Embracing the Economic Blues

CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

When you walk the streets of Clarksdale, Mississippi, you can still hear the voice of blues legend Robert Johnson – ringing from the shop windows as well as from passing cars.  There’s a revival going on here and it’s all about the blues – about a respect for the first generation bluesmen who are honored and revered.

But it’s not just about a cultural renaissance.  The blues pays, a concept that folks from all walks of life have begun to latch on to.

Economic Blues

The Renaissance of America’s Hometown

HANNIBAL, MISSOURI

Like unto Samuel Clemen’s legendary protagonist, Tom Sawyer, Alex Addison, the present-day, barefoot ambassador of Hannibal, is all business. “I see [riding the economic downturn] not as a challenge but as a goal – it’s starting to click, [things locally are] going to be really good,” explained Alex, age 13, holding his own in a round-table interview with Mayor Roy Hark, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Terry Sampson, and City Planner Jeff LaGarce.

Taking a day out of his busy schedule as Hannibal’s official “Tom”, Alex took me for a tour of ‘America’s Hometown’ with the polished grace of a professional politician.  Together, we visited everybody from the local, modern-day judge, to the minister, to of course, the city’s old-school mayor.

As we talked about the building blocks of America – of what made America great – I learned that Twain’s literature, along with a now bustling Main Street, is making all the difference, at least locally here in ‘America’s Hometown’.  There is a buzz in the air along Main Street, as shopkeepers brave the financial crisis in hopes of a year that for many is landing solidly in the black.

The trick, as far as I could see, was a love and rallying cry from business owners and citizens alike to preserve the downtown district.  “Preservation doesn’t cost – it pays,” exhorted local resident and former PBS television personality, Bob Yapp.

After traveling the world as a foremost expert on home restoration, with his own show on both PBS and NPR, Mr. Yapp decided to settle for good here in Hannibal, describing himself as one of “Hannibal’s expats” who “are coming to Hannibal [with a love of Hannibal’s] architecture.”

But it isn’t just Mr. Yapp’s generation of eclectic friends, ranging from potter Steve Ayers to the next-door Bed and Breakfast innkeepers of the Dubach Inn,  that are excited about restoring America’s architectural past.  Yapp is busy mentoring and teaching at-risk youth from the local high school, many of which enjoy their time “on site” so much they plan to take up the trade.  “I actually want to do exactly what Bob is doing,” explained one Hannibal High School student, going on to exhort, “when you’re here you actually get to do stuff and work on stuff that you actually want to do.”

Which could describe the new Mark Twain Boyhood & Museum Executive Director Cindy Lovell’s take on Hannibal to a tee, self-describing her time in this town as “being intoxicated with the history [of Twain] ever since stepping foot into Hannibal.”  Dr. Lovell’s eyes glance around her as she walks these streets – observing the very homes and hills and river and buildings that directly inspired Hannibal’s favorite son – Mark Twain – with an all-knowing smile that one can’t help but find contagious.  “I think Hannibal’s history is so linked to the past,” continued Dr. Lovell, “in the preservation of the past, the lessons we learn from the past.  And we have to be vigilant.”

From the city officials I was most fortunate to meet, to the next generation of high school artisans, I believe that Hannibal, and through her example, America’s hometowns around the country, will continue to experience a re-birth of sorts as revitalization begins to hold sway.  “Across the nation, small communities are reinventing themselves,” continued Mr. Yapp. “And they’re having a renaissance in the sense that… things change.”

Continuing that walk, Dr. Lovell looked up, gesturing to the top of Main Street.  “Tom always has his eye on the future,” explained Dr. Lovell.  “That’s why when you look at the statue of Tom and Huck, lording over Main Street from the base of Cardiff Hill, you will see Tom stepping into the future.”

“Not only do we have a good past,” explained young Alex Addison, “but I think it would be better to have a good past and a great future than a great past and an okay future.”  A future that judging from the next generation of Hannibal, is most certainly going to be bright.

Tom

A Community that Feeds Itself

PRAIRIE du CHIEN, WISC 

Sustainable agriculture meets sustainable communities in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Albeit, for a town that bills itself as “forward thinking” it was interesting to witness first hand a winning strategy that effectively brings them back to their roots.

AGcommunityCPam Ritchie, Executive Director of the Opportunity Center and the former chair of Prairie du Chien’s Main Street Revitalization Project refers to her work as “community cultivation.” As she explains, “There are a lot of stories [from] many, many years ago about what Prairie du Chien looked like on a Friday night and it was lined with farmers in overalls and families on the streets – talking, gathering together, doing their shopping for the week – spending their money locally and supporting these businesses which in turn supported them.”

One of these farming families would have been the ancestors of six-generation sustainable cattle rancher Greg Koether, who resides on his family’s 600-acre ranch just over the bridge in McGregor, Iowa.
Besides raising and marketing his cattle locally through Grass Fed Beef, he takes time out of his schedule to introduce the importance of quality, AGcommunityBsustainable food practices to the bright young learners at Prairie du Chien’s B.A. Kennedy Elementary School.

