Commentary: Small towns are never stuck in time
By Will Shoemaker
A few friends and I made our annual pilgrimage to the middle of nowhere last week to chase game and unwind.
From our campsite along the banks of the North Platte River, we watched wild turkey rustle through freshly fallen leaves. We fished for rainbow trout a few steps from our tent, and the main attraction of the week — hunting for pronghorn antelope — was in no short supply right across the river.
Our secluded campground — we were the only guests all week — was on the outskirts of the town of Glenrock, Wyo., whose motto on the sign announcing entrance to enclave of a couple thousand residents is: “Big enough to enjoy, but small enough to care.” As I waited in line for a bag of ice at the only grocery store in town, the cashier knew each customer before me by name, and vice versa.
To an outsider like me, Glenrock seemed stuck in time, but I know better based on recent experience. The American West is growing increasingly urbanized, and as this happens the urbanites seek out-of-the-way places to escape — as we’ve seen right here in the Gunnison Valley.
There’s a tendency for small-town folk to fight the change to preserve their backyards — or at least their notion of what it once was. Take, for instance, Brush Creek. Signal Peak. Complete Streets.
The opposition to these government-led initiatives is, at its foundation, opposition to a changing community. However, the backlash says nothing of the underlying cause.
Last month, an e-mail blast from a local realtor caught my attention. As he looked back on summer, he recalled a season defined by “vigorous buying of high end properties and record breaking real estate sales.” Among the factors he credited for the surge was “popularity.”
“Crested Butte is on the map,” he wrote. “Our real estate, lifestyle and amenities are attracting people from all over the world.”
Gunnison is hardly free from the growth in popularity — and accompanying problems. For instance, Western State Colorado University Dean Gary Pierson reported at a recent meeting I attended that the school lost students this year because they couldn’t secure housing.
Sometimes we lose sight of the inevitability of change in a small town. For obvious reasons. We like things just the way they are.
It’s particularly problematic for tourism-reliant communities, whose very existence is based on outside dollars delivered by visitors, some of whom figure they like the place well enough that they stay. Can we blame them?
From Aspen to Jackson, Taos to Telluride, the “problems” faced by these towns are largely the same. Once driven by mines and cattle, their economies — like ours — now export thrills and memories and prop up real estate speculation. That comes with trade-offs.
Many of us came to escape the crowds, and now the crowds are coming to escape bigger crowds elsewhere.
So we fight it as we know how — by calling politicians on the carpet and accusing them of striking backroom deals and attempting to ram-rod projects to completion.
But it’s a losing battle. Because the changes are the result of outside forces which we can’t fence out. It’s unreasonable to think that for a state expected to double in population over the next 30 years that we’ll forever remain free from the look and feel of more populated areas.
Temporary roadblocks to initiatives intended to mitigate the adverse effects of change will only lead to bigger problems — and bigger problems may create a place few want to live, visit or do business.
Whether we like it or not, the Gunnison Valley is moving in the direction of other similar, tourism-driven communities — and market demand (bolstered by voter-approved marketing dollars) is driving that move.
Maybe it’s time to talk about using those dollars differently, or even doing away with our “bed” tax altogether. Then again, turning off the marketing-funding faucet may result in a whole new set of economic problems.
As I was leaving Glenrock last week, a construction crew was demolishing a motel built in the bygone days of a fossil-fuel boom in the area — an example of the inevitable ebb and flow of industry.
Because here’s the thing: No matter how much we love small towns, no one has figured out how to get them to stand still.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)