Complexity and Change are Reality

(Yes, this is the post I mentioned last time)

The title is not referring to a fear of complexity and change but to a tendency to dismiss them.  If you’re a fan of the relatively recent focus in neurobiology, psychology, and sociology, you’re probably aware of the human tendency to seek causes, patterns, and simplified or unifying theories as a means of primal survival. Interesting stuff, and it applies to all of us in varying degrees. There’s definitely value in this tendency, or we wouldn’t have it; but just like most other human traits, each utilitarian tendency comes with a danger. I suppose this might be a funny way to start off writing about local economic opportunities, but there is a connection, at least to me. That connection is in our evaluation or understanding of our options and opportunities here, which is often based on “naturally” narrow conceptions of what “the economy” is, along with conceptions of what works when and where. Our tendency to simplify and find predictable patterns (for primal survival, at the root) often works against the need to consider “new” (although not much is new) or seemingly complicated options. Anyway…

One big thing that truly is new in terms of economic or cultural impact is the Internet and the information it provides. Among other things, it has helped foster a change that was already in the works: more and more people don’t see themselves choosing long term “careers” or vocations. One reason for this is the entrepreneurial spirit that blossomed in the mid-2000’s, and another is the availability of, essentially, training material on the Internet. The training material comes from both institutional/packaged forms and from a more “crowdsourced” version in the infinite forums with experts and other practitioners. Combining this with the Millennials’ tendency to do things differently, and the re-shaping and changing of “the economy”, as a concept, becomes clearer. That’s not to say we won’t still have the conventional elements of factories, construction, entertainment, etc., but that the smaller elements of the economy are likely to be much more fluid than before.

Think of the beer movement and the thousands of new micro/nano breweries that have popped up in the last five years. The same goes for various elements of the food movement, from the “new agrarians” to the thousands of new restaurants and mom-and-pop-produced food products. The cottage industry of repair, gadgets, and technology-based products has also blossomed. The internet provided the technical training/information, business tips, and marketing; and it’s ready to serve the same entrepreneurs and others when a new idea comes to mind. Things are different now whether you’re in a small town or city. To me, the biggest changes are coming to small towns under 25,000, but that’s not the main point of this piece.

The way this relates to the last post is that the break of the sequence of school, more school, life-long career means more temporary vocations and activities, and this is good news for us. I’m not suggesting the old sequence won’t also be followed by many, but that there’s a significant increase in the number of people interested in trying different things out. Sure, there are advantages to landing a job with benefits and a steady salary, but that doesn’t mean everybody (both husband and wife?) are interested in that. For many people, especially couples, a part time job or activity for a spouse is all that’s needed or wanted. The entrepreneurial movement is great for part time jobs –as both owners and employees.

By combining this emerging shift with our public schools’ programs in Work Based Learning, and we have a pretty nice environment for bringing back downtown buildings in terms of repair and use. It’s not a good time to be demolishing inexpensive structures. It might seem like we have a surplus of buildings in many of our small towns, but that is a temporary situation. Ironically, tearing them down removes the charm that attracts interest in development. We lose both the most affordable space ($30-$60/sf in purchase price plus rehab) and the appeal that encourages development. The demand for charming old downtowns has been growing since the 1990’s whether our decision makers are aware of it or not. The idea that “we can make a new building look old” misses two important points: cost per square foot is 2-3 times higher in a new structure (that debt service and principle has to be paid by someone) and the new building is not going to have the same draw, regardless of the assurances otherwise.  Neither old buildings that look new nor new buildings that “look old” have lasting appeal, and that appeal is a key element to our economic success. We need a “visible story” as someone recently put it, and the time appears to have come for us to make it visible and to make it work.

On that note, here are a couple of apps that can help bring our story to both locals and visitors. Very interesting opportunities.
Thanks for reading!


An Economics vs. An Aesthetics Approach to Downtown Revitalization

I’ve said many times that I sometimes think I should never have started emphasizing “preservation” or aesthetics as a reason for repairing and old downtown buildings.  I didn’t realize that it would be like announcing I was an atheist before proceeding to teach biology or physics to a religious audience.  It might surprise some people to know what an impact this has on attention an acceptance of the information.  The reverse is also true -it’s difficult for an atheist crowd to put much stock in what a believer says.  It’s not that it’s impossible, but depending on the person, there can be a sort of barrier put up in both cases.  Democrat-Republican, Conservative-Liberal, Hunter-Vegetarian….all have the same problem, even if they’re not talking about the usual divisive issues or anything “values”-related.

