By Mike Whittlesey
Are the good people of La Porte City unknowingly killing their community? Before we dismiss such thoughts as utter nonsense, perhaps a close inspection of the book with a provocative title, 13 Ways to Kill Your Community is in order. The book’s author, Doug Griffiths, grew up in a small town in Alberta, Canada and was an award-winning teacher before seeking office as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in the Province of Alberta, where he served for four consecutive terms and gained the reputation as a passionate advocate for building strong communities. Last year, he retired from politics to form a company that develops practical tools communities and organizations can use to assess and identify the challenges threatening their growth, along with strategies that can help turn those challenges into opportunities for success.
The book Thirteen Ways to Kill Your Community came about as a result of Griffiths’ extensive work with rural communities, particularly those working hard to find ways ensure a vibrant and prosperous future. While individuals, governmental bodies and the communities they represent certainly do not carry with them an overt desire to harm or damage their own community, the author speaks to the attitudes, beliefs and actions that are sometimes taken for short-term gain that ultimately hurt, not help, the places where they live.
Want to kill your community? Try Chapter 2, entitled “Don’t Attract Business.”
“Shop local” is a phrase often heard in smaller communities like La Porte City. Because so many residents in our community work in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metropolitan area, much of their purchasing power goes with them when they travel north on U.S. Hwy. 218. What can the locals find there that isn’t always present in their home town? In many cases, it’s competition, the engine that drives free enterprise. Competition offers consumers choices when it comes to price, quality, selection and service. In a small town, a limited number of retail opportunities can make competition hard to find. After many, many years in La Porte City, for example, the closing of the Pronto Market leaves Casey’s as the only convenience store in town.
For students of economics, the value of competition is not a new revelation. Unfortunately, its value is sometimes lost in smaller communities. In the context where local shopkeepers are neighbors and friends with members of the governing body that determines whether new businesses are welcomed or turned away, economic decisions can become more difficult to make. Last summer in La Porte City, the proposed construction of a Dollar General Store on the north edge of town was initially declined before the City Council reconsidered the project’s value in terms of property tax revenue, new jobs and retail sales dollars invested in the community. Will the new store become competition for existing businesses? Most definitely. Fortunately for La Porte City residents, history has shown that such competition will give area residents improved selection when it comes to prices, quality, variety of merchandise and service. Savvy business owners understand that every dollar entering the community gets passed around town several times. The dollars spent in Waterloo and Cedar Falls? Gone. And not likely to find their way back to La Porte City where they could have exchanged hands at local businesses several times over.
The lessons taught in the chapter “Don’t Attract Business” can be applied beyond the obvious Main Street merchants. Last fall, a structural failure of the bridge spanning Wolf Creek in La Porte City interrupted the continuous path of the 46 mile long Cedar Valley Nature Trail (CVNT). Replacing the bridge will cost millions of dollars, money neither Black Hawk County Conservation nor the City of La Porte City has, or will have, in the near future. As officials and government leaders explore options to restore traffic so that the trail can, once again, travel unimpeded through our community, detour signs for cyclists who use the trail will soon be posted along the route. The detour will encourage riders to leave the trail in Gilbertville and proceed south to La Porte City via Canfield Road. The reality is that many recreational riders will opt to skip the detour altogether and simply turn around and go back from where they came. For local eateries and other La Porte City businesses that cater to CVNT users, a detour that bypasses the community is a lost opportunity (and revenue).
Is the traffic that passes through town on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail important to La Porte City? Are there economic benefits for our community that should be considered if the City Council is called upon to make decisions regarding this issue?
Communities that thrive, Griffiths notes, are the ones where people come together and seek solutions for the greater good. Consider an issue confronted by our community nearly 40 years ago when, for a brief time, La Porte City was without a physician. Because of the concerted effort organized by a number of area residents working together, medical care and pharmacy services were restored to the citizens of La Porte City. Where would our community be today without them?
When it comes to attracting businesses to La Porte City, we shouldn’t wait for a similar crisis to get started.