Lament, for a Small Town

“…I’m gonna die in this small town,
or that’s probably where they’ll bury me…”

Viability. The ability to survive on one’s own. That is, to be self-sustaining.

When I think about my local community, it is this that most strikes me.

For this town is not self-sustaining. Not at all.

A city is nothing if not a collective of various individuals that are united to each other by commerce, culture and, of course, geography. In my hometown the 2,500-odd people of Overton, though representing a certain diversity, also represent a common unity. They are a community.

Right now, the broader communities of East Texas, Texas, the South, and the United States are experiencing an economic downturn. Presumably after a period of growth… or something.

I’m not sure, but people are more nervous about these things now than they were ten years ago. Of course, it hasn’t stopped them from buying newer cars and larger houses every couple years, but I digress.

The small East Texas town of Overton has struggled mightily in the last few decades or so.

Historically a reasonably self-sustaining city, it has now been reduced to little more than a bedroom community to the Longview and Tyler metropolitan areas…  and a meager one at that.

On the surface, some point to the size of the town as the primary hindrance. After all, it’s hard to market to a limited customer base. Right?

Perhaps, but a small town’s viability can be sustained if essential needs and services are being met. In fact, a town’s strength is derived by how these needs are met and its growth often depends on how much its “wants” are met.

Take Austin for example.

Yeah, I know, it’s not exactly fair to compare Austin to Overton, but it’s a lot quicker than using statistics, charts, and graphs.

Okay, the average resident of Austin has a.) excellent employment opportunities, b.) excellent consumer opportunities, and c.) excellent cultural opportunities. However the disadvantages are a.) high competition for jobs, b.) higher prices for goods and services, c.) mind-blowingly frustrating traffic.

Now, compare that with the average Overton resident who has a.) mediocre employment opportunities, b.) poor consumer opportunities, and c.) meager cultural opportunities. The upshot is that a.) not as many highly-qualified applicants, b.) low cost of living, and c.) you can drive through downtown on a Saturday night and not have to touch your brakes even once.

So what can Overton learn from Austin to achieve some of its advantages without tipping over into its disadvantages?

Well, first, Austin is the capital of the state and the home to its largest (and most obnoxious) university. Yeah, they’ve got us beat there and there’s nothing we can do about that, but there are plenty of state capitols and college towns that don’t rock near as hard as Austin.

Austin is Austin because of its culture. In Austin there’s things to do. There’s a vibe. There’s things happening…  always. Cool things. Fun things. Weird things. Perverse and dangerous things, sure, but things nevertheless.

In Overton, we’ve got youth sports and church. Anything more than that, and you’re having to leave town for it.

Now, nothing against little league baseball and high school football, but they aren’t going to get people to move in and set up shop here for the long haul. Oh, and as far as churches go, well…  I better save that for another time. Suffice to say, they ain’t pulling their weight either.

Conclusion: Overton needs more things going on.

Yeah, we’ve got the annual Bluegrass Festival which has been totally dominating that elusive 50-99 year old demographic for the last twenty-odd years, but how about we come up with something a little less…  obsolete?

We’ve got a little monthly “music on the square” happening for the last several months, but little has been done to capitalize or promote the event or to enhance it as a community experience. Nearly a year after it started, the venue still is in desperate need of some work.

The biggest failure of this town over the last 20 years, contrasted with the biggest success of Austin during the same time frame, has been in how Overton has marketed itself to men and women from age 20-49. Generation X and their younger siblings, Generation Y. The “latchkey kids” and the Echo Boomers. That is where your growth is and that is how a town sustains itself. People.

Don’t get me wrong, senior citizens are great. Every community needs its “city fathers” to help keep the young upstarts in line, but virtually nothing been done to make Overton attractive for young adults.

This is crucial because it is precisely those young adults who start careers and build up companies, some even take a shot and start their own businesses. These same young people fall in love and get married, then they buy a house and starting making babies. Then they buy Suburbans and run for school board.

Do you see where this is going?

A community must produce its own young, while also cultivating a habitat to replenish those young who choose to fly the coop.

If your town sucks, your children aren’t going to want to stay. In fact, they’re going to hit the ground running as soon as they get out of high school, only to visit you on holidays and make sarcastic remarks about how much the town has gone downhill. Trust me on this one.

They’re going to move to some other town, some place that has at least something going on, and buy a house there. Then they’re going to invest in that community, and their tax dollars are going to pave some other town’s streets and build new schools for other communities.

One of the biggest systemic threats to any small town is this sort of gradual population decline, specifically among younger age groups. As the population in small cities declines and grows older, there is less consumer activity, causing a decline in retail business. Thus, school districts with fewer students fuel the local economy less.

We are in the middle of this vicious cycle right now and the current paucity of retail and business activity has led to a glut of Main Street retail property, which in turn drives down property values and eventually leads to a decreased tax base.

Translation, the city is strangling itself and dragging it’s own feet into oblivion.

…but it’s not all about the young folks.

The aging of the baby boomers also represents an opportunity for small towns. Many of this generation want to return to their small-town hometowns when they retire. They have lots of experience, know-how and leadership skills to contribute to any place they settle.

One of my favorite people right now is a guy in his 40s who hasn’t lost the energy of his teenage years, but has infused it with the wisdom that comes from getting a job, a wife, a mortgage, and building a family.

Unfortunately, he no longer lives in town, but he’s a big mover & shaker in his current community. Involved in local business, the schools, the churches. Getting involved, not passively, but proactively.

I’ve talked to enough lifelong locals about the ebb and flow of this town over the decades to get a pretty decent handle on things. This, combined with my own anecdotal experience, leads me to a sense that the spirit of this town is what is lagging the most.

Overton used to tout a certain way of life, a certain culture that made it desirable even to those from the outside.

The school district had a reputation for strong academics and athletics. There were enterprising men and women of business who knew how to get things done.

Locally, there were things to do, and people participated more because they felt invested in something larger than just a grouping of scattered households.

If Overton is to recapture this, we must first find a way to capture the hearts and minds of those people looking for a place to invest…  their time and energy, as well as their material resources.

The children must also be reclaimed, they must love their hometown. For this to happen, the town must be worthy of such affection.

As a certain poet troubadour said so many years ago: “the times they are a-changing,” and they will only continue to do so.

The times will always be a-changing.
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If we are to become and remain viable as a community, we must change with the changing times.

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2 thoughts on “Lament, for a Small Town

  1. Very interesting read. I stumbled across your Flicker photos and blog quite by accident while doing research on Overton. I live in this town and would be interested in corresponding/meeting with you about developmental issues here in Overton. I write about Overton for national online magazine and I have pilot research project underway that focuses on Overton (my co-author & I are writing up the results for publication presently & hope to exapand the project). If you are intersted in the project I’ll send you the link to the video. I think it will appeal to you as it invloves the use of photo-elicitation

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