Five symptoms of a dying small town

Nothing illustrates the current divide in America better than that between small towns and large cities.  Many towns with populations under 30,000 are finding it more difficult than ever to retain, let alone attract, new residents.  These burgs dot America like distant stars in the sky and, while many are finding ways to reinvent themselves into something new and attractive, many more are dying, fading into night through a combination of factors.  Many of these are beyond the control of both residents and officials, but there are some major factors which create the “dead city,” and these factors can be remedied.

A word of warning to those reading this who are living in towns they suspect are dying – it’s time to get real.

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Loyalton, California suffers from a very low population (700) of mostly retirees and a high debt bill for pensions.

Small towns need to face a stark fact; elected officials, by and large, are unconcerned about the well being of a town unless the voters there can organize in such large numbers to threaten them at the polls.  It is a common axiom a politician is concerned about how a town fares only as far as it allows them to stay in office.  Most, if not all, elected officials are averse to changing the status quo because they don’t want risk making voters and, specifically, longtime wealthy residents (a.k.a. “old money”) angry at them.  For many of these elected officials across America, the small-town positions they hold are the highest office they will likely ever achieve.  While many officials in these communities are true servants, many others have become quite comfortable in their jobs and, as a result, the colloquialisms of being “fat and sassy” and “drunk with power” have taken root.

Those elected officials who are both responsible and responsive – not the same thing – are able to recognize these symptoms for what they are, and find ways to help prevent their communities from spiraling into the throes of civic death.  When a city or town has reached this point, the stench of economic and political failure has often permeated so deep into the fabric of the community, businesses and organizations which could come in and revitalize these places often bypass them in favor of locales which possess the necessary ideas, plans and – most important – community and political will to make the hard choices necessary to perform such a turnaround.  It’s time to take a very real look at five key factors which kill small towns.

Lopsided Demographics

Many “dead towns” have one major thing in common; a low population which is unevenly distributed between young, middle, and old.  Cities which are mostly made up of retirees suffer from massive issues with budget deficits and debt, destroying the ability to maintain basic services and causing massive political infighting.  Also within these demographics are income issues; too many folks getting paid too little or, worse still, living in poverty, which create many of the issues in many small cities across America.  It could be Kansas, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio or Florida; too many people with too much money in too few hands, combined with an increase in those approaching an age where working is no longer feasible, is a prescription for fiscal disaster.

A perfect example of this can be found in a New York Times report about the city of Loyalton, California.  This tiny city of 700, once on the front lines of the gold rush, now faces a bill of $1.6 million, more than its entire operating budget, for its share of pension liabilities.  If the bill is not paid, its retired city employees could see their once-guaranteed benefits cut.  When cities don’t attract new residents and businesses, vicious cycles such as these begin.  Poor demographics are the core of the problem, but they lead to a lot of other issues, and many civic leaders refuse to see this one issue as the underlying threat.

Demolished Education Systems

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Americus, Georgia is home to two extremes:  one of Georgia’s best teacher training universities, and one of the state’s worst- performing public high schools.

Sumter County, Georgia is home to Georgia Southwestern State University, considered one of the state’s top public schools for teacher training.  So why was Americus-Sumter County High School ranked near the bottom of the barrel in Georgia in 2015?  Many factors account for this, from political meddling to low teacher pay.  In fact, according to Salary Genius, teachers in Sumter County get paid an average of $10,000 less than their counterparts in Cobb County, Georgia.  As for politics, Sumter County’s Board of Education was, several years back, the subject of state investigations into misappropriation of funds and other violations, leading to a complete overhaul of the Board of Education’s membership.

Problems such as these are just the tip of a political iceberg which has left the entire educational system in Sumter County in shambles.  This is a terrible reality for a county which claims former President Jimmy Carter as its native son.   When an area’s school system is as in such bad a shape as Sumter’s, companies which could bring jobs to an area often pass those cities and counties by in favor of areas with better schools.  In addition, low paying teacher salaries and political meddling have caused many local university grads to seek work elsewhere, causing a “brain drain” which has further hampered the city’s growth.

Endemic Corruption

Unfortunately, for the Peach State, Americus isn’t the only city dealing with what seems like a diagnosis of terminal civic cancer.  Eastman, Georgia is a city which continues to suffer from an image brought to it by an election bribery scandal in 1998, which was documented in George magazine.  Today, this tiny town of just over 5,000 continues to experience high unemployment and poverty and, while the scandals of the late 1990s are a distant memory, the corruption of the past continues to haunt it to this day.