It’s also difficult to ask someone to “try to forget” that you’ve expressed a position on an emotional issue -well, you can ask, but it’s not likely to happen.  The assumption is that whatever point the “opposition” is going to make, it’s meant to simply, somehow, merely be a way to bring you to their side -and that taints the message.  And in a society particularly in love with “sides” and identification with “a side”, that’s even harder to shake.  Anyway…

I must admit that until recently I hadn’t spent enough time on the economics of the choices involved when considering “new” vs. “old” for downtown buildings.  It’s not that I didn’t care, but that I had a general idea of the existence of cost savings, and the aesthetics perspective already contained a certain amount of economics:  customers and visitors like old buildings, and the “old look” is considered to be an asset to feature by people in the business of economic development.

Forgetting about all of that for a minute though, I realized something as I was looking at things from a different perspective. In terms of investing in a downtown property or business, unless there’s a decent return on investment, nothing is going to be sustainable. It reminded me of a conversation I had about a year ago when someone asked if I’d help “save a building” in another town. It felt strange to say, but I told him that saving the building wasn’t going to matter without economic development in that town. It’s one thing to raise awareness, interest, and even funding for “saving a building”, but there has to be serious expectation that the building will justify itself. True, this justification could come from a committed group that just wants to fund preservation and upkeep, but even then it needs to have economic value eventually. This might seem like a tangent, but I don’t think so. It helped get me away from “preservation is good” and into “what’s a practical way for a community to meet its needs and perpetuate the population there?” That question gets into some very interesting conversations about what it means for a community to thrive or flourish. I’m just getting into one little piece of that –economic considerations of downtown redevelopment.

It might seem like spending $100k on a building without a supporting economy would be foolish. The first question though is about whether or not a supporting economy is wanted. If it is, the question is not what is “justified” in the absence of a supporting economy, but how we are going to create one. There are some important considerations about what people will patronize at a level that supports a business, and what are the combined effects of a few strategic businesses as opposed to a stand-alone perspective, or non-strategic retail/service offerings. In the end though, the question of building costs will come up. Depending on the arrangement, interest and maybe principle will have to be covered along with the usual operating costs. In the old vs. new question, these numbers don’t usually get laid out thoroughly, because the “sides” have already been created and joined.

There is one aspect of the aesthetics perspective that has to be included here. “Doing it right” does not mean making it look new in most circumstances –and it might just be the opposite. That has always been true in some cases, but it’s become even more important in the last few decades as we moved away from the “new is better” mentality of the 50’s thru 80’s. I have to mention this because it has a significant impact on both the repair method options and cost options. It can mean the difference between essentially rebuilding and making good use of existing elements –interior included (in spite of certain TV and advertising efforts encouraging gutting everything we see). It is a cost savings but also the preferred look and feel for many businesses.
From a return-on-investment point of view, it’s much easier reach the 5-10% level with $30-60/sf costs than $100-130/sf. There are also tax credit considerations on pre-1936 buildings –even without having a National Register listing. Even in the unusual circumstance where the cost of refurbishing approaches that of a new building, it is only the assumption that “new is better” that makes the project sound unwise to some people. A look at life-cycle costs, with knowledgeable repairs and maintenance, and return-on-investment, is the way to look at, rather than starting with “old is better” or “new is better”. Costs/Benefits can be discussed without getting into “sides” –but it takes deliberate effort. We can’t just say “energy savings” and “low maintenance costs” or “preservation is important”; we need good numbers, and they’re out there.

Finally, in the case of a small economy like Morocco, having a second or third income stream from one building is both a good business strategy and good use of space. As in the old days, doing repairs or fabrication “in the back” combined with some productive function upstairs keeps the owner from relying on retail alone. You need extra space for that diversification, and extra space at $30-60/sf is much better than $100-130. Newton Country just happens to have fair number of people in the “repair/restoration” trades and there’s reason to believe we can increase this number by working with local high schools. We have lots of old buildings and an economic interest in repairing and maintaining them. Like everything else, there’s an economic multiplier effect when locals do local work, so we benefit twice –at least. This and working with the high schools actually leads to some very promising alternatives from the last few decades, and that post will be coming up soon.

