What Does It Mean To "Save A Town?"

November 2001

As I begin this essay a wonderful town in northern New Hampshire, is in very bad trouble. Hopefully, when you read this, everything will be okay, again. Unfortunately, I think there is very little chance that will be the case. If fact, in several possible outcomes, the town as we have come to know it may cease to exist. I know that sounds drastic, but times are changing in ways nobody could have dreamed of even a few years ago.

Like many northern New England communities, this town developed as a logging and paper mill town. Over the years, other businesses came along, but the ones that did not directly support the woodsmen and mill workers have always been a very minor part of the local economy. In the last 30 years, the mill has changed hands a number of times, and each time the new owners have less and less personal interest in the town, and more and more corporate interest in making money for far-away stockholders. Short term shutdowns have occurred regularly, long-term mill workers have lost some of their benefits as the plant changed hands, and conflicts over local taxation have become commonplace. The current owner owes the town several million dollars in back taxes, has closed the mill [temporarily, they say], and has just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. All the mill workers but a small maintenance staff have been "temporarily" sent home - but, ironically, since they are not officially laid off or fired, they cannot take advantage of most unemployment programs and benefits. The mill owner appears to have no interest in selling out, so the community cannot even look forward to [what has recently proven to be the very dubious benefit of] having somebody new to deal with.

In the big city, businesses come and go so often and so quickly that the changes hardly register on the local economy or local society. In a small town like this one, it is just the opposite. If mill workers have no income to pay bills or buy extras, almost every business in the area feels the loss of revenue. Many small businesses can barely weather a short-term economic downturn; a long one means they are out of business. Jobs are scarce locally in the best of times. With the mill shut down, and local businesses fighting just to stay afloat, they certainly aren't going to be hiring any laid-off mill workers. Because the mill - and the taxes paid on it - are the source of the lion's share of revenue for the town, every service local government provides is jeopardized. With winter coming on, think about snow removal and emergency services in addition to schools, fire departments, police, water, waste disposal, and all the other municpal services that a town depends on for survival. Charities go without their usual donations of time and money. Add it up: when the proverbial snowball rolls down the hill, it eventually stops. But the stop is usually so dramatic that you no longer have a snowball. Many small towns and rural communities are now experiencing the stopping of the snowball.

One thing about living away from the big city is that people like it small. One thing about living small is that most people like their smallness just the way it's always been. And right there lies one of the biggest problems of "saving" the small community. It's illustrated extremely well in my New England town. To most of the people working in the mill, saving the town means saving the mill. The local business owners, on the other hand, while they want the small town atmosphere, they would do almost anything to improve the economic base. If the mill can't stay open, fine. They'll try to get some other businesses in. If they can't get industry, they'll try for tourism. If tourism doesn't work.... Well, there must be something else they can do.

This different perception of what constitutes "saving" has caused a lot of strife in our town. Some of the mill workers (maybe the majority) are so fixated on the mill that they don't seem to care that the mill has been a real drain on the community through non-payment of taxes, and through pollution. They think that downtown improvement projects are a waste of time and money, and they don't see how encouraging new businesses will help them. They especially hate the thought of more tourists coming to their area. They think the rest of town is "against them" because they hear negative talk about the mill.

The other elements in town are obviously getting a little tired of hearing the mill workers talk about the mill as if it was a holy shrine. But they are not united in their vision of how they want the town to be "saved." Many want the community to stay small and self-contained, with maybe just a few new small businesses to boost the economy and support the town services. Others look to Wal-mart and Walgreen's and Safeway to make the town "prosperous" again. Obviously, the ones who want the small-town flavor are not keen on "big box" stores and edge-of-town shopping malls.

The television series "The Education of Max Bickford" handled this situation, recently. Their circumstances were a little different - their conflict was in a small New England college town, where the "academics" wanted to keep the town quiet and homey, while the "townies" wanted a shopping mall that would create new jobs. Their arguments were pretty simplistic, and I thought their resolution was pretty terrible, but the show did illustrate the point well: what a community is and is not, and what it should and shouldn't be, are really in the eye of the beholder.

Right now, I don't give our New England town much hope for survival. I say that because I see no signs of the kind of cooperation that is needed to develop and implement a plan that will meet the needs of the town and the people living in it. I've been away for six months, but I hear that many families have already moved to seek work elsewhere. I am anxious to see how many businesses have had to close down over the winter because their customer support base has eroded. I worry about all of the old people in town, who grew up with the mill and retired there, and now may face a reduction in town services, hospital care, public transportation, and those other things they need so desperately as they grow older. I worry about the young families who are trying to hold on in town, but who have poorer schools, more expensive utilities, and fewer opportunities for employment. I worry that as more stores become vacant and the downtown deteriorates, there will be less and less incentive for new people and new businesses to relocate there. I'm sad because this is not just a problem for this one town, but is the reality for small towns and rural areas all over the country.

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