Posted by: Brad Stanford | September 26, 2016

A Small Town Revival Pattern

There has been a running question for a few years now about small towns: “What purpose do they serve anymore?”

It use to be that small towns were centers of commerce for the majority of people who were farmers and tradesmen. Small towns were where road, river, and rail met, so they were hubs where you could buy, sell, and trade. Today if I need something, I can very easily order from Amazon and have it delivered to my door. There are certain things I wouldn’t order like that – building supplies, for instance – but for many things, the internet is the center of commerce.

In our town of Dublin, Texas, we did have something going for us, and that was tourism. We had the old Dr Pepper plant that was making original recipe Dr Pepper with cane sugar, rather than high-fructose corn syrup. Because of the restrictions on the delivery area, the fans of this beverage had to come here to get that product. But a very public falling out between the local plant and Dr Pepper corporate led to the end of both an era, and tourism. We’re recovering slowly, for sure. We still have Dublin Bottling works, the Dr Pepper museum, the Ben Hogan museum, and other museums that are quite fascinating. You can very easily make a day trip out of visiting Dublin.

But we very suddenly found ourselves asking the questions that we had ignored up to this point, a symptom of laziness brought on by us being comfortable with our identity as Dr Pepper, Texas. Questions like:

• Who are we?

• Who do we want to be?

• What do we have to offer?

• Is there a reason (or reasons) for the town to exist?

It’s difficult enough asking these questions about one’s own life, let alone the life of a group of people that is a small town. And for a long time, I think we’ve been waiting to see if salvation popped up on its own without us having to do much. This is partly because of experience – things often just work out – and partly because no one large group of people agrees on a direction, or has a great idea about what to do.

After studying other small towns that have recovered from near oblivion and the habits and characteristics of modern people, a pattern is beginning to develop. First, modern city life has taken its toll on many people. While Americans many hold to the belief that life is about having your favorite stores within a five-minute drive from their homes, there are groups of people who look for more out of life than convenience. They’re searching for meaning, or at least new perspectives. People in this group are often attracted to small towns – even dead ones – because at least a small town has the residue character of people who built and accomplished things. Often, people in these groups are artists looking for inspiration and ideas to communicate with others. When artists move in, restoration begins. That may not be a hard and fast rule, but there is definitely a pattern there.

Next, there are those who have climbed the big city ladder and now have work that they can perform from anywhere. When they see the inklings of a small town recovering – think store fronts being rebuilt and internet access – they will move to get out of the rush. Trading Starbucks and Chili’s for no commute, no rush hour, no noise, and no pollution seems to be a good trade (and it is). Life slows down. Work quality goes up. Now, outside money starts to come in. They invite their friends to come visit. People find rest and relaxation. Word starts to spread.

Now, businesses that are needed to support these two groups and their visiting friends start to spring up. And now it becomes easier to live there. This brings in the third man: those looking for a town that is well on its way, and just needs a little more energy to become vibrant again. Some will live and work in the town, others will start making a regular commute to be a part of something special, something that’s full of life.

As these phases develop, the town organically finds its new identity. This could be through purposeful meetings of those concerned, or simply by a chain reaction of activities that inspire each other. Whatever the case, identity springs up, and it works. The energy becomes self-sustaining, and even the old fuddy-duddies who said it wouldn’t happen have to admit that things are happening.

There’s no formula to make this happen in a given town. At least, not yet. But the patterns are intriguing and really speaks to the idea that life finds a way. People aren’t designed to have everything handed to them in a convenient, marketing-department-designed package. They need meaning, purpose, involvement, and a lifestyle of their own choosing. The path of college/job/kids/minivan/stability/retirement that was once called The American Dream has proven to be one more institution that has crumbled under the weight of reality. And as people scramble away from the falling constructs, they will be finding themselves taking up shelter in the one place where life has always been real: the small town.

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