Economic development is a subject that carries a lot of baggage with it in Clarke County, particularly in Berryville. Groups and organizations that are tasked with economic development are so closely identified with the people running them that substantive discussions to address issues are often ignored for the sake of small-town social dynamics. While this certainly makes these conversations more challenging, ignoring the greater problem out of misplaced politeness hurts the community. So let’s look at one of those questions you don’t ask in Clarke County. What is the plan for economic development and a sustainable community?
Main Street economies are on life support across America. What was once the heartbeat of every small town is now struggling just to keep a pulse. Yet despite the commitment of time, energy, and tax dollars, local governments and civic organizations seem unable to stop the decline. Clarke County’s size dictates that the county seat, Berryville, is the hub of the economic wheel and it, like many other small towns, is languishing. The town has marketable economic assets; there just seems to be either a lack of interest or a lack of will to leverage them. For example, tourism makes a lot of sense, and sustainable agriculture businesses in the county can complement that approach. The town also has a rail siding which is a relatively unique attribute given our geographic location. There are other possibilities as well, but the point is local governments are simply stuck in a paradigm that prevents them from leveraging the attributes that are available to them with which to change their economic realities.
Year after year the powers that be spend tax dollars on the same ineffective efforts and get the same results, nada. Organizations that exist to market Main Street are staffed by good people, but they are not equipped to succeed and more importantly, are not held accountable for a return on the investment taxpayers provide. The county’s approach is no better.
What is the plan for economic development and a sustainable community? The unfortunate answer and the reason you don’t want to ask, is that there is no plan.
The current economic model in Clarke/Berryville is not sustainable. It’s really not a “model” at all. Money is simply tossed at organizations or departments, and as long as there is some visible sign that something was done with the money, then all is well. Should we just ride out this approach until it collapses or should we as citizens demand more from elected officials? Governments cannot create businesses but they are tasked and funded to create an environment where businesses can thrive. The abject failure of economic development efforts in this area points to an inability to see opportunity and act upon it. Worse still is the fact that the money to execute a sustainable plan is already allocated; it’s just currently being squandered on things that don’t work.
Signs at the ends of the county and banners on Main Street do not constitute economic development.
There is a dire need for an honest, objective discussion and examination of the economic realities of this unique place. Not the usual public hearings but a structured approach that outlines the assets we have and offers an incentive to be creative. Maybe it’s time to make the funds spent on economic development (or at least a portion of those funds) available on a competed basis to organizations that can develop effective plans for their use. There are some interesting opportunities but the current environment in local government is closed-minded. Pet projects that have failed to generate momentum continue to garner funding that could be put to better use. It’s time to be creative with what we collectively have.
Everyone wants this community to succeed, but the top-down approach to economic development by people and organizations that are ill-equipped to lead the charge has clearly failed. It’s time to take a more organic approach and write this question you don’t ask in Clarke County on the windows of Main Street and start a real discussion.