And he’s most certainly not alone. When the school did not yet have a “Farm to School” initiative in place, local parents and self-described “concerned citizens” Kathleen Hein and Marty Green developed a spin-off  all their own which they called “Food for Thought,” complete with the motto: “Our Food – Our Community.” The big idea, “To educate the kids about where food comes from, grow a children’s community garden on school grounds, help local farmers by getting their products into the school lunch system, [and in so doing to] connect the community.”

Walking the streets of Prairie du Chien it is easy to feel a genuine excitement in the air from farms to schools to downtown businesses. As Pam Ritchie explains, “There was a group of citizens that really got serious – they got to the point where they were ready to apply for a Wisconsin Main Street status AGcommunityEand with that they were able to hire an executive director and create a membership of both downtown businesses and community members.”

Which has made all the difference – the bold, rather simple idea that when you talk about revitalizing downtown business, it’s not only business owners that are interested in creating change. Residents of the town can and do participate in effectively giving their downtown district a facelift – in so doing, creating what Kathleen Heim described as “a snow-ball effect” of bona fide town-wide enthusiasm.

Jake Stephens, originally from Florida, is considered a “new resident”, only having lived in this town for ten years. In an area where most families go back five or six generations it can be a daunting task to blend – to fit in. And yet as a direct result of Prairie du Chien’s revitalization he has decided to participate – to share his ideas and his talents – in essence to share with the town the time of his life. When asked to offer a definition of the term “sustainable community” from his perspective, Jake explained, “A AGcommunityAsustainable community [is] a community that … feeds itself, if you will, that keeps its energy churning and building here rather than going elsewhere.”

“The word ‘community’ is really starting to mean that here,” continued Jake. “Its great … it makes me wonder what I was doing for the past ten years and why I didn’t get involved because just a few people can make a difference. That’s what it all means.”

Small business meets community success – The Andy Wells Story

 

BEMIDJI, Minnesota

Andy Wells III of Wells Technology was honored recently by President Obama himself for his success in business as Minnesota Small Business Person of the Year, and moreover, for his willingness to share this success and knowledge with his community – the Red Lake Ojibwa Tribe.

 WellsAA“It was a surprise to get the award from the Minnesota Small Business Administration but also a bigger surprise to be invited to Washington D.C.,” explained Mr. Wells. Upon arrival to the White House with small business award winners from different states, Andy was seated in front as a ‘special guest’ – a guest whom President Obama would address in his speech on the “courage and determination and daring” of great leaders, stating: “It’s what led Andy Wells, a member of the Red Lake Ojibwa Tribe to invest $1300 back in 1989 to found Wels Technology, manufacturing industrial tools and fasteners, and creating jobs near reservations in Minnesota, where he lives.”

 On a reservation where the penitentiary equals the size of the local high school it can be a difficult thing, as a young person in the community, to move oneself forward – to actually visualize the word ‘hope’. Andy Wells hires the people that all other business owners pass up – the young, formerly misguided ex convicts, the alcoholics – people who have made poor decisions in the past but who show determination to make something better out of their lives. Wells’ philosophy:  “You’ve got to help people… that’s the root of success.”  He offers a program that not only teaches the machining trade but also betters and strengthens the character, teaching honesty, self respect, as well as what it means to truly have pride.

And he’s successful doing it. Last year, Wells Technology’s proceeds equaled 54 million dollars, profits which Mr. Wells turns around to better the community.

WellsAUpon arrival at Wells Technology, which doubles as Wells Academy, it struck me as an interesting concept to put a classroom front and center in the headquarters of a main business office. “Every day is an open house,” explained Mr. Wells. “Every day we’ve got a busload of reservation kids or church groups or even car enthusiast clubs coming around. When the busses pull up you can see who the tough kids are – the ones who smoke a cigarette outside before coming in and hang their head in the classroom. But when we start to show them how our products help shoot flares out of military helicopters and other interesting things, they perk up – they start to ask questions – they start to understand why it is important to learn about math and science.”

 Mr. Wells is a pillar of not only small business in Minnesota but also the pride of the local community as well. And yet all of this success hasn’t changed Mr. Wells, hasn’t made him at all prideful. When I asked the Mayor of Bemidji, Richard Lehmann, to describe Andy, he simply explained, “Andy is one of the humblest, kindest men I have ever known. Incredibly intelligent. A real pleasure to meet and to learn from.”

WellsC “There is book learning and there is other wisdom,” explained Mr. Wells, referring to the system of ‘elders’ within the Native American community. “The [positive] influences began in my life early – it was neighbors, my parents, my grandparents … A neighbor friend, named Charlie Barrett, who really had no formal education but was a very humble neighbor noticed me running ahead of the adult groups quite often and he said to me, ‘Why don’t you open the door for people when you’re up there.’ At the time I thought he meant the physical door but now when I look back, maybe he meant more. Maybe he was a wise fellow like many of the wise people I’ve met, and he could see that perhaps one day I would be able to open doors of opportunity for people – and now that’s one of my main missions in life – to continue doing things that help other people because so many have helped me.”