Revitalizing small towns is hard to do [Commentary]

On Sunday, I went to watch a documentary called "Medora" at the Bel Air Film Festival, about a small, dying town in Indiana and its underdog high-school basketball team that ultimately ends its embarrassingly deep losing streak.

Former town planning director Carol Deibel and current town economic development director Trish Heidenreich talked about how the town of Bel Air successfully avoided this fate.

The town was far from vibrant several decades ago, before it got a new burst of businesses, bars, stores and major events like the BBQ Bash and people became excited about hanging around downtown Bel Air.

I totally agree with Trish and Carol that Bel Air is basically the polar opposite of Medora, at least as portrayed in the movie.

But the movie also totally reminded me of other towns, not too far from Bel Air, that are struggling perhaps as much as Medora.

The movie explains that two major factories in Medora had closed, striking a blow to its economy.

Medora's public school, meanwhile, was down to roughly 70 students. The other schools in the area had been consolidated, giving them hundreds of students and more opportunities in education and sports.

I think plenty of small towns continue to struggle to live up to their glory days of prosperity and a vibrant community, with different degrees of success.

One big example, I think, is Port Deposit. In 2010, Port was one of the only towns in the Harford-Cecil area to decline in population, losing 23 residents in 10 years.

The town continues to struggle with managing its finances, water and sewer issues and business life. Town employees are hard to keep, so are town elected officials.

Residents always talk about how pretty and vibrant Port Deposit used to be, how there were things to do and the community was more self-sustaining.

An even sadder story – at least, in my opinion – is towns that either disappeared altogether or are barely a shadow of their former self.

There's the historic African-American community of Dembytown, in Joppatowne, which I wrote a whole column about earlier. All that's left of it is a church on Trimble Road.

There was the actual town of Conowingo, reportedly "drowned" when Conowingo Dam was built.

There is also the struggling town of Perryman, once at a much more vibrant crossroads. Last year, I wrote about St. George's Spesutia, the oldest Episcopal parish in Maryland, ending its worship services in Perryman.

Even a relatively larger town like Havre de Grace seems to be doing better than it once was, but people still constantly complain about the lack of small businesses and an exciting life downtown.

People see Havre de Grace's potential, comparing it to much wealthier waterside towns like Annapolis, but major retailers and economic opportunities still seem few and far between.

I'm not an economic development director, a historian or a prophet, so I don't want to guess at what magic mix of solutions would make a down-on-its-luck town more vibrant.

I do think, though, that it seems like a big waste of an investment to let a small town die out while fancy new developments are built down the road.

When I see block after block of boarded-up houses, for example, I always think: "What a waste."

These were communities that people spent years building, investing in and living in. In many cases, they are better constructed, better designed and even more energy-efficient than anything being built today.

(Why does a new school building need to be built every 50 years or so, when buildings from the 1800s are still perfectly inhabitable?)

I do think a key ingredient, though, is having people who don't give up, who are willing to keep trying to build something out of the rubble.

One thing I liked about the "Medora" movie is the handful of adults – the high-school basketball coach, a church pastor, an athletic director – who continued to believe in the people of the town.

They didn't see kids with no future and a meaningless, dead town. They refused to give up and, eventually, Medora's basketball team turned around its losing streak.

It may be just a small step. It may be "just a basketball victory," while the factories are still boarded up.

But I think that glimmer of hope is what keeps people looking for new solutions and keeps the spirit of the community alive, which is what matters in the long run.

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