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Friday, September 28, 2007

"We're working together for a better tomorrow"

Last night's Small Town Initiative Meeting, second in a series partnering our town with MSU faculty and students, (#3 will be Nov. 6; #4 on Jan. 9; #5 May 20), pulled a participatory audience equal to or larger than the initial meeting, much to the project director's surprise. The summer people are gone, so where did the big crowd come from? Well, summer is full of visitors, travel and general scheduling conflicts for everyone up here, and no one can get to all events. Fall is a little slower. Also, word must have gotten out that this meeting was the place to be.

How could our town be improved, and what would we like to see that isn't here now? Most of us already basically like our town and each other, so that's a good place to be starting.

This week's Leelanau Enterprise has two articles about other towns in the county with downtown beautification on their agendas. Cedar is ready to launch the second phase of its streetscaping, and Empire has decided to scale back its plans from both sides of M-22 to only one side, which makes sense, since you have to turn off M-22 to come into downtown Empire, just as you do to reach downtown Northport. Anyway, this kind of thing is going around.

In the 1950s, Richard Poston, working out of Southern Illinois University, spearheaded a community development field service. His earlier involvement in the Montana Study had led him to believe that university researchers willing to visit small towns and listen to their residents could facilitate rural rebirth across America. Poston's SMALL TOWN RENAISSANCE was published in 1950, and for him the dream never died. He came out of retirement at the end of the 20th century to help local citizens figure out how to revitalize Cairo, Illinois.

FAR FROM HOME: LIFE AND LOSS IN TWO AMERICAN TOWNS (1991), by Ron Powers, looks closely at the story of Cairo and Poston. The author contrasts this story with his own experience as a weekend resident in Kent, Connecticut. Cairo looked, Powers notes after his first visit, "evacuated." The curse of Kent, on the other hand, was its "success" as a desirable place to live. Too many well-to-do, part-time urbanites poured in, driving up real estate prices and replacing community values with those based solely on price, cost, profit. Powers urges the reader to see that too much growth, too fast, can be as divisive and destabilizing as decay. He realized, too, that he was part of the problem in Kent.

So far Northport seems to have taken a healthy path between these two extremes. We could use more jobs for young families, bringing more children to our little school, but "outsiders" tend to settle here full-time whenever they can, welcomed by third- and fourth-generation locals. It really is an unusually friendly place. I'd like to see more use of turn signals--and yes, more year-round business--but don't have serious, fundamental complaints. I'm lucky to be here.

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