One of the things you learn about in the economics of consumer behavior and the theory of the firm is product differentiation. In a competitive market all goods and services are essentially the same. Competitive pressures assure this.

However, consumers must still choose among the alternatives. Choice is made on things/attributes that seem inconsequential yet determine uniqueness and lead to selection. This is product differentiation. Pizza is pizza – flour, cheese, meat, tomatoes, etc. – but my favorite is tossed as the one tossing sings.

Certainly small things, but they differentiate my favorite from others.

Remember pizza is pizza. While small things are small, they are also the ultimate factors that drive consumer choice. It is the difference that matters.

Theory tells us that choices are made at – let’s call it ‘the margin’. What is the differentiation — ‘the margin’ — of some of the things you buy?

We were in Thomasville, Georgia a few weeks ago. Like many cities Thomasville has shopping centers around the community with TJ Maxx, Publix, Lowes, food chains and on and on. (No Starbucks for some reason?) What is unusual, however, is that they surround a viable, exciting, amazing downtown.

While many cities with the same layout have dying central cores, Thomasville’s is thriving. You find a wide variety of retail, restaurants, bars, and most important, many shoppers and downtown residents. Heritage is also on display. This past weekend was their annual Victorian Christmas that brought 30,000 people to downtown. Yes, 30,000!

What is their margin? What differentiates Thomasville and its downtown from so many other cities and their failing and dying cities cores?

Being the economic sleuth I am, I decided to talk to someone in every store we went in — and I mean every store. I also talked to city, community, and business leaders.

Here is their ‘margin’ I think? Thomasville has a unique economic development model. Their premise starts out simply — the quality of life is dependent on economic development. However, what follows is not that simple.

While many cities take economic development wherever and whenever it occurs, Thomasville assumes that it begins in downtown and works its way out in the community.

Development begins at the center and moves out. Most cities develop randomly — we take our victories wherever they occur. In Thomasville, downtown drives everything else.

If public investment is called for, the first places to set priorities is downtown and surrounding communities. From what I can tell, everyone is committed to this model.

Another point that was stressed was total inclusion of all interested parties.

They talk to one another all the time. Government also tries very hard to be service oriented toward the small business owner. Big businesses looking at Thomasville as a potential location see that small businesses matter to government.

Therefore, the big business knows that it will matter too.

I could go on and on. Better yet — go to Thomasville. Eat at Jonah’s Fish and Grits — the wait is worth it and the hushpuppies are a gift of love.

What does this tell us about our home? First, I love Brunswick and the Golden Isles. Our entrepreneurship program and downtown go hand in hand.

Several years ago, a community vision statement was created by a some folks.

It reads: “Working together to make Brunswick and the Golden Isles an exceptional place in Georgia to live, work and visit by strengthening our communities and enhancing the quality of life.” It is being adopted by many organizations in the community.

Maybe, just maybe, we need to focus less on adopting it and more on talking to one another about the issues it raises. Another thing that I learned from the folks of Thomasville: this all takes time. A young lady said to me, “We love our children and grandchildren more than we fuss with each other.”

So let’s talk. Let me worry about how to encourage this conversation.

I may have an idea or two in my next column.

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