The Project

“The Project” of small downtown revitalization could be seen as a widespread effort, not just Morocco’s, but I’ll focus on Morocco. Each town has their own unique natural and built assets, so the opportunities are unique and depend on many factors. Many times the assets aren’t recognized by the people closest to them because of familiarity or being unaware of trends, and that’s one of the reasons it can be helpful to have outside groups come in for assessments and recommendations. Dan Blaney used to hold meetings with local business owners in the early 2000’s to talk about local assets and opportunities for redevelopment from outsiders’ perspectives –they were informative and encouraging. The visiting RISE2020 group in 2006 and the Revitalization Planning Grant consultants in 2012 got into quite a bit more detail, but much was similar. I mention these only because they all had the message “You’ve really got something here,” while many people wonder what it could possibly be and why anyone would spend time on such a project. Perspective makes all the difference.

As you can guess, the most common references to surrounding assets were Willow Slough, TNC’s Kankakee Sands, the Dairy, and “Old Time Morocco”. These assets were seen as reasons someone might visit Morocco and boost the economy –if the right businesses were in place and if the town were attractive. One of the most interesting suggestions from the 2006 visit was related to locally produced food –not just for our consumption but for the Chicago area market. Since that time the “local food movement” exploded so it’s not such a unique idea anymore, but it is still growing. Preservation of the downtown buildings was another recommendation. The same themes were repeated in 2012 but “cultural heritage” touring and appreciation had grown, so that was added as a major element. Of course both recommended capitalizing on Willow Slough visitors.

If you are wondering why “nothing happened”, I would say that things did start to happen and still are happening, although sure, we’d all like to see more money appear and less time elapse. I feel like it’s the common expectation of a giant grant that distorts our understanding of how revitalization happens, which is usually through new circumstances and strategic private investment in a coordinated plan. The relatively small grants available to towns can help, but they aren’t the main driver the way they are for infrastructure. The key is to get to “critical mass” quickly, so that investment in the initial business(es) isn’t lost due to lack of other businesses and foot traffic. To do this, there are some old assumptions that need to be shaken up, and fortunately there are examples of helpful shifts in small town economies over the last ten years that have created new opportunities.
1. Downtown lodging: This is for towns like Morocco with realistic expectations of overnight visitors. While the market certainly includes visitors to family and friends, Morocco is fortunate to also have a draw from some Willow Slough patrons and nature tourist/birdwatchers at The Nature Conservancy. The occupancy rate doesn’t need to be much (20% avg) in order to support a downtown business on the first floor. I won’t go into the full calculation, but in the “NAPA” example an 800 sf apartment is rented long term (back of upper story), along with overnight lodging in two small units in front. The atmosphere is intentionally vintage-classy in order to justify a slightly higher rate. The steady income covers building interest and principle (depending on mortgage length), so the start up business on the 1st floor is less burdened. In some cases, it could even go into the red without jeopardizing the enterprise as a whole. Of course this has major implications for the question of how a much-needed shop could be supported in the downtown, adding to the critical mass needed for sustainability.
2. Downtown grocery/market: Others have observed that the rise of “supermarkets”, which combined stores and moved out of the downtown area for higher volume, was one of several key factors that emptied the commercial districts over time. The very frequent traffic of the grocery stores made it much more likely that a nearby shop would be noticed and patronized. The grocery stores were the anchor stores of the old days. No one is suggesting we can or should turn back the clock, but the new trends favoring fresh and local food, even in Morocco, have created opportunities that had dwindled since the 1960’s. Ironically, the Dollar General chain actually helps the viability of local/fresh markets since shoppers don’t need to leave town for other essentials.

Also, the increased interest among farm families in supplying value-added products or fruit, produce, and meat, adds to “community revenue” and further enhances store viability in terms of margin, loyalty, and atmosphere (community). It’s not fool proof, but fortunately small town grocery stores/markets have become such an area of interest that there is plenty of guidance (and even grant money) to help small town America get fresh food back through more than just farmers markets. By concentrating related shops like bakeries and coffeehouses nearby, all benefit in volume though convenience and spillover.  Notice we’re not talking about a huge influx of visitors to allow this to start and grow, but it does take an understanding of new trends and ways to utilize them to re-establish some key stores.

