When Gary DeLange opened the doors to his flower shop a year ago in Shelley, he had no idea he was following in the footsteps of the town's founder.

The 49-year-old former history teacher and Spokane-area high school basketball coach came to a hard-headed and practical decision to peddle roses."When you can't find a job, you make one," DeLange said.

Experts say Idaho's small towns are at an economic and social crossroads and will need a rush of new settlers like DeLange to carry them into the 21st century, much as John F. Shelley led the town he built into the 20th.

Shelley was drawn to the Upper Snake River Plain for softhearted and unpractical reasons - the sage and blooming wildflowers. And in 1892, he gave up teaching to open the mercantile store. A rail spur followed, and then Shelley finagled to get the famed Idaho russet on the California market.

In an overwhelmingly rural state like Idaho, where less than a mile from the Statehouse dirt roads meander by pasturing livestock, officials are acutely aware of the importance of small towns.

"Government doesn't have the responsibility to see that every business or every community survives," state economist Dick Gardner said. "But I do think we have the responsibility that when a community comes to us looking for help, we ought to be able to help them as best we can."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nine of the 10 Idaho cities with more than 10,000 people posted gains in population in the past decade. But for the state's smaller cities, two-thirds were tacking up the signs of the times at their borders showing fewer people than a decade ago.

Shelley has been lucky. Only a few years ago boarded-up storefronts marked its main street.

"The people who started the businesses were willing to take the risks," Joy Mickelsen, a former Miss Russet for the annual Spud Day, said as she waited tables at the Dutch Treat Cafe.

Now, a flurry of business construction along State Highway 91 has transformed the small community's south side in just the past year.

In a town where the potato is king, the Pillsbury plant keeps 650 workers busy around the clock processing spuds.

The rust-colored roof on the new high school is finished, and home construction has been halted until services can catch up with the population of 3,500.

Many employees from the nearby Idaho National Engineering Laboratory have settled in Shelley, attracted by affordable housing and the fact that there's little need to lock one's door. The last murder was nearly a generation ago.

But even with its newfound growth - bucking the fortunes of most other rural communities - Shelley is not the town it once was.

Gary Nalder, who runs the local funeral home and furniture store, remembers a rocking town when he was a young man on the eve of World War II.

"Generally, on Saturday night, it was the big night to go to the movies. It was standing room only at the Virginia Theater," Nalder said. "Now, you can shoot a cannon down the main street on Saturday night and not hit a soul."

Many Idaho small towns - especially hard-hit mining and timber communities - are also searching for those better days, hoping to find a new niche in an economy they've fallen out of step with.

"In small communities, there is no panacea, there is not going to be any outside savior," Gardner says. "If you have a lot of churning and a lot of activity going on, then you have a vital community, some ability to adapt to changing conditions and someone looking for new opportunities to make something happen."

Rural development "is more than jobs, jobs, jobs," he says. It takes good planning, a potent mix of leadership and entrepreneurs - and a lot of good luck.

In the Panhandle, Wallace wants to capitalize on its history with a mining museum.

Kellogg is dumping its Super-fund image to ride the success of its $11 million gondola up Silver Mountain.

When the mill closed down in Riggins a few years back, businesses sprang up in its place touting the Salmon River's white-water thrills.

And Hagerman, a town known to thousands of Boise residents only as a place to pass through on the way to Jackpot, Nev., has quietly attracted retirees from Mountain Home Air Force Base and refugees from California.

By emphasizing economic benefits unavailable across the Snake River in Oregon, Fruitland in a single year snagged a Coca-Cola bottling plant, a trucking company with a $1 million payroll and several other businesses with hundreds of jobs.

And Victor and Driggs are drawing residents fed up with the growth of Jackson Hole across the border in Wyoming.

Boise State University's Jim Weatherby, who directed the Association of Idaho Cities for 15 years, believes a new generation of restless, creative men and women are finding their way to many of Idaho's small towns over the resistance of an old guard suspicious of new arrivals.

Less than eager for growth and economic development, the newcomers, Weatherby says, "have moved in here from other parts of the country and love the idyllic, romantic life of the small, rural community and they want it to stay that way."

The state has stepped in with a program to help rural Idaho help itself, using the lure of millions of dollars in grants to motivate clear-eyed development plans. Some 50 small communities - including Shelley - are participating.

They realize - some for the first time - "that if they don't plan, if they don't assert themselves, somebody else will plan for them and somebody else will control their destiny," Weatherby said.

Even in Shelley, with its relatively strong economy, success isn't guaranteed. The Circle K shut down earlier this month and John F. Shelley's original mercantile store remains vacant.

Gary DeLange says he's got to be patient, that most flower shops don't show a profit their first five years. But he said he and his wife, Sallee, are in business and in Shelley for good.

"We could always do better," he said before hustling off to help a customer. "It's OK. The spring is the best time of year."