Friday, January 06, 2017

Rural Successes

My last post, in November, was about rural voters.  Surprise:  So is this one.

Yesterday, both the New York Times and the Washington Post weighed in on this vital demographic.

Both articles have great information.  The Times piece is a little more optimistic, and the Post's take is dramatically more pessimistic, but each provides important perspective.

I grew up in Cooperstown.  It's still my favorite place on earth.  What does that have to do with anything?

The Cooperstown I visit a few times a year is not the same Cooperstown where I grew up.  It's better.  It's a more tolerant, more open place.  We have a world-class hospital, one of the best in America-- if not the best in America-- for rural care.

We also have the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.  The Hall of Fame is a major driver of Cooperstown's change for the better.  The hospital is another.

Cooperstown was always a terrific place, but it has grown much more progressive.  It also can continue to improve.

The Hall of Fame attracts vast numbers of tourists.  They come from all parts of America.  A huge chunk comes from the East Coast between Boston and Washington, which makes sense, because those are major urban areas, all within a day's drive.  These tourists spend money, and they return, year after year.  The Hall of Fame staff is smart, dedicated, and committed to the village, the museum and its educational mission.

Growing up, Main Street and the surrounding streets had a women's clothing shop, a men's store, a department store, a movie theater and a variety of small businesses.  When I was in junior high and high school, those places began to close, replaced by baseball-themed shops and other entities, like restaurants, that catered to a tourism-driven economy.

My friends and peers would lament, "We'll never support a year-round economy on baseball."  I would hear this from fellow Hall of Fame staffers every day at work.  But the baseball stores kept opening and the other small businesses kept closing.  By the time I graduated from college, every store on Main Street was part of that baseball-themed economy.  Twenty five years later, Main Street is still thriving, and the village is indeed supporting a year-round economy on baseball.  The winters are tougher than the summers, but Cooperstown is prospering.  All those tourists have kept Cooperstown and its way of life from going extinct.

Bassett Hospital is another reason for the town's success.  It's a major teaching affiliate of Columbia University.  It draws top medical professionals at all stages of their careers, but particularly young doctors and nurses who start in Cooperstown and never leave.  It's a highly educated, gifted, talented workforce, bringing its collective values to the area.

Cooperstown's people, whether they are liberal or conservative, tend overwhelmingly toward tolerance and community.  Cooperstown's schools reflect its residents' strong commitment to a great education. 

Rather than wither, like many of the surrounding towns, Cooperstown embraced the institutions that would move it forward.  Yes, it had natural advantages, the hospital and the Hall of Fame, but it leveraged those advantages in ways that other places with similar advantages did not.

There are a hundred other factors that have allowed Cooperstown to reinvent itself even as it remains the same small town I've always loved.  That's a remarkable feat, for a place to change dramatically while remaining essentially the same.  Not all the changes have been great (and not all the things that remain the same are great, either), but the town has moved forward.

We can study its successes to learn how the rest of rural America can lessen the impact of the continued shift of jobs and people to urban areas.