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  • Last modified 162 days ago (Feb. 9, 2017)

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Living on the edge

Discouraging news this week out of Hillsboro, where Marie Kessler has decided it’s time to close the doors of Kessler’s Kreations, one of the few remaining downtown retail anchors.

Last week it was Marion saying goodbye to Cindy’s Family Café, leaving another downtown storefront empty.

In Peabody, a David vs. Goliath battle is shaping up, pitting hometown Peabody Market against likely newcomer Dollar General. Will two retailers peddling a boatload of similar products find enough customers to profitably co-exist? Will grit and ingenuity win out over cold, hard numbers?

That’s life balanced on the precarious edge of an economic precipice, one foot dangling in space, the other wedged in a toehold, and arms flailing this way and that as we struggle to stay in place.

Those flailing arms have swept in some definite positives in the year since about 50 county businesspeople came together to enumerate our challenges, and for those we’re glad.

We’re not trying to be “nattering nabobs of negativism,” as Spiro Agnew once said, but it won’t do to stick our heads in the sand, either.

We can’t ignore that one state university rates the county’s economic health as “very poor,” while another projects that in 2024, just seven years from now, we’ll have roughly 400 fewer school-age children than we do today, and nearly 1,400 fewer people overall.

We can’t ignore that despite frequent reminders from this newspaper and others to “shop local,” Department of Commerce data shows that 92 other counties are better than we are at keeping retail dollars at home.

“Shop local” isn’t a slogan; it’s a survival strategy for a county living on the edge. It’s not a magic bullet to solve all our ills, by any means. It’s a way to hold on to what we have while we work to get more.

The few bucks you think you might save by bypassing your local retailers, multiplied by scores of others who think the same, jeopardizes jobs and businesses that we sorely need to retain. Without those businesses and jobs, families will look elsewhere to find the security they need.

We also need to get others to “shop here,” and something Marie Kessler said about the reasons she’s closing is pertinent.

Hers is the kind of shop that would’ve been a marvelous fit for a destination shopping district. Downtown Hillsboro isn’t that, but not too long ago, Kessler said, shops like Nancy’s and Little Pleasures, in combination with hers, were enough to coax out-of-towners for a nice shopping day trip. Without them, out-of-towners were harder to attract.

It’s a good lesson that’s come with a tough price tag: There’s strength to be found in numbers.

Not just any numbers, mind you, but the right mix of businesses and attractions that appeal to people with time on their hands and money in their pockets. We know that’s a tough formula to create; a mistake is for communities to think they have to do it in isolation.

Remember, we’re talking about drawing people who’ve already hopped in their cars for a drive of 20 miles and more. A great number of them don’t think twice about driving 10 to 20 minutes to get to a destination in their own towns; that’s Marion to Hillsboro, Peabody to Florence, etc.

Everybody wants a slice of the pie, but there won’t be much pie to slice if we don’t start thinking beyond our individual self-interests.

Shopping isn’t a cure-all. If we’re to have a bright economic future in Marion County, we need much more, and something that may point us in the right direction is on the way.

Word has it that the economic development committee created last year by county commissioners is about ready to reveal its recommendations, likely next week.

They’ll be reporting to a curious triumvirate: a long-term commissioner who’s overseen an economic development program that isn’t configured to produce the results folks are now demanding; a well-intentioned, enthusiastic greenhorn; and a lame duck serving out her final weeks and soon to be replaced by a wild card.

But make no mistake, the intended audience is all of us.

Knowing Chris Hernandez and several committee members, they’ll come in with a blueprint for what needs to be done and how they propose we can do it. That plan will undoubtedly place county government in the roles of player and catalyst, but we’re certain it will ask much of cities, schools, financial institutions, entrepreneurs large and small, and the public, and will ask that the parts combine resources and talents for the good of the whole.

It’s not up to county government, or city government, for that matter, to drive economic development in a free enterprise system. Devoting resources where they can, governments can help create a business-friendly environment and woo potential employers, but what leaders can be above all are catalysts and champions for change.

The county is the hole in the middle of a regional economic doughnut. I think we’d all rather be the sweet, sweet center of a fabulous kolache. That’s going to require a new recipe, new utensils, and some new pastry chefs. Short-order cooks won’t cut it.

We’re a county living on the edge. It is the edge of night ushering in a new day? That will depend on just how badly people, not governments, crave kolaches for breakfast instead of doughnuts.

— david colburn

Last modified Feb. 9, 2017

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