This country is littered with dying small towns that didn’t have a plan B, the one they should have had in place before the factory closed or the factory moved to Mexico.
Mount Shasta, California, and Ashland, Oregon, got it right. Located in the California-Oregon border region where I live, they avoided economic devastation by having their survival plans well underway by the time their sawmills began closing more than half a century ago.
Indeed, Mount Shasta was over 100 years ahead of the curve thanks to a man named Justin Hinckley Sisson, who sowed the seeds for the town’s future reinvention as a recreational tourist destination. A teacher from Connecticut, Sisson moved out West and reinvented himself as an outdoor enthusiast. In 1866 he opened a hotel and restaurant on the lower slopes of Mount Shasta and began taking visitors on hunting, fishing, and mountaineering trips.
The lumber boom that had begun then had all but petered out in 1990, when the last sawmill closed in Mount Shasta.
By then, a wave of newcomers drawn to the area’s recreational opportunities had picked up where Sisson had left off, setting up outfitter shops and offering guiding services. A new ski park opened in 1985. All of this was complemented by a new batch 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 the lakes. and rivers and on the slopes of Mount Shasta, with another 46 miles currently under construction. Overall, this has resulted in a smooth and vigorous transition from a timber-based economy to one based on recreational tourism.
Seventy-five miles down the road is another former lumber town, Ashland, Oregon. The last of its eight sawmills closed in 1967. But a local college English professor, Angus L. Bowmer, had already sown the seeds for the town’s reinvention. Bowmer had been doing amateur theater next door, and he had the idea of converting an unused structure in the city park into a venue for Shakespearean 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 and enterprising people, the ones that keep the art galleries and microbreweries running. But they can’t do it alone.
The first two productions took place in 1935 and have become an annual event: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. By the 1960s, the festival had made Ashland a major theater town that drew fans of the bard from all over the West Coast. In 2019, the Ashland Chamber of Commerce estimated that over 100,000 visitors showed up at the theater festival each season. Its success spawned a number of other live theater venues.
What do these two successful city reinventions have in common? They both carry the promise that visitors to the city will leave behind their dull, boring lives and find something new and exciting.
A successful reinvention is a high tide that lifts all boats, attracting that wave of hikers, skiers and theatergoers that fill hotels and restaurants and make retail store cash registers buzz.
But what happens when the tide does not rise?
The small town where I live, Dunsmuir, California, provides 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 repair and crew changes. Ten passenger trains used to pass each day, but now most have disappeared. There are now only two passenger trains a day, and freight train crews are less than half of what they were in the steam locomotive days.
There was no plan B in place before or during the decline of the railroad. So now, more than half a century later, well-meaning people are trying to revive the city, but piecemeal: a new art gallery, a small performance space, a microbrewery, some great restaurants .
None of this amounts to a solid rebranding. The town has grown from 2,200 people when I moved here 26 years ago to 1,700 today. This despite a number of things in Dunsmuir’s favour: the Sacramento River runs 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 area are a short drive away.
But new businesses tend to come and go with a high turnover rate, such as outfitting which only lasted a few months. An Oakland entrepreneur, who had sold novelty items in China, bought half a dozen downtown properties 20 years ago and promised it would be the start of the city’s revival. These buildings are still empty. It is difficult to implement a plan B in a depressed economy.
In their book, our cities, journalists James and Deborah Fallows found common factors in successfully reinvented cities across the United States. Among them was an openness to newcomers, to new people bringing new talents and ideas into their new homes. In these “open” cities, newcomers often find opportunities to reinvent themselves, to apply the skills and talents they may have in new ways in this challenging new environment. The retired accountant who made his own beer at home opens a microbrewery. Or the English teacher embarks on the world of theatre. Or this Connecticut schoolteacher opens a hotel and begins taking visitors on hunting and fishing trips.
In Dunsmuir, we see similar personal transformations that could plant the seeds for a successful reinvention of the town: a former Bay Area stock and bond trader has taken over the fly fishing shop. A former bank manager from San Francisco runs the hardware store.
Every small town has its share of talented and enterprising people, the ones that keep the art galleries and microbreweries running. But they can’t do it alone. They need visitors and ideas from elsewhere. And people have to direct their positive energy and their talent in the same direction, and find a theme, a story to tell for their city. Otherwise, they’ll probably have a nice, quiet town with lots of empty storefronts.