This country is littered with dying small towns that lacked a plan B, one that they should have had before the plant closed or the factory moved to Mexico.
Mount Shasta, California and Ashland, Oregon got it right. In the California-Oregon border region where I live, they avoided economic devastation by getting their survival plans well advanced when their sawmills closed more than half a century ago.
In fact, Mount Shasta was ahead of the curve by more than 100 years thanks to a guy named Justin Hinckley Sisson, who planted the seeds for the city’s future reinvention as a tourist recreation destination. Sisson, a Connecticut schoolteacher, moved west and reinvented himself as a rugged outdoorsman. In 1866 he opened a hotel and restaurant on the lower slopes of Mount Shasta and began taking visitors on hunting, fishing, and mountaineering excursions.
The lumber boom that had started at that time had pretty much died down by 1990, when the last lumber mill in Mount Shasta was closed.
By then, a wave of newcomers, drawn by the area’s recreational opportunities, had picked up where Sisson had left off, opening outfitter shops and offering tour guide services. A new ski park was opened in 1985. All of this has been complemented by a new range of motels and restaurants. Beginning in the late 1990s, a non-profit organization called the Mount Shasta Trail Association, fueled by grants and private donations, greatly expanded the area’s hiking opportunities, adding 20 miles of trails along lakes and rivers and on the slopes of Mount Shasta, with more 46 miles currently in progress. All in all, this resulted in a smooth and powerful transition from a timber-based economy to one based on leisure tourism.
Seventy-five miles up the road is another former timber town, Ashland, Oregon. The last of the eight lumber mills closed in 1967. But an English professor at the local college, Angus L. Bowmer, had already laid the groundwork for the city’s reinvention. Bowmer had worked part-time as an amateur actor and had the idea of converting a disused building in City Park into a setting for Shakespeare plays. The City of Ashland offered him $400 and funds for a construction team—just enough support to get his project off the ground.
Every small town has its share of talented, enterprising people who crank up the art galleries and microbreweries. But they can’t do it alone.
The first two productions took place in 1935 and became an annual event: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. By the 1960s the festival had transformed Ashland into a major theater town, drawing fans of the bard from all over the west coast. As of 2019, the Ashland Chamber of Commerce estimated that over 100,000 people attended the theater festival each season. Its success has spawned a number of other live theater venues.
What do these two successful urban reinventions have in common? Both promise that visitors to the city will leave their dreary, boring lives behind and find something new and exciting.
A successful reinvention is a tide that lifts all boats, that attracts hikers and skiers and theatergoers that fill the hotels and restaurants and keep the retail registers humming.
But what happens if the tide doesn’t come?
The small town I live in, Dunsmuir, California, is an example of what happens when you don’t have a plan B. Dunsmuir is just 10 miles down the road from Mount Shasta. In its heyday, Dunsmuir was a thriving railway hub for passenger trains, equipment repairs and crew changes. Ten passenger trains came through each day, but now most of them are gone. There are only two passenger trains a day, and freight train crews are less than half what they were in the days of steam locomotives.
Before or during the railroad’s demise, there was no plan B. Now, more than half a century later, well-intentioned folks are playing catch-up here, trying to bring the city back to life, but through piecemeal efforts: a new art gallery, a smaller one Venue, a microbrewery, some pretty good restaurants.
None of this translates into a solid rebrand. The city has shrunk from 2,200 people when I moved here 26 years ago to 1,700 today. This is despite a number of factors in Dunsmuir’s favor: The Sacramento River flows directly through Dunsmuir. It is considered one of the best fly fishing destinations in California. Hiking trails abound and the slopes of Mount Shasta and the ski park are a short drive away.
But new businesses tend to come and go with a high turnover rate, like the equipment business that only lasted a few months. An Oakland entrepreneur who had made a deal selling novelty properties in China bought half a dozen downtown properties 20 years ago and promised it would be the beginning of the city’s revitalization. These buildings are still empty. It’s difficult to come up with a plan B in a depressed economy.
In her book our cities, Journalists James and Deborah Fallows found common ground in successfully reinvented cities across the United States. This included an openness to newcomers, to new people who bring new talents and ideas to their new home. In these “open” cities, newcomers often find opportunities to reinvent themselves itselfto use whatever skills and talents they have in new ways in this new, stimulating environment. Retired accountant who brews his own beer at home opens microbrewery. Or the English professor goes into the theater business. Or that a Connecticut schoolteacher opens a hotel and begins taking visitors on hunting and fishing trips.
In Dunsmuir we see similar personal changes that could lay the groundwork for a successful reinvention of the town: a former Bay Area stock and bond trader took over the fly fishing shop. A former bank employee from San Francisco runs the hardware store.
Every small town has its share of talented, enterprising people who crank up the art galleries and microbreweries. But they can’t do it alone. They need visitors and ideas from elsewhere. And people need to channel their positive energy and talent in the same direction and come up with a theme, a story for their city to tell. Otherwise, they probably have a nice, quiet town with lots of empty storefronts.