Chris and I were invited to speak to the Millbrook Business Association last night.

We moved to Millbrook sixteen months ago. After living in a city all my life it’s still breathtaking to walk outside our house and realize I’m a long par five from the next closest house and a couple of golf courses away in the other direction.

We have big skies in Millbrook, a view I never tire of, and more room than our dogs know what to do with.

Except for six weeks in the spring when allergy season kicks in, it’s easy to see why people stay for generations.

The village of Millbrook lies about ninety miles north of Manhattan with a full-time population of about 5,000. On weekends in the summer, it’s more than that. Though not much. A New York Times article in 2003 described it as a haven. A perfect choice.

A lot of people come here to ride. Apparently if you love sailing you go to the Hamptons. If you love riding you come here. Whatever the reason, some of the estates have to be seen to be believed.

Like a lot of towns and villages around America, Franklin Street - Millbrook’s Main Street - has been hit by the recession. A reality that impacts the surrounding service businesses as well. In three and a half hours last night we met a head master, two architects, an insurance broker, a real estate agent, two landscape designers, a publisher, a designer, a hardware store owner, a general contractor, a bookshop owner, and a maker of the most delicious french-style tarts you’re ever likely to come across.

Millbrook has an incredible base on which to build. A compelling location. A diverse and invested business community. Some of the most talented artisans I’ve ever encountered. A growing Farmer’s Market. A nascent architectural reclamation project. A proud history. Nationally recognized schools and a lot of smart, sophisticated people interested in the welfare of the village and the surrounding area.

Like a lot of small communities it’s trying to decide its future. A challenge brought current by the collapse of the economy and the malling of America.

Small towns are organizations. Looser and more divergent, perhaps. But still able to combine the diverse skills of individuals to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Historically, they were created for a variety of reasons. Some geographic. Some politic. Most of which have disappeared over time as transportation has evolved, communications have accelerated and sprawl has taken cities further into rural America.

Today, many exist out of tradition or habit. Values diminished by time and widespread economic frailty. And a poor foundation from which to build a vibrant future.

In this week’s local paper - a blessing in and of itself- I read a letter to the editor. It suggested that small-towns across America need to define themselves differently if they are first to survive. And then to thrive.

They need to become experiences, the writer concluded. To give people a reason to come.

A good starting point I think. But one that does not go quite far enough.

Before any organization can define how it should present itself, it must first establish its Purpose.

A focal point that defines the essential values of a community, and coalesces interests and innovation in ways both indigenous and organic.

This establishes a process that allows a community to define the inevitability of change on its own terms.

The alternative is to resist change in the name of small-town America. Which ensures two things.

That change, when it comes, will not be pleasant.

And the great American Main Street of yesterday will be most easily found at Disneyworld.

In Paris.