Ed Marston Talks Transformation at DCI’s Annual Conference

10 Oct

Ed MarsonI spent Saturday evening at a concert in Paonia.  I think the performance was very good.

          But I’m not sure. I kept thinking about this talk, and therefore remembering that the modest concert hall was once a long store crowded with tall wooden cabinets holding goods a farmer, rancher, fruit grower or home repairman might need.

          And if Shorty Hunten, the proprietor of Howard’s Cash Hardware, didn’t have an item, he’d order it. Let us say the metal grate on your Glenwood or Oakland wood burning cook stove burned out. The manufacturer is long gone, but someone, somewhere, has salvaged the molds for the stove’s grates. Shorty, sitting in front of a long array of catalogues, knew where that person was, and would order the part.

          In those days, Paonia, a town of a few thousand, had four hardware stores: Howard’s, Gambles, Western Auto, and Monkey Ward. We also had a department store, a farm implement dealership, a western clothing store, a movie theater, a feed store.

          Paonia now has one hardware store. Howard’s Cash Hardware is not it. How could a place with “cash” in its name survive?

          Across the street from what had been Howard’s is a building that when it was a bar was the scene of many fights and one killing while we lived in Paonia. It is now the headquarters of KVNF, a public radio station that serves a large chunk of this region. Just south of KVNF is a 10,000-square-foot building that used to house an International Harvester dealership. It now is home to 13 stores and offices. Among them are an insurance agency, an accountant, a barbershop, several massage therapists, two music promoters, an award winning novelist named Paolo Bacigalupi, and a scientific research foundation that investigates the possible linkage between organic chemicals in the environment and human fertility and intelligence.

          McCLung’s western wear store was until recently the Burger Bomber. The former mortuary is a Mexican restaurant and bar. The former feed store houses a regional environmental newspaper called High Country News.

          Paonia’s downtown has been transformed step by step, as properties changed hands, as owners died, and as new people come to town with new ideas to serve a changing market.

          The biggest force for change has been Mesa Mall, outside of Grand Junction, 70 miles away. It mauled small downtowns for 100 miles around. The Paonia businesses it didn’t drive off by itself were later taken care of by Wal-Mart in Delta, only 30 miles away. Western Colorado is a small town with a long main street. 

          The transformation of my downtown has not gone unnoticed. As part of the extended, on-going, often bitter struggle between recent and long-time residents, one city council election centered on whether the new non-profits were pushing out sales-tax earning businesses. Never mind that there were lots of vacant storefronts back then, if any businesses had wanted them. The argument carried the election. Or rather, resentment toward the changing character of the town carried the election.

          Paonia’s downtown transformation has been uncoordinated at best and chaotic at worst. It could not have happened any other way because some of us like the way the town is now, some of us are pushing for change, and most of us probably liked it most in the “good old days.” Where good old days includes the late 1800s. Being unable to plan, we just let the future happen to us. When Mesa Mall came to Grand Junction, we were totally unprepared for it. I assume we saw it coming, but had no idea of what to do about it. I don’t remember whether we even discussed it. 

          So I am in awe of what Grand Junction achieved fifty years ago, when the downtown community transformed its tired, wide, unwelcoming street into the very attractive downtown just outside this restaurant.

          I didn’t know the people who owned those long ago shops. But I was in the Paonia Rotary in the 1970s with the same kind of people. The walls of our meeting room were lined with the photos of our past and present members, honoring them for attending Rotary each Thursday at noon for 50 years. They would have as soon run down our main street naked as miss a Rotary lunch.

          So I feel as if I know the type of person who transformed the street outside. I can imagine those long ago arguments. Suburbanization and malls were approaching the height of their power and momentum. How could a small downtown imagine itself competing against national chains surrounded by acres of parking, with a Penney’s, for example, containing more inventory than the entire downtown combined. To spend money to rebuild main street, some must have argued, would be a waste.

          Under what must have been extraordinary leadership, the community voted 13 to one to tax themselves to create a new kind of downtown: One that would have advantages that the mall, when it arrived, could never have. A downtown is about community. About diversity. About courts and libraries and galleries and museums all packed together. A mall is an efficient place to shop, but it is not a downtown that connects to community. It is designed to be an island, which are its strength and weakness.

          The redesign worked, according to an article on the internet by then city manager Joe Lacy. The narrowing of the main street, angle parking, and maneuvering room created by eliminating two lanes of traffic caused accidents to drop from 80 in 1961 to six in 1964. Lacy also writes that the increase in shopping in the downtown delayed construction of the mall for 18 years. Some people are just shoppers. Just consumers. But most of us have lots of interests and needs. By offering diversity, fairly convenient and accident-free parking, and shopping, the downtown extended its life not just for the 18 years until Mesa Mall finally came, but to the present.

          The downtown just outside this restaurant is a challenge to all of us to exercise the same foresight and courage to prepare our communities to adapt to a changing world.

          What does it take to achieve community wide action? It takes a crisis, it takes the intelligence to recognize the crisis, and it takes a community that is willing to come together to respond to that crisis. Grand Junction back then knew it had to act together, or lose its downtown once the mall arrived. The town, I will bet, had extraordinary leadership that convinced Grand Junction to come together to confront a common danger.

