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Street Talk

Last week in the name of economic development through historic preservation I hit the road. Drove a few miles and listened to others. I heard from people, those in small and big leadership situations, ranging from local community developers in towns with less than 500 people to statewide elected officials.

Hearing the voices and observations seemed to make it clear that much innovation and initiative starts at the so-called bottom of the leadership hierarchy and moves on up. There’s several theories on leadership and one is the bottom up versus the top down.

Perhaps that’s an overly simple explanation as to how direction and leadership works. I’ll say it seems to work best when every voice can be heard – emphasis on every.

People who have my job in the 130 Main Street towns across Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi were meeting in Eureka Springs, Ark. Butch Berry is the mayor of that town and he is an architect by trade. If you have not been to Eureka Springs, you should go. It is a gem of a small town. 

Mayor Berry said the town was on hard times back in the 1970s, the local economy was tough and the buildings suffered. He said they were, “too poor to tear down, too poor to fix up.”

But a preservationist attitude set in, as the town has a rich architectural history, and the entire town was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of the few towns so listed. (Just as a side note, Water Valley’s Main Street and downtown is listed as a 100-building district on the National Register since 2012.) There’s no question Eureka Springs is a lovely place to live now due to preservation efforts made 40 years ago.

Rachel Reynolds from Couch, Missouri was there. She’s a folklorist by trade, but has been working to make life better for her town. The town of Couch has as its Wikipedia description, “A post office called Couch has been in operation since 1887. Couch, Missouri is an all Baptist church town filled with a variety of people from meth heads to preachers and a troubled boys teen ranch. The community has the name of George W. Couch, a first settler.” 

Couch is in the Ozarks and Rachel organizes a Farmers Market and library and music venues. Her story is pretty inspiring, not for her alone, but for the response from the people of Greater Couch. Folks decided to take what they already had, like buildings and talent and local resources, and used it to make their situation better for all, but mainly for the young people in town.

Barb Pahl has been in field services for the National Trust for Historic Preservation for 34 years. The “Trust” is the parent organization for Main Street. She’s based out of Denver. She told a story of one of the last blocks of historic downtown Denver being saved in the 1970s from demolition and how again that very same block, despite historic buildings being fixed up now, is being threatened by demolition again by a steamrolling developer. She wondered why it takes one hour to get a demolition permit from the city, yet it takes many months to get rehabilitation permits and inspections. 

She made the comment that, given the economic impact preservation has to collective value of a business district, that re-use of buildings should be the default use by code and demolition the absolute last choice. It seemed to me her point was cities were incapable of looking out for and taking care of their very soul.

 And where is the soul of a town? Is it in the people who live there or the buildings that stand the test of time or just in the physical location of the soil on which it rests? I’ll suggest it is all three, a trinity if you will. Lose any one of the three and live in a soulless place.

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