Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

January 23, 2013

A long hard look at yourself

Nathan Harter
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — Cruising along the south side of Virginia Beach looks a lot like Indiana, until suddenly you see brackish swamps on either side of the road and very tall pine trees.

A little turn here, a little turn there, and you approach the telltale marshes flat in every direction. Summer rentals rise in pastels along the beach, left and right, as you gradually notice directly in front the dunes standing between you and the Atlantic Ocean.

For a moment there, I was reminded today of Lake Santee, but once we came within a mile or two of the sea, things looked nothing like home. Karin and I still glance up at the gulls that the locals treat like pigeons (or worse). Before we returned home from Sand Bridge, however, Karin shouted and pointed at a bald eagle soaring toward the back bay.

Each region of the country has its charm. We were grateful to grow up in the Midwest, but we are coming to appreciate the tidewater – mosquitoes and all. What each place (Indiana, as well) needs to do is preserve, promote, and protect what makes it special. By the same token, it should also be possible to do so while at the same time prospering. That should be the fantasy of every director of economic development.

To do this, a region must know itself. It must be able to see itself objectively, as others see it. Too often, the people in town form false images because it’s simply home. They look past the derelict neighborhoods and the empty storefronts and the downright ugly turns in the road. But just think: visitors, investors, and children will form their own opinions. They may never get past the appearance (good or bad) to the wholesome, underlying character of the place.

Making matters worse, many see the blight and the dysfunction, but they have come to live alongside it for so long they figure there’s nothing to be done about it. They come to believe it’s inevitable, beyond our powers to repair. Here in Newport News, people shoot each other nearly every day. That’s terrible! So why does it keep happening? Karin and I live up the road in a better place, scanning news reports with the briefest of sadness before we catch up on the prognosis for RGIII on the sports page.

What humans created, they can repair. And beyond a certain point, if it cannot be repaired, shut it down, raze it, start over. Look with honesty at that old factory that nobody wants to buy. Maybe nobody ever will. Find a way to ease it out of the owner’s hands, with his or her consent, and then be ruthless. Level it.

Some things you cannot change. We in Virginia get hurricanes. You get tornadoes. We have stagnant, black water in our ditches. You have no beaches. So it goes. But even then, the unique features you cannot remove can become cherished and part of local lore. Maybe you don’t even realize how valuable your situation looks to somebody from the outside.

I’ve spent decades thinking about local public questions – sometimes with more rigor than at other times – and occasionally I share my thoughts with you. Having moved away has opened up new ways of looking at where we raised our children. Will our children be able to raise their own kids there? Not if they can’t find work!

Funny the ideas that pop into your head while swerving through peanut fields on the way to the beach.