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What Sadie said

It’s a little hard figuring out just what to do with a letter to the editor a reader dropped off at the office last week.

Sadie Bernhardt of Marion was 93 years old when she penned the letter that ran in the Marion County Record in 2005. She died five years later, hopefully with some satisfaction that she’d said her piece, although there’s little evidence that much came of it.

She, like the reader who encouraged us to run the letter again, was concerned about the decline in business in Marion, but she could just as well have been writing about Hillsboro, Peabody, Florence, or any other town in the county.

I knew Sadie when I was a kid through her recreational activities, seeing her often at the golf course and bowling alley. To me, she was Albert’s wife, he who ran Marion Hardware, a great place for a wide-eyed curious kid to explore. It wouldn’t be until years later that I would come to understand that she had her hand in there, too, not just in a bowling ball or wrapped around a 9-iron.

Al and Sadie ran that store for 25 years. Born on a farm south of Marion in 1912, she had life and business experience to back up what she wrote in 2005.

She tells a story echoed by one told to me in July by another Sadie, 100-year-old Sadie Decker of Peabody. It’s a story from when they were young, of a time when Saturday was shopping and visiting day. It was nearly impossible to find a parking spot in either town’s business district as folks flocked to the stores and then stayed well into the evening to visit with relatives and friends.

Sadie Bernhardt’s letter ticked off the numbers of all the different kinds of stores she’d seen come and go over the years — 12 grocery stores, eight clothing stores, five hardware stores, and many, many more. Most all of them were long gone by the time she wrote her letter. Seniors in other towns could undoubtedly create their own custom lists of “once upon a time.”

No, 93-year-old Sadie was not content with the state of business affairs in Marion, and she beseeched anyone reading to make filling Main St. stores a priority, and to patronize the businesses we had.

She closed with this:

“I love our town and I know we can do great things if we ALL work together.”

In the years since Sadie wrote her letter, there’s been activity in towns throughout the county to try to stimulate business growth and economic development, with at best mixed results. Groups in individual towns have pulled together, but while one can point to increased sales tax collections, it’s just as easy to point to empty storefronts and declining overall population.

County business people haven’t been oblivious. It’s coming up on two years since people from all over the county filled the Marion Community Center ballroom to talk about the challenges of economic development and yes, as Sadie pointed out, the need to work together to turn things around.

In response to that meeting, county commissioners convened a task force that unveiled a mechanism this spring that they hoped would move us forward as a county, together.

Several months later, that plan is in jeopardy. Marion and Hillsboro are reluctant to go all in, Peabody and the county have had trouble finding willing representatives, and the economic development corporation intended to move us forward together is stalled. There’s no new board, no new high-powered economic development director, and no clear plan.

What would Sadie have to say if she could see where we are now? I honestly can’t say, but I’d be surprised if she were encouraged that her words had been taken to heart.

It’s obvious to those with even a scant bit of knowledge that we can’t go back to days when Al and Sadie’s hardware store thrived on the corner that’s now Liberty Park. The business world has changed. People’s shopping habits have changed. If there were demand sufficient for their services, new businesses would have replaced the old as they did for much of our history.

Instead, it’s second nature for Marion Countians to take their dollars outside the county at a rate greater than more than 90 other Kansas counties. Shop at home has become shop abroad not because locals are fickle, but because business, consumer demand, transportation, technology, attitudes, and more have changed.

Yet many still cling to the past. Growth to them means recreating the Marion, Hillsboro, Peabody, and Florence of the 1950s or 1960s. Some cling to past rivalries and suspicions.

It’s encouraging that most of those involved in current efforts appear to have at least embraced the notion that growth won’t come from trying to rewind the clock, but from charting a new and challenging path that will look different from the past but could be equally prosperous.

We’ve seen what’s happened over the years with the all for none and none for all approach. We’ve largely been treading water.

The new county economic development corporation isn’t a magic bullet that will fix everything. We’re still waiting for those involved to get their acts together and give us more than concepts and promises.

But it can be a new tool in the economic development belt, a different tool with a purpose complimentary to what’s already been happening.

The greatest value of it may be found in Sadie’s words: “I know we can do great things if we ALL work together.”

Is that wisdom for the ages, or a dreamer’s folly?

— david colburn

Last modified Oct. 26, 2017

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