The cost per square foot of building space is an important part of the viability equation, of course, which is one advantage of the old buildings (as are their common second stories). That and alternative “refurbishing” approaches will be the topic of the next post.

The Perceptions and The Project

People who are familiar with the development of new enterprises or economic re-development efforts, like Morocco’s town board is doing, often use the term “the messy middle”. It refers to a consistent pattern in new undertakings -as planning is followed by early actions but also unforeseeable and significant changes in circumstances on the way to the goal. The larger the undertaking, the less predictable. When they say “prepare for the messy middle” they mean to accept it and be prepared to work through it rather than giving up on the goal or mistaking necessary strategic changes for failure. Unfortunately, in a culture that often prefers the drama of “failure and fault” to positive outcomes or perspectives, changes and delays bring harsh accusations and incomplete “analyses” built from only small bits of information, and some of it untrue. We’ve all done it and will probably continue occasionally. It happens everywhere as part of human nature, of course, but the effect is still unfortunate.

Many people remember the “RISE2020” days in 2006 when Morocco took part in a pilot effort developed by the state to help small towns identify their strengths and opportunities. Some key elements of that plan didn’t develop as expected (Willow Slough changed), other needs in infrastructure overcame the limited time available for progress (sewer and water), but it’s fair to say that Morocco and the board are simply in the messy middle, on the way to the same goal. This sense was especially strong during the 2012 Revitalization Planning Grant presentations as the consultants repeatedly praised the boards’ various accomplishments in infrastructure improvements. The stage had been set for continued progress toward 2020. The $5 million sewer and water project hadn’t even been expected during the 2006 planning, but by 2012 it had become a reason for hope and praise. The messy middle had delivered some very valuable improvements after all –as is often the case, negatively-biased analyses aside.

The scene in downtown Morocco today is still part of the messy middle on the way to a promising outcome. The apparent delay in filling the downtown space between NAPA and Hickman’s is not a sign of “failure” but of care and inherent difficulty. Simply doing “something” is not an effective strategy for economic development or most other things, even if it does quiet the rumblings (or just change them). Although I have expressed disagreement with some of the board’s strategies and objectives related to downtown redevelopment, I understand their challenges and appreciate their commitment and resourcefulness.

I would have to say that last week’s board meeting and discussions afterward could be seen as part of the same messy middle along the way, and I’ve been grateful for the many conversations since then. As so many others have observed, it helps when “sides” give way to slower exploration of concerns and considerations, and it often leads to previously unconsidered options.

The Project is an approach to sustainable economic revitalization of our small town, and that’s the topic of the next post.

Sellers Station Update

(Skip to 3rd paragraph if you came here from the Facebook page)

Long overdue update. I regret having allowed Renewed Heritage to go dormant, but we are in the process of fixing that now. They say it’s not wise to do a project of any sort in the public eye with keeping people informed, and I had no reason to doubt that advice. Maybe fatigue with the obstacles and delays made me try to ignore the need to explain our situation. It’s a little long and there is no simple “bottom line”, but it starts with buried gas tanks. (I won’t go through it all here.) I will also jump ahead and let you know that we will go ahead with a temporary roof repair for now, and that’s what we’ve been avoiding. Cost/Risk/Benefit now points to raising/spending the extra money rather than wait any longer. Had I known it would take so long, I would have pursued it in 2011.
The next issue was the Catch-22 of needing ownership transfer to Renewed Heritage in order to get the Historic Preservation grant for the expensive roof, while that also meant exposing Renewed Heritage to clean up liability and disqualification from clean-up assistance funds –potentially much worse.

