to some of the 40,000-some communities served by Frontier, many of which are quite small and rural. "I really got to see how communities worked," says Wilderotter. "And I said, 'What if we looked at creating the next great American city business model, and to use smaller communities as the incubation for that?'"
She's been thrilled by the response—and by many of the projects that have come out of the contest. As an example, she cites Valparaiso, Indiana, which focused on upgrading the spaces where the community can gather together, adding features like an art walk and ice rink. The changes will attract more businesses, says Wilderotter, but also more people who are looking for a town with a strong community environment.
"There are no losers in this contest," said Wilderotter. "In talking to a number of the communities they all think they won, because it was a catalyst for them to work together to improve lifestyles and livelihoods where they live."