by Howard J. Grossman, AICP
A 413-page book titled “Our Towns” may have significant implications for the future of the Pocono-Northeast. Written by husband and wife James and Deborah Fallows, the book follows their air trips to many towns across the United States, and points out how these communities changed and had specific steps to become a standard bearer which other tons possible could emulate. It was a 100,000 mile journey that enabled them to meet hundreds of civic leaders, workers, immigrants, educators, artists, public servants, librarians, businesspeople, city planners, students, entrepreneurs and others to help craft solutions to problems.
They identified ten principles which can be utilized in this region to isolate new ways to improve community life throughout the Pocono-Northeast:
■ People work together on practical local possibilities rather than allowing bitter disagreements about national politics to keep them apart. They pointed out that the more often national politics came into local discussions, the worse shape the town was likely to be in.
■ You can pick out the local patriots. In other words who makes the town go? It varies greatly based upon the list above.
■ The phrase public-private partnership refers to something real. They identify partnerships such as Greenville, South Carolina, Holland, Michigan, Fresno, California and others.
■ People know the civic story. Every community has a story, and successful tries are found in such locations as Columbus, Ohio, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Allentown, Pennsylvania, Bend, Oregon, Eastport, Maine and others.
■ They have downtowns. It is the quickest single marker of the condition of a town. They point to the Main Street project of the National Trust of Historic Preservation, and downtown stories such as Greenville, Burlington, Vermont, several in California and others.
■ They are near a research university. They point to Rapid City, South Dakota and the presence of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and Clemson and the array of automotive-tech firms that have grown up around it in South Carolina.
■ They have, and care about, a community college. They potentially offer a connection to higher-wage technical jobs, for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage, They point out that nation-wide, only about 40 percent of those who start at a community college, finish within six years, and believe that this needs to be removed as a negative factor.
■ They have distinctive, innovative schools. Some are charters, some are special statewide public academies, some are religious schools, some are private academies, and some are traditional public schools that are carrying out new ways to instruct.
■ They make themselves open. Attracting new people to move into the community is an important factor. The emphasis on inclusion would make a town attractive to talented outsiders and increases the draw to its own emigres. Sioux City, Fresno, and Burlington are examples of this trend.
■ They have big plans. Cities can still do things such as planning. When a mayor or city council shows a map of how new downtown residences will look when they are completed, it is a sign that perhaps you will want to return to that locale.
These ten are added to by one other marker. Craft brewing is a trend that affects many communities the Fallows point to the growth of local brewing pioneers across the nation. There are now more than 500 and more are expected in coming years. It appears to be a sign of civic energy. But the most important contributions the Fallows made in their five-year journey are the specific examples of civic engagement that are spread throughout the book and these are possible ways for this region to grow.
Here are some samples:
■ In Erie, Pennsylvania, there is a Multi Cultural Resource Center with the theme of being active, and not passive along with other steps that have been taken.
■ Holland, Michigan has more manufacturing facilities than many other places, public art, and passed a bond issue to help resolve public school issues.
■ Burlington, Vermont has a commercial airport with many features not found elsewhere along with many other factors to improve that community.
■ Libraries, according to the Fallows have become the heart and soul of American communities, and they point to Columbus, Ohio and many other locations, as excellent examples.
■ Other communities noted include St. Marys, Georgia, Caddo Lake, Louisiana-Texas, Duluth, Minnesota, Charleston, West Virginia, Columbus, Mississippi, Dodge City, Kansas, Winters, California, Redmond and Prineville, Oregon and a host of other small and medium size communities.
The point behind this travelogue is to utilize examples that already exist as a tool for looking at this entire region, adapting some of the same ideas, and seeing what can be done, similar to the Fallows’ examples. The setting of this book as a reference guide for the Pocono-Northeast, and for that matter other Pennsylvania communities, can stimulate new approaches to old problems and become a familiar process that can sustain the growth and development of regional life in coming years to improve the quality of life for the one million plus citizens who reside in the whole region for the generation present and those to come.