Temporary roof repairs don’t last long, don’t look good, and are expensive for what you get. The roof now is about the same as when we started actually, because we made a few temporary repairs then.  It has been a calculated decision that took into account the risk in terms of additional damage –very slight at this point. It’s like an old barn –a bad roof will eventually cause serious problems, but it takes quite a while, unlike in a house. Our in-house historic architect will be evaluating options this week, so we can coordinate the temporary measures with the eventual long term repair, in keeping with standards of the National Register of Historic Places.
Partners in Preservation and Indiana Landmarks provided the several thousand dollars needed for the research and applications for the “Sellers Gas Station and Pullman Diner” district designation (just two buildings in this case). That effort was only committed because of the combined contributions of Dave Lindlow and family, The Jasper/Newton Foundation, the many other financial supporters and others who worked on the building -paid and volunteered, especially Scott and Jill Deneau then Kevin and Shelly Knight and Cecil Stewart in the final weeks. Had it not been for those contributions, had the building looked like it did when they/we started (a picture many have forgotten, but I understand), the preservation aid groups would not have seen it as a good bet –as they told me then.

I think it was in the 80’s that it become especially troublesome to have buried tanks.  (This is from memory in conversations with the clean-up consultants, so…)  Many people had the tanks dug up quickly once the EPA rules began to tighten up around then. The cost of clean up now can be very high, and if steps are taken without EPA assistance, involvement, and sign off, the resulting costs can exceed $100,000 -and you don’t know the extent until you get started and can’t go back. This created another problem in that abandoned gas stations and other sites without proper EPA sign-off were hard to transfer to new owners for reuse/development. The solution was to create the EPA Brownfield program for monetary assistance and oversight, which is the program we signed up for several years ago. That program was underfunded and understaffed, and the money we expected in 2007/8 was used up in the northern region of the state where there are more problems therefore higher priority. I had maintained contact with an environmental clean-up consultant, but we weren’t able to find funding. However now there is a new program in which IDEM and EPA work together, and it is said to be much easier and likely to get things done. That’s good news, but there’s more to it.

We’ve since learned that a long-term lease agreement between the non-profit and the owner sometimes works for obtaining Historic Preservation grants and other assistance.  So, those are the next steps.

Thanks for your interest!


(I’m going to try using this blog to give more details and perspectives on efforts in Morocco, IN.  I’m going to leave up the older posts, too -there weren’t that many.  Since the focus is just on the “Greater Morocco” area and cause, if you will, I don’t know that I’ll be doing tags and categories too much.  I will try to make a distinction between “reflection”-type posts and informational ones.  probably won’t open comments -mostly to avoid inevitable jabs between readers AND to avoid my own natural draw to dwell on reactions, good or bad. Thanks for reading.)

The name “Greater Morocco” has two meanings:  1) the town of Morocco, IN and the nearby area and 2) the things that are likely to make Greater Morocco greater, not that it doesn’t already have some great qualities!  Please forgive my messing around with words; I swear it’s something that comes around age 50 for a lot of us -I know I’m not the only one who’s picked up this habit as they’ve gotten older if they didn’t earlier!

This week in the Newton County Enterprise there will be a couple of articles about a proposed “JC’s Market and Betty’s Bakery and Coffeehouse” as an alternative to the current town board plans.  Greg Meyers will at least touch on it when writing about last week’s town board meeting, and there will be another article by me with more explanation.  After sending the article to Greg, I realized that I should have mentioned a couple of other things that might clarify or smooth over some apparent and/or real conflicts.  I hope my additions make it in, but we’ll see.

Boiled-Down-Beer is Not Beer

There’s a conundrum in the fact that oversimplification is a source of communication/perception problems, but also, generally, people don’t want to or feel the need to look at the full complexity of a given situation on either side.  “Us/Them” and our “sides” is our default mode as humans, and discussions of the  complexities on either “side” often just invites challenges, corrections, and criticisms much of the time.  So, there is a practical purpose in simplification, but that “tool”, while possibly effective in certain persuasive efforts, is often not adequate for understanding options.  I just mention this for emphasis and because of recent events, it’s not really news to anyone, I realize.  (Interestingly, this is also the Achilles Heel of democratic governance, where a combination of identity-based politics and sound bite consumption can have too much influence.)  So, while boiled-down-beer can have a purpose, it’s not actually beer and cannot be said to even be the essence of beer.

For some people, my writing here or elsewhere will just be taken as more from “that side”.  I would also say that in addition to our primal wiring that tends towards “tribal affiliation” and sides, in the abstract, the past ten years of cable news and internet commentary has pushed us further into this general tendency.  That’s not to say it’s “everyone and always”, it never is; but the trend is there, and it has negative effects on public discourse and decision-making.