          The same unity, with a very different group of people, was in Telluride and Crested Butte in the 1970s. Both had been mining towns, but the mining was gone or just hanging on when into those towns came urbanites looking for cheap rent, new lives and new ways of making a living. They were initially resisted by the old timers, who tried to use the laws against marijuana to chase off or jail them. For example, the District Attorney of Pitkin County asked the US border patrol to check all Aspen residents coming out of Mexico for drugs.

          But that DA and local sheriffs and the old political structure didn’t last long. The newcomers quickly took over the towns, bought up commercial and residential real estate for dimes on the dollar, and set about building very different economies using the bones of the old community as scaffolding. They also could behave extra-legally. The mayor of Aspen in the late 1960s, Dr. Bugsy Barnard, patrolled State Highway 82 at the head of that old western institution – a posse. His deputies were armed with chainsaws, which they used to clear cut a forest of billboards. They never grew back.

          Nothing happens in a vacuum. Starting in the 1970s, the people flow out of rural areas reversed, and urban people began moving into rural places across the United States. Black people flowed back into the South, encouraged by the new Civil Rights laws. And so-called “hippies” moved into the West.

          The new economy in the mountainous West was aided by a booming ski industry. But the towns here added their own wrinkles: festivals and attractive places for urbanites to live their western fantasies in both lavish and modest second homes, condominiums and time shares.  They also made the towns attractive, paving the streets and sidewalks, moving the dumps out of sight, improving the water and sewage systems, and putting foundations under buildings that had sat on dirt, shifting this way and that, for a century. It could be they were less afraid of debt. It could be they had a longer term vision than the community they displaced.  

          We were summer people in the 1960s near Crested Butte. We called it Doggy Town, because dogs could lie, undisturbed, in the middle of the main street. We couldn’t imagine a vital economy there. But the people who moved in to Crested Butte could.

          The creation of today’s ski towns, from the I-70 towns like Frisco and Breckenridge to Telluride and Crested Butte, was all about the incoming human capital and investment in infrastructure and shops and housing. The towns needed a new work force for a new industry. A now deceased Las Vegas-based history professor named Hal Rothman in his book Devil’s Bargain wrote that across the West, urban youngsters arrived in small western towns, put on Carhartts and Stetsons, grew handlebar mustaches, adopted their version of a Western drawl, often overlaid on a Chicago or Southern California accent, and became what Rothman called Neo-natives, pouring drinks, serving food, starting small businesses, ski instructing, leading horse trips into the back country, and so on.

          Club 20 just held its annual fall meeting here. When Betsy and I and our kids moved to Paonia in the 1970s, at the height of the urban invasion, Club 20 had a campaign called “Ask a Friendly Native”. It only seemed to be aimed at tourists. It was really aimed at the long-time residents, encouraging them, begging them, to be less surly toward the urban people who were flooding western Colorado.

          But it is one thing to be reluctantly polite. It’s another thing to enthusiastically, imaginatively, help change your community. The neo-natives moved into the employment and entrepreneurial vacuum created by the natives’ reluctance to abandon old economies and ways of life.

          The ski and quaint western town tourist boom has been over for some time. If the winters continue to get milder, it will be interesting to see if the ski towns prove as capable as Grand Junction in coping with the busts that always follow booms in the West. 

          Grand Junction’s first major mineral-energy boom was uranium, spurred by bomb building in World War II and then by nuclear power. Then came the oil shale boom of the 1970s, created by then President Jimmy Carter. He put solar panels on the White House roof. More substantially, he put $88 billion into the Oil Shale Trust Fund, igniting a gold rush that hadn’t been seen here since the uranium boom.

          Betsy and I had skin in that game. We published Western Colorado Report, which focused on the doings of Occidental, ARCo, Exxon and the others. Exxon  intended to divert the Missouri River into the Colorado River so it could build one 50,000-person city after another. Back then, Grand Junction didn’t have 50,000 residents. That officially ended May 2, 1982, Black Sunday, when Exxon recognized that oil prices weren’t high enough to sustain an oil shale industry. It had really ended when President Reagan took the solar panels off the White House roof and ended price controls on oil, letting the market go back to work. In months, gasoline prices dropped by 50 percent, and western Colorado went to sleep.  

          Remnants of the boom can be seen on Battlement Mesa. It is now a retirement community, but it was first built for oil shale workers.

          In the wake of the Exxon pullout, Grand Junction bonded itself to expand infrastructure. In general, Grand Junction used its booms to strengthen itself as a regional center: retail shopping, St. Mary’s now immense hospital, the airport, museums. The area suffered during its busts but always emerged from the cycle more anchored – less likely to blow away. That has to be the measure of any western town, surrounded as we are by the ghosts of communities that have disappeared.

          This isn’t the talk I expected to give. Or the one I wanted to give. I’ve lived in Paonia for 39 years, and was a summer visitor for years before that. I love the town. And in fact, we ran a local newspaper during the 1970s, and were as clueless as everyone else when it came to seeing what lay ahead in terms of the downtown.

          When it comes to preparing for the future, Paonia is still unable to come together behind a vision of our future. Because we are divided, and because our county government, while united, can only conceive of desperately hanging onto the present, and because our favorite economic development saying is “We don’t want to be like Aspen,” while not have a saying about what we do want to be, we let things happen to us, unlike Grand Junction and the ski towns.

          I ended up telling this story thanks to a good friend, writer George Sibley, who commented on an earlier draft, forcing me to look more honestly at what I was saying.

           I hope this story comparing two communities may cast some light on the places you live and care about. If not that, I hope it has at least been entertaining.

 

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