“Why did you want to move back?” It's the question I’m asked most often since returning to Crawford County this past summer. In one sense, I understand the nature of people’s curiosity. The area’s population has been in decline for over 60 years, the per-capita income is $10K below the state average, and 38% of residents collect social security benefits. Combined, these realities contribute to a more alarming fact that over half of the area population cannot be relied on to provide tax revenues necessary to sustain services and infrastructure. I’d hate to characterize the situation as bleak, but as one official remarked, his job was to ensure a slowly sinking ship, sank slower.
Contrast this with my personal situation, and to any reasonable person, moving back borders on nonsensical. I held an executive-level position at a successful, Indianapolis marketing agency, earning a comfortable salary with the potential for netting a million dollars through the company’s employee ownership structure. This is not to brag, but rather, to illustrate how my belief in a vision outweighed an easier road to financial security.
Never Coming Back
Twenty-six years ago, however, the only vision I had was of me stepping onto a Greyhound bus headed for Army basic training immediately following graduation. Coming back, in my mind, was not an option. In the time that followed, I benefited from my military service, paying for college and leaving as an Infantry captain. From here, I transitioned to the corporate world, earning a string of promotions to executive management at a publicly-traded, real estate company. Not bad for a small-town kid from Northwest Pennsylvania.
Life, however, would intervene, and two events would alter my chosen course. When the recession hit in 2008, I went from a respectable income to the humiliation of drawing unemployment with the next five years pounding me into submission as I searched for steady work to pay overdue bills and feed my family. Eventually, I regained my footing not long before the second event, the 2016 Presidential Election, the aftermath of which brought to the country’s attention the forgotten plight of the rural poor.
Together, these events would reshape my worldview and call into question my personal values. Despite finding a new career, I could still feel a twinge of that hopelessness I once felt relying on government assistance and the local food bank to get through another week. At the same time, in my hobby of studying Crawford County’s history, I recognized the area’s steady decline from industry epicenter, to just another rural community suffering from the same bleak circumstances that are plaguing so many others.
Knowing what it’s like to struggle and seeing that same struggle for many in the area forced the question: What can be done?
Opportunities for Success
Asking this led to a great deal of research, particularly concerning the solutions and possibilities that exist for Meadville and the surrounding areas. The good news is there are many opportunities we are ripe for that have already proved fruitful in other similar communities. Keep in mind, however, success in those towns was predicated on three key dynamics.
- Openness to New Ideas: Recent studies of rural communities by both Iowa State and Ohio State found that communities demonstrating openness to new and creative approaches not only thrived but were also better prepared to deal with unforeseen challenges in the future.
- Bottom-up Activism: Because of the lengthy amount of time and sourcing of funding required by local governments to enact many plans meant to remedy various issues, citizens, aided by social media, are shortcutting this process in prospering towns by forming groups and activating volunteers to address these issues quickly and more efficiently.
- Understanding of Trends: The third hallmark of successful rural communities is their attention to current and future trends particularly in the realm of technology and how these communities can harness these trends to their advantage.
When looking at the local area through the above lens, it’s encouraging to see the number of efforts, planned or in place, that directly correlate to these factors. At the same time, there is still room for clearer vision, increased awareness, and collective transparency, which would only serve to strengthen current and future initiatives intended to improve the area.
So to answer the original question, why did I return to the area, I answer with, because I believe there is an abundance of opportunity here, because I believe there are many people who also see those opportunities, and because I believe there is a part for me to play in bringing these opportunities to fruition.
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Photo credit: Author. Mural, located along Park Ave, & Chestnut St. in Meadville, by Berry Breene of Berry Paints.