Friday, January 13, 2012

Reflections on Our Town

No, this is not reflections on the famous Wilder Play, these are reflections on our little town, here and now. Our town is the county seat of county with approximately 10,000 citizens, maybe a few more, so although the population of the town is only about 2500 it actually serves as the main urban center for the larger population. It’s a nice little town. I like it. But like many other such small towns it has seen better days and although it “hangs on” it doesn’t exactly thrive. I don’t personally have much to do with local politics or the town itself as I live a few miles out of town, but I do from time to time reflect on the local situation. There are a few things that puzzle me about our little town.

There is, for example, still a recognizable downtown, with several stores that appear to be doing okay. But there are also some vacant storefronts that seem to cling to their vacancies for reasons I do not completely understand. I mean, it ‘s not as if the downtown is actually dying, it’s more like it’s wounded. More importantly, however, are the buildings, almost all older two story brick affairs, virtually all of which have their upper story vacant. On the few occasions when I have asked someone why they don’t locate their office or business in one of these essentially vacant spaces the answer is always the same, “My customers wouldn’t walk upstairs.” As most of these buildings originally housed apartments on their upper stories it is obvious people don’t want to live there either. All together these vacant stories represent quite a lot of space that ought to be usable (or at least I think so). But year after year they remain vacant. Why, I wonder, could this space not be renovated and used for businesses that do not depend upon customers having to walk upstairs, billing agencies, for example, or call services, even artist studios, or some such thing?

Also in our little town we have a number of stores that seem to do a reasonable business: hardware stores, a fine used bookstore, a Radio Shack, a few restaurants, stationary, clothing, and etc. But strangely (at least it seems strange to me) if you want an ordinary necessity like a toaster or frying pan, or other ordinary kitchenware, you must drive 30 miles and back to the nearest Wal Mart. The same thing is true if you want anything as mundane as sheets or pillowcases, silverware, or other common household necessities. I think you could do an inventory of what you can procure locally and open a store that would provide the things you cannot procure locally. I would think it would be in the best interest of the community, to open a community store that would ensure such products would be locally available. As we hear often that we should “buy locally,” and as many of try to do so, buying locally is not always feasible, so we drive the 60 mile roundtrip often. So far the price of gasoline seems not to have affected this much. Along these lines you might also have expected some sort of bus service, not only to the next city 30 miles away, but even to larger urban areas up to 100 miles away. There is no such service. The U.S. is not noted for public transportation.

There is also, in our community, a thriving Casino and Motel, the majority owners being the local Indian tribe. I never go there because it is full of foolish people smoking and throwing their money away into machines made for that purpose, and also because their restaurant is not very good. But immediately adjacent to this successful business are a number of older, relatively inexpensive, and mostly run-down single family dwellings, built, like the Casino, along the banks of a lovely river. Now if I were in charge of things (happily I am not), I would buy all these older houses, demolish them, and build a number of medium priced condominiums, all with a view of the river with parking underneath. I would also construct a long walkway along the river. There are people who love to spend their summers here but go south for the winters, I would think they would be happy with a condominium. But what do I know?

Our local economy is based on agriculture and timber, but the timber industry has been declining. As far as I know there have been few attempts to attract other businesses to locate here, especially any kind of what you might consider “clean” businesses. There have been attempts to build a pulp mill and a waste to energy plant, but happily these environmentally destructive enterprises have been so far successfully resisted (anywhere you find Tribal lands that can be exploited you find these kinds of environmentally poisonous attempts as Tribal lands are exempt from many regulations). There are other small towns around here that are far worse off than we are, deteriorating badly, trying to survive on tourists and tourist junk, and having a very hard time. I think it is not too late for our lovely little town to not only survive but do well, but it would require lots of money, effort, and creativity, commodities not on the horizon as far as I know. There were in the past few years some nice touches to the downtown that have made a significant difference. I hope it will keep up. I live here and love it, and want it to survive and flourish.

Never forget that you're a member of your own community. Don't do something that you wouldn't like to see done.

Keith Richman

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