Hamilton: Small-town similarities surpass tale of two cities
July 11, 2014
At first blush, my hometown and the community we’ve now called home for more than a decade didn’t seem to have all that much in common.
Grass Valley, for example, is nestled in the natural beauty of the Sierra foothills. Wabash, Ind., on the other hand, is surrounded by miles and miles — and miles — of corn and soybean fields that spread as far as the eye can see, all across the state of Indiana.
When it snows, Grass Valley has the Sierra ski slopes on which to play, while Wabash County residents find sport in simply keeping their cars from sliding off the road and into drift-filled ditches.
Then, of course, Indiana has long been known politically as a “red” state, while California has clearly been one of a more blue hue.
But after a recent trip back to my Hoosier homeland, rather than a contrasting tale of two cities some 2,000 miles apart, it was the small-town similarities that seemed so striking.
In my return trips over the recent years to Wabash, the city certainly seemed on a downward spiral.
Decades-old factories were closing their doors and taking with them the manufacturing jobs that supported many local families. As an example, GDX Automotive, founded as General Tire and Rubber Co. in 1936, used to employ as many as 2,000 people. When it ceased operations in 2007, it also shut the door on the remaining 840 people who worked there.
Reports of drug-related crime, predominantly heroin and methamphetamine, were on the rise. And a dilapidated downtown with several boarded-up businesses painted a pretty bleak portrait of the community’s prosperity.
Yet, this time around, things were clearly changing.
I saw no empty storefronts when we rolled into downtown Wabash. In fact, many century-old buildings that had been all but left for dead — some said due to the “big box stores” out on the bypass — were now being renovated, including a remodeled 1920s’ hotel that helped spark similar projects down the street. An expanded Honeywell Center serves the downtown with a state-of-the-art event venue, and there is a new YMCA facility just a couple of blocks away, serving as another hub of activity for the community.
But perhaps the best part of this revitalization effort is that Wabash — like Grass Valley and our western Nevada County community — is embracing and celebrating its history as a reason to visit the community while looking toward a more economically stable future.
Along the banks of the Wabash River, we found a new river walk that hearkens back to the earliest settlers and the Paradise Springs Treaty. Down the street, we toured the sparkling new Wabash County Historical Museum — open in one of the formerly blighted buildings — with my own 86-year-old grandmother proudly leading the way to show her great-granddaughters the switchboard on display that she once worked on as a telephone operator.
And, of course, we also learned all about how in 1880, Wabash became the first electrically lighted city in the world.
Unlike my hometown, western Nevada County has long prioritized the preservation of our rich history and the importance of our vibrant downtowns in order bring people to visit our community. Our Gold Rush heritage is on full display, whether within our museums or on the grounds of our state parks.
But even though both cities celebrate their history and preserve their pasts through preservation and renovation efforts, as small towns in America, Grass Valley and Wabash are at a crossroads. Although there are many reasons to visit both of these communities, we need more reasons for people to stay.
And that comes down to jobs.
As Wabash leaders proudly presented the progress they’ve made in a film known as the “Stellar Video” — noting the attraction and emergence of new businesses like the “5 -Hour Energy” drink — whether it was the mayor, business owners or nonprofit organization directors, they spoke about “collaboration,” a “spirit of cooperation” and the need to pull together to make things happen.
As we know, western Nevada County is no stranger to such collaboration. Whether assisting a local family in a crisis situation, helping to raise funds for nonprofit organizations serving the community or simply encouraging folks to “buy local” to support our businesses, we are certainly community minded people.
But often we allow polarizing political viewpoints to keep us from making much progress on challenges our community faces, whether it’s cultivating well-paying jobs and affordable homes, helping homeless people, dealing with crime, extending high-speed Internet access or developing economic opportunity.
“I just felt like for us to move forward,” Wabash Mayor Robert Van Landingham says in the “Stellar” film, “we needed to start doing things together.”
Of course, that would mean coming to the table focused on where we agree, as opposed to starting off with polar opposite political ideologies, which so often keep our conversations from moving forward.
But knowing the other thing my two “hometowns” have in common — the hard-working, dedicated, generous, good-hearted people who live there — I’m confident we can set aside our differences in order to continue our efforts at making this such a great place to live, work and play.
Brian Hamilton is editor at The Union. His column is published Wednesdays. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 530-477-4249.