None of what I’ve written here should be taken as an observation of only “the other side” or against the town board.  I’m just very intrigued by our social behavior and how it affects our thought processes and communications -direct, indirect, implied, inferred, etc.  It’s not meant to be a “judgemental” thing toward either side; just information and perspectives (can’t have just one).

This has become too long already, so I’ll get to “The Perceptions and the Project” next post.

Thanks for reading.

The Zeitgeists, They Are A-Changin’


(Photo above from Historical Newton IN)

Zeitgeists, paradigms, perspectives –all change.  The “declining small town” paradigm has been with us since the 1970s.  The analyses of the causes are interesting, but not part of the point here, except to say we tend to think those “causes” were part of modernizing or progress, so we’re stuck with the effects of those causes forever, meaning further decline or at best, stabilization at our current low point.  That is unless, we can catch a big fish, like a car plant.   Such has been the thinking for over thirty years.  Think of the money that’s been spent on “Economic Development” efforts in the hopes of landing the big one, or even a few “kinda-big” ones.   Never mind the fact that the big fish tends to be a shark, or at least too big for the boat, so the boat ceases to exist in any recognizable form.  Whether you agree with that or not, it does seem like a pretty narrow set of options considering the fact that we do have a free enterprise system.

So back to the “forever fallacy” I alluded to above.  Our nation was mostly agrarian for many decades.  Some of our founders (esp. Jefferson) thought it should intentionally remain agrarian even though they knew, of course, of the growing industrial age.  Of course we quickly became a mix of industrial/agrarian (so the “forever” agrarian era was changing).  With the advances in transportation, we had a nice blend of relatively prosperous and comfortable “country living” along with the industrial and social power of the metropolitan areas.  By the 1960’s our agricultural economy had become more streamlined and narrowly focused on broad regional products such as a very few grain commodities and livestock –mostly sold at commodity pricing for feeding the rapidly increasing urban populations.  Our streamlined and heavily capitalized agricultural system needed fewer people.  This and the nature of the equipment led to many “adjustments” in the supporting/supported small towns.  The “forever” rural culture changed very quickly over the next thirty-years.  You could say this is when small town decline developed into the current paradigm –assumed to be remedied only by a big fish.

Surprise, surprise, something else unexpected happened.  To me, a Zeitgeist has to do with a choice –maybe a fashionable choice, rather than a change in culture brought by need (depression, war, natural disaster).  The Zeitgeist that has developed is a new appreciation by our urban and suburban neighbors for rural landscape, culture, and products.  Of course you don’t see them flocking to every small town asking where to buy raw milk or something, but they are looking for a place to visit, at least, and probably buy some food.  They usually even like to make regular trips.  In Fairbury, IL, a number of small farmers combine their naturally-raised products for direct sale to Chicago customers and restaurants.   Chicago chefs travel to Fairbury and spend the night in an old schoolhouse, on the floor, for the fun of being there –by the farms where they get their food.  Families drive down from Chicago to buy meat from a Newton County farmer.  Twenty- and Thirty-somethings have moved to very small farms from the city, sometimes transferring to an agrarian vocation that serves the city, and sometimes to split time between country life hobbies and office jobs.  Truckers have commented that “the old small farm equipment we sold to the South is all coming back up here” (for those small scale farmers).

So how does the current (since 2005!) Zeitgeist affect the small town paradigm?  What is the proper perspective on the current (not future) opportunity for our area?  You’ve heard of “If you build it, they will come”, but what this crowd is looking for forces a modification of that to “If you don’t tear it down, they will come.”  There’s much more to this, but as I’ve said since 2005, there’s no place I’d rather be than Morocco, IN at this time.  If all you see is old, unoccupied buildings that need to be replaced by parking lots or new construction, then you have not been paying attention to the changing times.  Another “forever” is ending, but transforming this opportunity into jobs, increased property values, inviting downtowns, and places our kids want to return to, will require some re-orientation, as paradigm-shifts always do.

(To clarify, the Morocco Town Board has a unique idea in mind for the new gap in town –rebuild with inexpensive buildings with fronts that resemble old construction, so as not to detract from the town’s vintage-Morocco asset.  Original and authentic is way better, but if they stick with “new like old” plan, then save all they can, they’re way ahead of most towns.)