Small towns which suffered from this level of corruption are often paralyzed by a culture of apathy, complacency and fear.  “What can anyone do to us” is the attitude of many who benefit from a combination of overt and covert corruption.  Whether it is no-bid contracts, kickbacks to local officials, or blatant nepotism leading to unqualified individuals given important positions simply based on their political allegiance, such corruption is more than just onerous, it’s bad for business.  No company or organization wants to deal with a city which makes business expensive simply because the right palms aren’t greased.  It’s far easier to set up shop in an area with minimal regulation or, if the city is attractive, a place where leaders will work with businesses, rather than trying to bleed them dry in name of their own personal coffers.  Corruption kills cities; it is a cancer which, without radical surgery in the form of a successful “throw the bums out” movement, is a terminal diagnosis.

Stuck in the Past

Nobody wants to live in a city where nothing ever changes, no matter how small.  Hazleton, Pennsylvania is one city which suffers from severe image issues of this sort.  Hazleton has been struggling with a combination of issues since the coal industry collapse of the 1960s, and its population has yet to recover to its 1980s peak.  While an influx of Latino immigrants has helped fuel a minor economic renewal, Hazleton continues to suffer from an image of being a rust belt city stuck in the past, and low property values combined with high crime and unemployment doesn’t help.  Despite being labelled a poster child for Hispanic urban revitalization by CNN, many longtime residents still feel nothing has changed, and that local politicians have sold them out.  A recent filming of the Fox series “Cops” in Hazleton has residents so worried about how the city is portrayed nationally, the City Council is now being asked to consider halting production.  The primary concern is Hazleton being cast in the light of a backwards town with nothing but problems, and unable to solve them despite revitalization efforts.

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Hazleton, Pennsylvania holds the title of “Pennsylvania’s Highest City” as a result of its elevation.  Unfortunately, this as also been associated, derisively with its dubious reputation as a crime-ridden drug distribution hub.

While nostalgia is a multi-billion dollar industry for cities with vibrant historic districts, many of those cities have had to find that vibrancy through combining history with innovation.  Despite being in the metro Atlanta area, Marietta struggled to find its cultural identity until a full revitalization effort in the city’s historic square.  When civic leaders and longtime business owners teamed up to attract younger residents, the result was a vibrant city center which now features full bars and restaurants on weekends, and busy shops and offices on weekdays.  Marietta is now considered one of Georgia’ s most livable cities and, despite a mild bump in crime over the last few years, has enjoyed a healthy rebound in property values and resident income.  Hazleton, by comparison, continues to suffer from low wages and falling property values and this, combined with its image of a city stuck in time with residents afraid to showcase their town to the world, has only prevented it from moving forward.

Resident Apathy

Perhaps the most insidious and deadly symptoms of a “dead city” is an atmosphere of apathy.  By the time most cities have gotten this far, it’s too late.  Residents have largely given up on the hope of any change; those doing well fall into the “I’m alright, Jack” crowd who are comfortable with their living situation and see no need to change, while those who are struggling either financially or in their personal lives are in a “no way out” mentality and can’t see the forest for the trees.  Some residents have truly legitimate reasons to stay, such as family ties, or sick or infirm relatives, or legitimate business interests.  These residents, however, are now prisoner to the “golden handcuff” trap; unable to move because of the attachment to the city, but unable to speak out for fear their opinions would lead to ruination caused by mass shunning; an all-too-common situation.

On the other end of the spectrum, the poor and impoverished in these towns feel disenfranchised but powerless and, thus, unwilling to do anything for fear of retaliation at the hands of law enforcement and the courts.  Once this particular mentality has set in, it is nearly impossible to change without a radical shift in attitudes, which often come in the form of a crisis of some sort.

Reality must be faced

Small towns and cities which are suffering from these issues, be it all or just a couple, must take a very long, difficult look in the mirror.  It’s not enough put a bandage on the problem; many of a city council have bought into the promises of snake-oil salesmen who claim to have the cure to all their city’s ills.  When cities are foundering, precision and care are essential elements in any turnaround.  Simply tearing everything apart won’t do.  No one will be coming in on a white horse to save the day.

Instead, these cities must find the collective will to do the hard work of seeing things for how they are, rather than how they’ve been told they should be by those in power. Changing the fortunes of any small city in distress and in its death throes requires buy-in from residents who can send a collective message to those in power, and that message must be made loud, clear and in no uncertain terms.

Yes, it is time to get real and get to work.

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