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When the roof comes down
SoVaNow.com / August 21, 2013Longtime residents no doubt will remember the days when a visit to downtown Chase City meant shopping at the Leggett’s and Roses department stores, interrupted by a bite to eat at the O’Briens Pharmacy lunch counter. If the big bucks were burning a hole in your pocket, you could always head down to one of the town’s two auto dealerships to buy a new set of wheels.
Today, of course, none of these Chase City businesses exists, unless you equate the old Roses with today’s Roses Express, a poor comparison indeed. The golden age of Chase City commerce passed long ago, leaving empty storefronts as testaments to the bustling little town of memory. The Leggett’s building, square against Second and Main, was the literal and figurative centerpiece of downtown. Now that its roof has collapsed, resulting in the building’s condemnation, symbolism is the least of Chase City’s problems.
It’s easy to walk up and down its streets and lament the signs of blight and absence of foot traffic, but it’s not like the citizens of Mecklenburg’s North Star are alone in seeing their downtown district turn south. Rural communities across the country are struggling mightily with the hollowing out of their local economies. In the immediate vicinity, there’s only one downtown that I know of that one could fairly describe as downright happenin’ — Farmville, which has a way-cool state park-slash-biking and hiking trail running right through the commercial district, to go with a furniture outlet operation (Green Front) that swallows up warehouse after warehouse that line the main drag through town and, of course, a college. This is not exactly a model that is easy to replicate elsewhere.
What can be done to revitalize a place like Chase City? It should be apparent by now that the answer involves more than the usual palliatives — streetscape projects, enterprise zones, pavilions and parks and the like. Chase City actually has a very attractive downtown district, and the town’s leaders have done themselves proud by integrating the Estes Center so effectively into the heart of the community. But the last time economic revival was seriously on the table for Chase City, the topic of conversation was the proposed Osage biofuels plant and the jobs it was supposed to bring. In hindsight, of course, the Osage project proved to be as ill-fated as they come. (Sorry, Hopewell). But the point should be lost on no one: Without jobs, rural America has next to no chance to arrest its downward spiral.
This simple fact makes the tone of our current economic discourse all the more frustrating: Steps to create jobs now and into the future — by doing basic stuff, such as investing in schools, roads and other infrastructure — have taken a back seat to the politics of austerity that remains all the rage in Washington and Richmond. Combine this punish-the-poors economic mindset with extreme, take-no-prisoners political gridlock, and the results are so mind-bogglingly bad that you end up with a Congress that can’t even pass a Farm Bill, for crying out loud.
On the flip side of the coin, the thrust of economic policy, particularly on the monetary side (i.e., that which is controlled by the Federal Reserve) seems designed to prop up bloated banks and quick-buck investment houses, thus elevating the interests of finance over those of manufacturing and favoring capital over labor, Wall Street over Main Street. There are a number of economic commentators, from Kevin Phillips to David Cay Johnston to Dean Baker to dozens in between, who write about this stuff all the time, and are much more knowledgeable and eloquent on the subject than yours truly could ever hope to be, but you don’t have to possess a Ph.D. in economics to understand how the playing field is often tilted against small communities. Just to take one obvious example, why are Chase City’s retailers required to charge a sales tax with each transaction while Amazon.com is not?
It would be helpful if Mecklenburg County could land a few more nice-sized manufacturers to bring much-needed payroll to Chase City and our other towns. Such a happy result might even transpire some day, particularly if Washington changed policy direction and sent Wall Street to the back seat behind Main Street. Yeah, I know. Until such time, Chase City’s best hope remains what it’s always been: a stubborn refusal to shrivel up and die. You see it in the ongoing efforts to make the downtown a more inviting place, and in the work of the town’s businesses to fill consumer niches that open up in our Walmart-dominated world. (If you haven’t visited Chase City’s shops and restaurants lately, you might be in for a pleasant surprise.) Chase City’s downtown surely will suffer once the Leggett’s building comes down, but it was never realistic to expect the landscape to stay forever the same. Everything changes, and it’s no small encouragement to see folks striving to change with it.
Little towns with long histories (world-beating or not) tend to have strong, even prickly civic cultures. Mecklenburg is a bit of a special case in that it is blessed with several towns, each with its own distinct identity and interests, that sometimes act in concert with each other and sometimes don’t. Once you get past Chase City, South Hill, Clarksville, Boydton, La Crosse and the rest, however, it’s possible to find areas where the sense of community, such as it is, must be invented from ground-up, seemingly on the fly. The scattered developments along Lake Gaston offer a good example.
A couple of weekends ago, I traveled down to Eaton’s Ferry to take part in the annual Crossing swim across Lake Gaston, sponsored by O’SAIL (the Organization in Support of the Arts, Infrastructure and Learning on Lake Gaston). The Crossing was an absolute blast: It attracted 127 swimmers who traversed the watery mile from one dockside restaurant (The Pointe) to another (The Waterside). Several dozen others floated across the lake on kayaks, inflatables, or whatever other goofy vessels they thought to conjure up.
This is the ninth year for the Crossing, and its organizers have done a magnificent job putting together a smoothly-run event. And some of the swimmers! Remind me not to compare times with the Crossing’s triathletes-in-training.
Which brings us to the thought: What about organizing a triathlon on Buggs Island Lake? In a perfect world, I’d love to see Mecklenburg County’s towns work together on a Lake Country Ironman: a long swim across the lake at Clarksville, a bike ride through Boydton, Chase City and South Hill, and a footrace on the Tobacco Heritage Trail from South Hill to La Crosse and beyond. (The trail extension to Lawrenceville could accommodate a half-marathon. Just sayin’.) Of course, the logistics involved in an undertaking like this would be daunting, and maybe the idea is not even remotely feasible, although conceivably an event could start small and grow over time. Two things I do know: Triathlons draw a dedicated following of hard-chargers and go-getters, including young professionals that every community would love to have more of, and the exposure for the Lake Country would extend beyond the usual audience of fishing and boating enthusiasts. The more, the merrier.
Of course, it’s one thing to throw out ideas, quite another to make them stick. Clarksville came up with the idea of reviving its 1960s-era powerboat races with the Hydroplane Challenge, and that undertaking seemed to be going quite well until it finally became too expensive and complex and fell by the wayside. In its absence, Clarksville could use a big fall event to follow on the heels of July’s Lakefest celebration. What better time than a cool October day to invite a bunch of half-crazed workout fanatics (at $50 a pop, say) into Mecklenburg to experience the thrill of utter exhaustion and potential physical breakdown? An idle thought to venture from the comforts of the office, I know, but one that’s easy enough for me to say.