DAWSON, GEORGIA – Small towns across America are struggling to restore their historic downtown areas. (That also is true of cities as large as Austin, Texas; Pittsburg, Pennsylvania; and Orlando. Florida).
However, for small towns with limited resources getting people to open and stock attractive stores can seem like an insurmountable challenge.
Willie Sutton said he “robbed banks because that’s where the money is.” Today, in our highly mobile society, many stores are being built for the same reason along busy highways.
When Walmart arrives in a community, they locate their massive stores on the edge of town, with acres of parking available. Other stores often create a nearby cluster hoping to to feed off the Walmart traffic. The fast food restaurants – BurgerKing, McDonalds, Wendy’s – and the most ambitious chain stores, such as Advance Auto Parts and Dollar General, as well as a variety of gas stations, with their so-called convenience stores, also now locate out along the busy highways.
I tend to believe in creative, free enterprise. So I find communities with people who produce fresh ways to restore their downtown areas among the most interesting. That’s why I was impressed by Aberdeen, Mississippi’s well-lit sheltered walkways. Shoppers don’t have to deal with rain or the broiling summer sun in Aberdeen.
One of the things that impressed me most about Dawson, Georgia was the fact that a group of citizens took it upon themselves to do something important downtown on their own.
Dawson has a privately run downtown dinner theater. The scripts are written and performed by local residents several times a year. A commercial kitchen for the dinners was installed, along with stadium seating. Prices for the dinner and show are said to be reasonable.
The project was launched with a quarter million dollar “tobacco grant” when big tobacco, blamed for so many deaths, settled with states. A quarter million dollar loan also was required and is being paid down by the income from the dinner theater productions. People are traveling from throughout the ares to attend, according to City Manager Barney Parnacott. And the project is being financed without the use of taxpayers’ money.
In the corner of Maine, where I come from – Norway and South Paris – people pick a date to swarm local stores, making local purchases. They call it a “cash mob” instead of flash mob. Large groups of motorcycle riders also have stopped off to support small Maine towns for a day.
Some communities open new parking lots and careflly mark and monitor their crosswalks to protect pedestrians who are shopping downtown.
Dawson’s dinner theater is another example of perfecting the old cliche. When you get lemons make lemonade. Here in Dawson they have replaced a vacant store with the dinner theater. What makes it truly special is that local folks write the scripts and are involved in the performances. Citizen volunteers are helping to preserve downtown Dawson.
That helps make it a truly special place.