Friday, January 7, 2022

Collapse and Revival in a Rural Missouri Town

Screenshot from video by Echo Menges, The Edina Sentinel
This morning I awoke to news of a building collapse in Edina, Missouri. As someone who grew up in that area I can attest that the sense of decay and depopulation played into my mentality of moving away after high school. It doesn't have to be this way, in my opinion.

Knox County is where several generations of my family from most lineages lived for generations, and Edina is where my mother grew up. The town square was designated a historic district some years ago, and the reality is that many if not most of the buildings have been unoccupied for years. There are apartments above some of them that people use, and recently some new businesses opened, which concerns me because this isn't the first structural failure experienced there. 

Knox County was thriving in the late 1800s. The 1890 census, for example, showed 13,501 people residing there, which appears to have been the peak. The 2020 census reports that 3,744 now make the county home, a decrease in 130 years of slightly over 72%. The buildings on the town square were built for that larger population, and as the decades passed they slowly, sporadically, became unoccupied. It's my understanding that a mix of people now own them, at least some of which don't live in the area and pay much attention. Sitting right at the heart of the county, the degradation of these structures is as highly visible as pretty much anything can be. 

Screenshot from video by Echo Menges, The Edina Sentinel
My mother grew up on the west side of Edina, so she had a view toward the horizon, just over which was the small town of Hurdland, a mere 8 miles away. Periodically, thick billowing smoke would roll up into the heavens from the west, and people would say "Hurdland's burning again." By the time I came along in the 1970s most of the buildings that had been around Hurdland's square were long gone. It was quiet, even pastoral, having a green park with tall shade trees in its center. This is a stark contrast to Edina, with its practically abandoned buildings casting long shadows over its town square. Honestly, I think it's better that Hurdland lost its downtown buildings so early, rather than keeping them as vacant reminders of the past. 

There was a time when that model of retail, having streets lined with stores, seemed to be well on its way out. Shopping malls for a few decades were considered the future of retail, and yet now we'd seeing a turn to shopping centers instead. Speaking only for myself, I far prefer parking near the store I want to shop at and then leaving, rather than dealing with massive parking lots and then having to walk past 20 stores just to get to the one I want to visit. Even before the pandemic I didn't like hanging around in a place with so many random strangers. With that in mind, I certainly think Edina's downtown could be revived with more retail options. However, not all those buildings can stay.

With fewer than 4000 people in the entire county, the economy of the place is tiny. It's my belief that for a revival to happen, Edina's downtown needs to become a destination. This past Christmas the Chamber of Commerce did a great job promoting downtown Christmas shopping with events and later hours for the businesses. Given the popularity of Hallmark-style Christmas movies I believe that if they really laid it on thick with the small town holiday angle people could be persuaded to drive in from farther away. Still, for the time being, great capacity is not needed, and the buildings continue to decay.

A structural engineering firm needs to be brought in to inspect all of the downtown buildings. Any that do not meet safety guidelines should be condemned and torn down unless repairs can be effected. This will leave gaps, to be sure, but better that than people being injured or killed when the architecture fails.

Screenshot from video by Echo Menges, The Edina Sentinel
 In the meantime, the Chamber of Commerce should continue its good work of promoting the downtown. Some sort of outside investment would be incredibly helpful at this point, but there's no use waiting on a miracle. Little by little, with each passing season, they can fan into flame the spark of life that still exists there.

With time the gaps from lost buildings can be filled with new ones, if the economy revives. Population could even grow again, if business were to begin thriving and retirees could be attracted by the convenience and slower pace of life. An upward cycle from there would include families with children relocating, though I have to think more businesses that include manufacturing and technology would need to come along.

Perhaps that's a lot to hope for, but I don't think this pattern of slow decay punctuated by sudden collapse has to continue. There can be a future for Edina, and Knox County more generally, that includes growth and prosperity.