Why some towns prosper and others fade

Of Cabbages and Kings

It's a rare conference that engages most of us beyond two hours. So I was astonished at how absorbed I became in Toward One Oregon last Friday at the Salem Conference Center. The one-day conference explored urban-rural interdependence.

The most insightful comment of the day came from an Oregon State University professor who said that in spite of all the economic and census data we had viewed, there is a humanities aspect to what distinguishes rural Oregon from urban Oregon. In other words, the human quotient defines rural areas and their future as much as the movement of goods and capital.

In this column and on Friday, I will explore themes that emerged from Friday's event:

? The importance of human capital overwhelms all other factors in the rebirth of rural Oregon. A corollary is that education is everything.

? Openness to diversity is essential to a town that wants to move forward economically.

? Rural places once were more sophisticated than they are today. To progress, they must cast off the limiting role imposed by the big-box culture and seek the sophistication of entrepreneurship.

? Americans are hungry for community and real places, not for the anonymity of the big box/franchise culture. Strip malls look alike - whether in Warrenton, Vancouver, Wash., Indianapolis or Alexandria, Va.

? Rural Oregonians should quit griping about the federal government and understand an historic reality: The Pacific Northwest is a creation of the federal government.

? Old images never die. If a rural town aims to change, it must advertise that ambition.

? Local ownership of property is akin to self-determination. Without that, rural towns resemble colonies - the captives of absentee landlords.

Because our company's newspapers serve rural Oregon and Washington, I get an education in rural affairs every day. Over the 21 years I have lived in Astoria, I've made a study of why some small towns have turned the corner from languishing in the wake of a robust natural resource-based economy while others atrophy. Prodigal sons and daughters bring skills, networking and investment capital.The chief ingredient that I've noticed is what I'll call the prodigal son (or daughter). This is the man or woman who has grown up in a rural place, leaves for college and a career, and returns. That person brings with him professional competence, contacts, the ability to network and sometimes even investment capital. Such people are a key reason why Astoria is having a renaissance.

The other person who is making a difference in small towns is the man or woman whose profession allows them to be anywhere, by virtue of the Internet. The North Coast and the Long Beach Peninsula began seeing these people some 20 years ago. Now they are showing up with regularity. Like the prodigal sons and daughters, they bring a network, skills and often investment capital and the ability to raise money from philanthropic and private sources. Sometimes these people will be denigrated as outsiders, but therein lies an important point. The virtue of the newcomers is that they aren't bound by the inertia or myopia of a town's longstanding self-limiting culture. They are free to see possibilities that longtime residents resist.

To attract newcomers, it is essential that a small town has an aesthetic. My definition of aesthetic moves beyond beauty to include art and history. A town with an aesthetic evokes its spirit through art and decor. Astoria's aesthetic is on display in numerous locations. It is an aesthetic rooted in seafaring, fishing, logging and the ancient Chinook culture. By contrast, Pendleton's aesthetic is only beginning to emerge.

- S.A.F.

FRIDAY: The difference between real places and theme parks, singular places and anonymous ? local ownership matters ? rural Oregon loses a statewide information medium; will OPB be the replacement?

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