I retreat into my little fantasy sometimes when I'm feeling down. I think I owe someone a cup of fantasy sugar or something I borrowed...
I love traveling back roads and visiting small towns. I've loved such long before I became a motorcycle rider. As we road through rural Idaho a few months ago, we went through small towns that were quaint and lovely and compelled us to stop. And we went through small towns that looked empty and dying and sad.
How are some small towns hanging on while others are dying?
I now live in what I consider a small town, population 21,083. What this town has that dying small towns around us don't have:
- a high school (and two junior highs and a few elementary schools)
- a grocery store
- restaurants (not many, but we have some!)
- reliable, frequent mass transit to get to metropolitan areas
- thriving farmer's market lead by and championed by a nonprofit
Vernonia, Oregon is about 30 miles away from us, and it has a lot of what the town where I live has, even though it's much smaller. In addition, it's the end of a 21-mile paved, car-free trail for hikers, bicyclists and horse riders. It's Oregon's first rail-to-trail, and it's turned Vernonia into a highly desirable weekend destination, with some very good restaurants and a gorgeous setting.
My hometown of Henderson, Kentucky was dying when I was a kid in the 1970s. Now, I'm floored when I go for a visit: there are restaurants downtown, shops, and amazing festivals: the W C Handy Blues and Barbecue Festival, a bluegrass festival, a songwriter's festival, a performing arts center., and the world’s largest displayed collection of John James Audubon art and artifacts, and a gorgeous, landscaped river front, none of which it had when I was growing up there.
Growing up in Henderson, my family made fun of Paducah, Kentucky. "I spent a week there one day" my father would say. Now, Paducah has an Artist Relocation Program that offers incentives for artists to relocate to its historic areas. The program has become a national model for using the arts for economic development. It has a improv group and, dare I say it, a flourishing comedy and music scene. It's a lovely little town!
We visited Wallace, Idaho, population less than 1000, earlier this year. Every downtown building in Wallace is on the National Register of Historic Places, and many have been beautifully restored. The 72-mile Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes paved bike path passes through it. Interstate 90 goes over it, and they've turned the area into a massive vendor area for their annual flea market. It's not only a must-stop if you are in the area, it's worth going out of your way for. It's one of my favorite small towns ever - and I've been to a LOT of small towns.
By contrast, we also went through Oakley, Idaho, about the same size and also billed as a historic town. It does have some lovely homes. But downtown was dead. Were the restaurants open? Was anything open? We couldn't tell as we drove through - no sandwich boards on the sidewalks, no obvious, easy-to-see "open" signs, no colorful banners... Oakley is near City of Rocks, and we loved camping in that reserve, but a lot of people would probably prefer to camp at a place with flush toilets and bathrooms and a restaurant nearby. Supposedly, Oakley has an RV park, but we never saw a sign for such. The town looked and felt dead.
One coffee shop or one antique store isn't going to transform a small town. But one obviously-open restaurant, with a patio, is going to compel a lot of people stop. A sign that shows camping nearby means campers might come back through for breakfast or supplies the next day - if they know just by glancing around as they pass through that they can get such. A "bikers welcomed!" sign really does make motorcyclists stop at a restaurant or hotel with such rather than a place that does haven't such - and motorcyclists often stop where they see other bikers stopping.
Many small towns in the USA are dying, and people are lamenting that fewer and fewer people, particularly families, are living a rural life, or even interacting with rural people. But I've seen some small towns thrive - because they knew they had to change, that they couldn't be exactly what they were 50 years ago. People need paid work, and they need health care coverage, and for most families, that means they must live in a big city. But people have different needs and desires at different phases in their lives, and I think a lot of small towns are missing out on prosperity because they aren't willing to change and to think about what would make them attractive to new families - including immigrant families.