ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: RURAL SUMMITS AND REGIONALISM

By James M. Decker

On August 22, Stamford city councilman Paul Wright and I attended the first West Texas Rural Summit in Lubbock. Hosted by U.S. Congressman Jodey Arrington, this summit brought together over 50 mayors, county judges, city councilmen, school superintendents, sheriffs, and economic developers from the 29 counties that make up Arrington’s 19th District.

Discussions focused on three main agenda items: drug epidemics, rural healthcare, and economic development. Through a day’s worth of panel discussions, Q&A, and informal conversation, something is abundantly clear: throughout West Texas, we share the same problems. Each local place has its variations, but the big picture problems are the same, whether in Stamford, Haskell, Plainview, Post, or Muleshoe. Rather than fight battles alone and do things the hard way, local leaders are starting to work together. This was the first summit, but it’s the start of something big for the future.

Photo credit: Paul Wright

Photo credit: Paul Wright

Photo credit: James Decker

Photo credit: James Decker

My friend Jay Leeson hosts a talk radio show and podcast out of Lubbock and is one of West Texas’ foremost advocates. He calls Lubbock the “Rural Metropolis,” rightly observing that, though Lubbock is a bigger city, its fate is intertwined with the rural communities around it. The problems of the rural economy don’t stop at the Lubbock city limits. The same goes for Abilene, Amarillo, San Angelo, Midland, Odessa, and Wichita Falls. These cities are rural metropolitan areas. They may have an independent economy, but their fates are intertwined with the small towns around them. If rural communities around an Abilene die off, there are fewer people to shop, visit, and spend money in those metro areas. If those cities struggle and stumble, it affects the quality of life in the rural communities of their region.

That extends to a smaller level too. Ken Becker, executive director of Sweetwater Economic Development, stated that Sweetwater’s labor force and spending comes from a 60-mile radius. Sweetwater has taken the approach that positive economic development within that radius will affect Sweetwater in a positive way, and they’re right.

Photo credit: Paul Wright

Photo credit: Paul Wright

Each of our communities should think similarly. We all want ALL the jobs and ALL the spending in our city limits, but that’s not practical. As someone pointed out, what if you could force all your residents to do all their spending in your town? Keeping all your dollars at home sounds great, right? But what if the other towns could do it too? So, you could get all the spending from your town, but not a dime from residents of neighboring towns? That would turn into a pretty poor trade. New residents and jobs might go to a neighboring community, but if those folks live and work down the road but shop and eat in your town (particularly if you have a unique retail or restaurant establishment), the economic development benefits you as well.

I’ll talk about other aspects of this Rural Summit in coming weeks, but this regional mindset should be very important to each of us. It is in Abilene’s best interest for Stamford to thrive and vice versa. But it’s also in Stamford’s best interest for Haskell, Munday, and the like to thrive, and vice versa.

Like it or not, our fates are intertwined with the region and cities large and small. It is entirely up to us whether we want to work together to make that fate a positive one for all.

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker.

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