Looking for a New Year’s resolution?
Rifling through old file folders a couple of days ago, we ran across a note written maybe a decade and a half ago — one of those “really great ideas” we all get from time to time but never manage to find time to actually do.
It was bit of a gimmick, inspired by (the postmodern way of saying “copied from” an approach that used to be called public journalism, back before nearly every newspaper in the country was sold by heirs of civic-minded local publishers to hedge funds that gutted them for their real estate.
The twist — what was going to make this particular idea “great” — was a minor pun in its name: “Marion County 2020: A Vision for the Future.” You know: 20/20, eye tests, that sort of thing.
The idea was to interview all sorts of people — officials, business people, average residents, so-called experts — about their vision for the county in the very far-off year of 2020, a time by which babies being born that year would be graduating from high school.
Maybe, just maybe, ideas would emerge that could unite everyone behind common goals that could become shared realities.
Included were several samples of fanciful objectives. To avoid embarrassment, we won’t itemize them here. Suffice it to say many were the local equivalent of flying cars and other impractical expectations worthy (depending on your generation) of “Buck Rogers,” “The Jetsons,” “Back to the Future,” or “Tomorrowland.”
It’s too late now, of course; 2020 is upon us. But before we start raging about the lack of jetpacks and Hoverboards in our future-is-now present, it’s not too late to contemplate what we really want and really can achieve if we put our minds to it.
Truth be known, the biggest thing holding us back is ourselves. In today’s society it’s popular to excuse lack of performance on inherent challenges and to grouse about how “they” really ought to do something about whatever we want. But solutions don’t come when we talk about “they.” They come only when we talk about “we.” The future is a first-person affair. Speaking in second or third person prevents the future from ever becoming the present.
Perhaps the saddest truth we must face is that we don’t need jobs to attract workers. We need workers to attract jobs. Among the biggest impediments to Marion County’s development are low unemployment, lack of an especially skilled work force, workers’ unwillingness to go all-in on entrepreneurial ideas, and corresponding willingness to settle for hobby employment and clock-punching, semi-skilled government jobs.
It’s nigh-on impossible to find not just skilled workers but also workers willing to learn a skill. Lack of available labor holds back many local businesses, including this one, and discourages others from locating here.
Part of the challenge can be answered by education, provided students, parents, and schools are willing to prioritize long-term careers over short-term fame from such things as athletics and activities. But a lot also is about attitude — encouraging the best, brightest, and most motivated young people to remain in the community rather than flee it for the bright lights of the big city.
Those of us in the been-there-done-that category have grown to realize that, while options may be limited in a community such as ours, they may in the end be more fulfilling. Society will never completely avoid the desire of young people to escape from the nest, but we need to be more encouraging of those who want to escape back to that nest and the familiar and supportive environment our community can provide.
Finding those people and learning what we need to say and do to encourage them is the No. 1 challenge Marion County faces in 2020. We don’t pretend to have the answers, but we are confident that, as a community, we can find them.
All of this hits a bit too close to home for those of us at the newspaper. This week we’re losing to retirement one of the people who did stay in Marion County and for more than half a century has been an indispensable member of the team that produces not only the product you’re now reading but also numerous civic endeavors in both Marion and Florence.
Melvin Honeyfield isn’t someone we can replace. Trust us. We’ve been trying ever since he first started talking about finally taking a more-than-well-deserved rest from his 50-plus years of faithful service.
We’re more than willing to provide tons of support and training to whoever fills his position, just as previous generations of staffers provided training for him. To date, however, not a single person has even applied. And we worry mightily that lack of adequate staffing may force us to do what we now do only in holiday weeks like this one — combine our three papers into one.
The hedge funds intent on gutting newspapers elsewhere solve problems like this by outsourcing the type of work Melvin has done. Visit nearly any daily paper in the state and you’ll see that design work like what Melvin does for local news and advertising is done not in house but by some distant “design hub” in places like Austin, Texas, and even overseas in India.
Something very important is lost when local communities outsource vital local services, and it’s not just in the quality of work done. Without Melvin, would Florence’s Labor Day be what it is today? Would the local Masonic Lodge remain active? Would the dozens of people he helped while serving as a volunteer ambulance attendant still be around? Or would there have been an old Lions Club project to provide eyeglasses to the needy?
You can’t do things like that from Austin, Texas, or from some dark hole in Calcutta. Just the other day we watched as Melvin heard a call on our police scanner and, even before police and ambulance personnel arrived, walked a block to help an elderly customer of another business who had fallen and couldn’t get up.
Small towns aren’t about creating professional services staffed by out-of-county residents to do such things. They’re about people like Melvin, going out of their way to be good Christian neighbors.
Our goal for 2020, both practically and symbolically, is to find and encourage more Melvins. The future of Marion County depends on them.
— ERIC MEYER