We never know when it’s our time. None of the victims of the 9/11 attacks expected their time to come that day, but it did. All we can do is live our life the right way, with the right priorities, every day, so that when it IS our time, we’re ready. But the truth is, we really don’t know if tomorrow is coming. We carry on and make plans for tomorrow, taking for granted that tomorrow will come. But what if it doesn’t?
When you drive by a vacant building, how do you see it? Do you see it for what it is? Or do you see it for what it can be? Or maybe, if you remember its past life or know its history, do you see the building as it used to be? Each of us might see buildings through all three prisms, from time to time. As we look at individual buildings and consider our own dreams, we’re actually dreaming about the whole community, whether we realize it or not.
Our lives are short and they pass by quickly. Using life for the right reasons, to glorify the right things, requires us to have the right priorities. Andrew Luck was clear about his priorities, so when he came to a fork in the road of his life, he had no trouble making that decision, even if millions of people couldn’t and wouldn’t understand his decision. His decision inspired me to think—how often do we think about our life priorities?
We spend a lot of time in our life being “busy.” We are busy, we tell others we’re busy, we ask them how busy they are. Americans glorify being busy as if it’s a good thing, because we see “busy” as a sign of success and prosperity. People ask how we’re doing, how work is, how the kids are. We say we are busy as if it is a badge of honor. But is it?
There’s always that one building. So many towns have them. It stands out like a sore thumb. It might be the tallest building in the community. Maybe it’s the square footage. Maybe it’s the location. It’s vacant. It has been vacant for decades. When someone comes to town, they immediately notice THAT building. Even as other buildings around town are restored, that one building still stands out. It feels like an albatross on the community’s revitalization. If a building could talk, it seems like the building is saying “good work on those other buildings, but you still haven’t restored ME.” YET.
Our rural communities have vacant buildings and that’s just reality. You can take it as a negative or you can see it as...opportunity. There are major cities all over the country that are booming, but struggling with a lack of available, affordable real estate (both commercial and residential). With low cost of living, low land prices, and a surplus of vacant buildings, the problem in our rural communities, if presented to the right people, might actually be a solution to someone else’s problems.
My very first essay, written way back in November of 2017, was entitled “On Vacant Buildings and Vacant People.” It was inspired by a national sportswriter’s visit to Stamford, in which the author noted Stamford’s vacant buildings. However, he also noted something more important, something that captivated him—its people. The people themselves were far from “vacant.” The author found good, hardworking people who support their community and its youth.
Last week, I attended the Texas Midwest Community Network’s annual seminar for newly elected local officials. Several times, attendees asked about economic development. How do we bring business to our towns? Texas is booming. Our statewide leaders constantly boast about job creation and economic growth. Why aren’t our rural communities benefiting? These are questions that all community leaders should think about. Several speakers emphasized the importance of having a plan and pursuing that plan.
As I’ve written before, too much “rural” talk in our national conversation is trendy, patronizing, and self-serving. We also lack rural voices from “out here.” The rural communities of Appalachia, the Midwest, and West of the 98th Meridian have similarities, but they also have distinct concerns as well. Each of those voices needs to be heard, not homogenized as one “rural” voice for political speeches and sound bytes on cable news.
I’ve heard for years that the Texas Cowboy Rodeo was slowly dying. I’ve also heard for years that rural communities are slowly dying. There are supposedly better entertainment options in 2019 than a “danged ol’ rodeo.” There are better places to live in 2019 than a dusty small town. Right? Isn’t that what we’re told? Isn’t that logical? Our communities might survive, but they’ll never be what they once were. Or is that true after all?
As I’ve grown over the years, I’ve learned the importance of support for events. It’s not about supporting the underlying event as much as it’s about supporting the community that benefits from that event. A man may not care about a rodeo, but the Texas Cowboy Reunion will drive thousands of visitors into town over a four day period and boost the economy like no other four-day period in the year. You don’t even have to know the difference between a shotgun and a rifle to recognize that your hunting economy should be supported.
In life, adversity is the rule, not the exception. No matter what community revitalization project we undertake, adversity WILL happen. High-dollar electronic equipment fails. People get busy and don’t give maximum effort to a group. Cleanup days have a lackluster turnout. New businesses struggled to find a footing. We get exhausted and struggle with our own motivation. But if turning around a rural community was easy, none of our communities would need our energy and our ideas.
My passion in life is revitalizing Stamford and seeing other rural communities have the same experience. But we should be honest about these latent divisions, so that when our community DOES take off, people don’t get left behind. If Stamford prospers and the population grows, but only part of the town benefits, have we really succeeded as a community?
The city pool is not just a random city service that I have fixated on. City pools, especially in rural communities, stand as something very meaningful. As we talk about revitalizing rural communities, the conversation inevitably involves “quality of life.” If a community wants to keep its current residents and attract new ones, the community must have amenities that make the community an enjoyable place to live. Moreover, these amenities should provide quality of life for everyone in the community, not just a partial segment.
As I think of the war dead, I think that each of them were men and women of action. The freedom and liberty I mentioned? It does not exist spontaneously, created by some chemical reaction. It was created, preserved, and perpetuated by men and women of action. Many of these men and women gave their lives in full awareness of the flawed, imperfect nature of America, hoping that their sacrifice would lead to greater freedoms for more people in society. And they were right.
Some of our forefathers laid down their lives, but all who served gave a piece of their lives to the proposition of a larger calling, to ideas that would create a better, safer, more prosperous world for all. Not all of us are sent to the Argonne Forest or to Iwo Jima, but all of us are called to serve in ways that we are equipped and in the places where friends, family, community, and country might need us.
For many of our rural communities, our future prosperity, quality of life, and heck, even our very existence, is dependent on sound economic development. I believe the same applies to rural economic development. If you don’t treat it aggressively, do you really understand the consequences of NOT being successful? Action is necessary. Continuing the status quo is not acceptable.
Just like the people of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day, the city walls of rural American need rebuilding. What if we recalibrated our time, effort, and energy to the right places? What if we focused that on the betterment of our community and the people within it? What if our priorities—individually, in our families, in our businesses and organizations—centered around giving of ourselves to improve our community? What could each of us accomplish? What could we accomplish together?
We talk a lot about “community pride” but simple, straightforward definitions of the phrase are hard to come by. After working through various discussions of community pride and the definitions of “community” and “pride,” I proposed the following definition of “community pride”:
“A collective group of people’s dignity in, and satisfaction with, objects of importance and meaning to their group.”