Bart Russell wasn’t born in a small town.
And he’s got nothing against the big town.
But as the man who President Ronald Reagan once dubbed “the Voice of Small Town America” reflects on his career that includes 36 years of advocating for small towns, it’s clear that he’s seen it all in a small town — and he’s had himself a ball in a small town.
Russell, 62, recently retired as executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST), a role that he held for 18 years. Prior to that, he served as the founding executive director of the Washington, D.C.,-based National Association of Towns and Townships and president of that organization’s educational arm, the National Center for Small Communities.
A Bayport Beach & Tennis Club resident since 1999, Russell isn’t planning to just sit back and savor life in the small town of Longboat Key.
Instead, he recently announced the launch of Everything Small Town, a web portal that Russell said would eventually be a “community of communities.” It will feature information such as census stats, demographic figures, information about local initiatives and links to websites of local municipalities and local organizations such as chambers of commerce for small communities that are often overlooked.
Russell began advocating for small towns in 1976, when he became the founding executive director of the National Association of Towns and Townships (NATaT). But he feels like small towns have been in his blood for much longer.
He was born in the suburban community of Manchester, Conn., but often visited Newport, R.I., where his father and grandfather owned a butcher shop. He loved the towns his family stopped at on the small roads along the way that were home to places such as Z.Z.’s Diner, where they often ate.
Russell began his career with a consumer protection agency before the newly established NATaT hired him after a national search.
At the time, groups such as the League of Cities and National Organization of Counties had access to prominent politicians, while small towns lacked a voice.
“They were the Rodney Dangerfields of local government worlds,” Russell said. “The first job was to establish a presence for local communities that in and of themselves represent millions of people in rural and suburban America.”
Russell is now looking forward to promoting small towns in a way that doesn’t involve politics. He’s genuinely interested in off-the-beaten path destinations. He’d rather drive down U.S. 301 — which is home to one of the country’s most notorious speed traps in Waldo — than reach his destination faster on the highway.
Still, Russell is partial to Longboat Key, where he has lived for the past 13 years. He cites the amenities, such as the beaches. But there’s also the active citizenry that shows up at Longboat Key Town Hall.
“It’s kind of like democracy in action,” Russell said. “You can touch it, you can feel it, you can participate in it.”