My sister lives in the town where we grew up. She hasn’t lived there continuously. She has lived in many places since she graduated from high school, but now that she is semi-retired, it works for her to serve as the caretaker of a family property and to live in our old home town. Since she has moved back there, she keeps me informed about the happenings in our town. Many years ago, the high school we attended was abandoned. The building had simply become too much of a liability, Dealing with all of the needed health and safety upgrades would only be part of the expense. The building was filled with stairways and most classrooms and bathrooms were not at all accessible to those who use wheelchairs or walkers. The time had come for a new high school. With the promise of tax payments and an increase in population from a mine in the mountains south of town, the community passed a bond issue and built a new high school.

The old high school remained mostly abandoned, except for the gymnasium, which was repurposed as a community center and continues to be used for community functions.

A few years ago the main part of the old high school caught on fire and burned. The structure was brick, but there was plenty of tinder dry framing lumber in the building to make a spectacular fire. For a while the rubble remained, with a hastily-erected chain link fence around it. Community-minded people chipped in to start the clean up. Some items were salvaged and auctioned to offset part of the cost of clean-up. Some people donated the use of equipment. Others volunteered their time and labor.

As the community worked together to clean up the site, some folks began to dream about what might be done with the site. The block where the high school was located now contained the gymnasium-become-community-center, the public library, the old phone company building which is now a community museum, and the empty lot where the school used to be. The idea of a community park became popular among the folk. Some of the people had visited Rapid City’s Main Street Square and wondered if something like that would work in our home town. More talk continued and a committee was formed to do some research.

Yesterday, I happened to be exchanging text messages with my sister as she was attending a community meeting about the proposed community plaza. It is a concept with which she is familiar, having lived in Portland, Oregon, with its Pioneer Courthouse Square and often visited Rapid City with our Main Street Square. The presenter, however, was making a big sales pitch for community squares. She supposed that there were some people who were less familiar with the concept who needed to be convinced. After a few text exchanges, I began to recognize the “pitch” being made by the presenter at the meeting. The more she wrote to me about him, the more familiar he seemed. I ended up guessing his name. He is from our town and was a big promoter of Main Street Square and several other projects around town.

Later she told me she had left the meeting without being sure what he was trying to sell. I know him and I know the answer. He was selling himself. He believes that he would be a good consultant on the project in my home town. He has hired out as a consultant before and earned some respectable money by doing so.

I have no idea whether or not hiring a consultant for such a project is a good idea, but something strikes me as not quite right about the idea.

Rapid City has a population of 74,421, and a history of steady growth over the past 20 or more years. My home town has a population of 1,674, very nearly the same population as 20 years ago. The ups and downs in population in my home town are directly related to the price of the metals taken from the mine. When the price is low, the mine shuts down. When the price is high it goes back into production. Boom and bust is the cycle of many mining towns.

But that isn’t the only difference between the two towns. There are plenty of other reasons why simply copying an idea from Rapid City won’t work in Big Timber.

I haven’t lived in that town since I was 17, nearly 50 years ago. I don’t know the community, and the members of the community I do know are all old timers. I suspect, however, that the people who live there are intelligent and creative and filled with good ideas. They have a wonderful city park and a lot of other attractions. I’m pretty sure that they are capable of deciding what to do with an empty lot in the center of the town without the need to hire outside consultants, even very good ones who have lots of experience.

The spirit that cleared the lot - volunteers and generous folk - will go a lot farther towards bring about the future the community needs than a desire to behave like a much larger community by hiring consultants.

We somehow keep convincing ourselves that there is great benefit in hiring folks who are not from here to help us, however. Back in South Dakota, our governor decided that we needed to hire an out-of-state advertising firm to design a drug awareness campaign. They did come up with a slogan that I’m pretty sure would not have come from any South Dakota advertising firm. I still don’t know if the ad agency folks are among the large number of Minnesotans who are laughing at South Dakota’s “Meth. We’re on it.” ad campaign. What if the whole thing is just a big South Dakota joke that they tell in other states.

Communities are strongest when they work among themselves to solve their own problems.

I’ve decided that my home town doesn’t need my advice about whether or not to hire a consultant for their project. I won’t be weighing in on the decision one way or another. They’re good folks. They’ll make a good decision.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!