The January 2015 issue of Shenandoah Valley Electric’s Cooperative Living magazine contains an insightful and illuminating article by Charles Lee, former president of Mississippi State University, who once served as Clarksville’s interim town manager in Mecklenburg County. Some of his observations merit not only a second look, but broader dissemination and thoughtful answers. For example:
“The size of a town is less important in determining its future than what it ‘does with what it has.’ Towns built on a set of shared beliefs about their futures will continue to be attractive, if they have good leadership that can stimulate broad participation in public affairs.”
The Town of Shenandoah, has a population less than 2,400. I work with a small independent group called the Shenandoah Improvement Team, and I have recently published the second edition of “In and Around The Town of Shenandoah,” a guide to what to do and see in town and within 10-15 miles. Those are two things I have done to improve and promote the town.
I also have used my photographs on post cards, greeting cards and wall hangings as a way to celebrate and promote the town. The immediate response to my hobby at Town Hall was to advise me that I need a business license and special use permit, both of which are unwarranted by definitions in our own town code and the Internal Revenue Service’s definitions that distinguish between what constitutes a hobby and when it becomes a business.
The town has done more to discourage the Shenandoah Improvement Team’s efforts than to help, and although residents have expressed interest in my guide and I have provided a copy to town hall, the response has been silence.
My 36-page magazine-format guide identifies and describes major points of interest in and around town, and responds to Mr. Lee’s first point, which raises several additional questions:
- What is the town doing to celebrate and promote its points of interest?
- What do our elected officials and paid staff consider the town’s major selling points?
- How do they spread the word about these features?
- Who is in charge of promoting and publicizing the town? and
- What, specifically, is being done to attract visitors, business and new residents?
- Where is the plan to promote Shenandoah to each of the above groups, or is it left to the county and the Chamber of Commerce?
These are not idle questions. They are important questions that frankly address what we are doing to extricate ourselves from a quagmire of stagnation and complacency and to take a direct role in shaping our future. They are questions that deserve specific and thoughtful answers.
In a closely related point, Mr. Lee says:
“The biggest threats to the future of small towns are resistance to change and apathy, and it will take more than funerals to subdue these scourges.”
I submit that, anyone who responds that it’s always been this way and he doesn’t care, is not going to be part of a solution.
“Likewise,” says Mr. Lee, “the smaller the community, the more influence the naysayers have.”
More to the point, Mr. Lee claims that “In economically depressed towns, citizens and leaders often accept lower expectations about what they can achieve,” warning that “You have to guard against this becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
In another incisive point, Mr. Lee says that individual leadership is “perhaps the most important factor
influencing success. Leadership plus passion can displace apathy and fear of change to make things happen, and good leaders serve as role models for the next generation.”
Making the general specific, where is the passionate leadership in Shenandoah? Who are the town’s leaders? By that, I am not asking, who are the elected officials or who are the paid staff, but who is showing leadership? Who is doing more than reacting to issues, questions or problems? Or are we comfortable in apathy?
I should confess here that I ran for Town Council in 2014 and was defeated. Fair enough, the voters have spoken and I am fine with their decision, I always have said that, for better or worse, voters deserve those they elect. The winner is their choice, but then what? As one who never had considered public office, I ran because I believed that, as a recent new resident I offered a distinct alternative to those who have been part and parcel of the prevailing culture. The winning candidate has lived her for 30 years, so clearly most voters did not share my view.
So be it.
Mr. Lee says, “Natural leaders tend to avoid leadership roles in troubled towns.”
Before completing his thought, we should ask whether Shenandoah is a troubled town. If by troubled, we mean filled with violent crime, absolutely not. I doubt that there are many if any towns in which it is safer to walk the streets at any time of the day or night without fear of violence or a threat of violence. Crime here is largely the result of boredom or domestic disagreement. I suspect that sheriff Taylor would have told Barney Fife not to bother carrying a bullet in his pocket.
If troubled means that our children and teens have nothing to do, nowhere to hang out, no activities, no job prospects and no intellectual stimulation, yes sir, we’re talking River City—without even the pool.
Now a somewhat tangential question: Where is the planning commission? Here is a body of men and women who have expressed an interest in doing something for the town. They—we, truth be told—have been trained and certified at some expense to understand issues and make recommendations to the Town Council, yet we meet only when a specific issue or request comes before us. I don’t believe that it is an exaggeration to say that the planning commission never meets to plan, to evaluate the town’s direction and needs and to make appropriate recommendations. Other than being required by state law, what is the reason this body exists? To my way of thinking, not meeting is a dereliction of duty.
“Because small towns have so few leadership positions, every vacancy on staff or Council represents a[n]…opportunity for new ideas and positive change,” says Mr. Lee.
In terms of growth, Mr. Lee recommends recruiting firms, such as a call center, that need the skills residents have. In Shenandoah, we have vacant buildings and high-speed Internet that could easily accommodate such firms or most satellite offices. Rent, utilities and the general cost-of-living is relatively low, making this an ideal site for such businesses with the added advantages of beautiful mountains and the Shenandoah River minutes away.
So, how is Shenandoah directing its future? We know that my efforts and the efforts of the Shenandoah Improvement Team have encountered more resistance than support, so if these are not appropriate avenues to promote and celebrate the Town of Shenandoah, what alternatives are you suggesting, and who will be responsible for leading the way?