ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: GLITTER AND RUST

By James M. Decker

What makes a small town revival? The August issue of Texas Monthly has a feature on this very topic. This piece, titled “How a New Generation Is Reviving Small-Town Texas” tells stories from Lockhart, Brenham, and Alpine, each of which are currently experiencing new growth and enthusiasm. I encourage you to find the article on the Texas Monthly website or on newsstands, because it is an interesting and heartening read. Good things ARE happening in small towns across Texas.

This article has spawned a good discussion on Twitter with several rural-minded Texans whose opinions I respect. Each of these folks comes from a different professional and geographic perspective, but all are passionate about rural Texas.

This discussion, in turn, led me to my central question today: what makes a small town revival?

The Texas Monthly story spotlights several restaurants, bars, and other retail in these towns, most of which could fairly be termed as “trendy.” As one of my friends observed, can a rural town revive itself on trendy restaurants, or does too much focus on that aspect of a town become “glitter on rust”? As my friend wrote, and I think we can all agree, rural communities need jobs, healthcare, schools, and infrastructure.

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This is a perpetual struggle in planning rural development ideas. Each of our communities has opportunities for glitter that will attract new traffic, whether it be new restaurants and retail, tourism and cultural events, or something other unique feature. But can that glitter sustain a town? What happens in the inevitable future economic downturn, when luxury items are the first to drop out of the family budget? Will traffic and spending in town dry up? Will sustainable glitter eventually require a larger local population, so that it isn’t solely tourist dependent?

But on the flip side, is a little glitter necessary? How do you sustain a town without first having something interesting that attracts people to the town? Whether we like it or not, people are not just going to move to a random town because it seemed like a good idea. Every town needs a sales pitch, the so-called “elevator speech,” that explains why a new resident should move there. Jobs are hard to attract without a suitable labor force. Healthcare, schools, and infrastructure are hard to improve without increases in sales tax and property tax spending, which are functions of new spending and construction in town.

These are hard questions without easy answers. If the answers were easy, someone would’ve unlocked the secret long ago and every rural community with a desire to grow would be booming. But here in the real world, we struggle with these chicken-and-egg questions. Glitter alone might not sustain a place, but you might need a little glitter to catch the attention of the people who WILL sustain you.

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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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