DeLand, Fla.: Classic revivalist
Then: Conceived in the 1870s as an "Athens of Florida" (emphasizing education and culture) by baking soda baron Henry DeLand, the small but big-thinking central Florida community gave rise to grand Victorian homes and Stetson University before succumbing to financial hardship, deteriorating neighborhoods and 75 percent downtown vacancy in the mid-1980s.
Now: After a magical civic recovery an hour from Disney World, downtown DeLand's rows of shops, restaurants and museums along Woodland Boulevard and Indiana Avenue include the restored 1921 art deco Athens Theater, nearby Artisan Alley and a revived Garden District that inspired an award-winning documentary about urban renewal.
Wow: Housed in the basement of an old bank building, the Mainstreet Grill has been voted DeLand's best restaurant for more than a decade, and serves a "Spectacular Sunday Brunch Buffet" to prove it.
Libertyville, Ill.: Revival, take two
Then: Established as a bedroom community for Chicago's elite in the early-mid-20th century, Libertyville receded into drab suburb status in later decades. Its first stab at revitalization in the 1960s -- a poorly conceived series of modernization projects dubbed Operation Face-Lift -- led only to more boarded-up storefronts over the next 20 years.
Now: Unveiling its old Victorian facades and regaining its roots as a homey, Midwestern Americana detour from the big city, Libertyville's four-block epicenter along Milwaukee Avenue (35 miles from the Loop, and a world apart) is lined with boutiques, foodie shops and an important microbrewery (Mickey Finn's) on Windy City pub hop maps.
Wow: If it's Thursday between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m., it's Farmer's Market time (June-October) on Church Street across from Cook Park -- a tradition for more than three decades.
El Dorado, Ark.: Raising the boom
Then: Home to a 1920s oil rush that brought high hopes, rows of new buildings and 30,000 people to "Arkansas' Original Boomtown," the golden opportunity of El Dorado's namesake gave way to the Great Depression and perpetual economic hardship. By 1980, the town's commercial district was barely ticking.
Now: Thanks to one huge civic mobilization, mass restorations, a new $14.4 million conference facility and a roster of annual festivals, El Dorado has recouped its reputation as "the pride of south Arkansas." The once desolate downtown is now lined with more than 65 specialty shops, eateries, inns and the state's only operating art deco theater.
Wow: Each May, the Bugs, Bands & Bikes festival features thousands of revving motorcycles gathered for a bike show/parade and a two-day Battle of the Bands -- all seasoned with hundreds of pounds of the region's best crawfish.
What's your favorite small town success story? Let us know in the comments section below.