From a Expensively Fueled Flame, a Small-town Phoenix Rises

In most, if not all, of the small towns of the Finger Lakes region, there are fewer businesses than there were 50 years ago. Given the escalating price of fuel it seems more important than ever to change this.

A major factor leading to the decline of small town businesses has been the decrease in the price of fuel and increase in the quality of roads over the last century.

Except for a reversal between 1973 and 1981, the inflation-adjusted price of gasoline decreased steadily between 1935 ($3 per gallon) and 1999 (~$1.40 per gallon). Local highways have become wider and more reliably passable over a similar period, especially since the early 1960s, when New York State increased the size of many state routes, changing the face of many small towns.

In many cases trees were removed from the roadside in order to make room for standardized shoulders and wider lanes. Residences and businesses that formerly had small front yards found their doorways opening directly onto a paved two-lane highway.

Entire buildings were removed as roads were re-routed to go around steep slopes. In Trumansburg a large hotel between Main and Hector streets was razed and the remaining Morse Chain buildings were torn down as Route 96 went around McLallen Hill instead of over it. In Dryden the village is flanked by strip mall development as Route 13 enters and leaves the old commercial hub. In Newfield Route 13 now entirely bypasses the hamlet, leaving it with a convenience store, a hair salon and a bank (which has a drive-through).

Small towns suffered on the production and the consumption end as a consequence of centralization of both industry and retail. Local manufacture of value-added items made from agricultural products went away. Everything was put on a truck (replacing the trains) and hauled to a distance location where the economy of scale depended in part on the inexpensive nature of getting the goods there.

The same thing happened on the consumer end. The stores at the hubs, in our case, Ithaca – first the central city and then Lansing and finally what used to be the Tompkins County fairgrounds along Route 13 – were bigger and over the years less and less likely to be locally owned. Their size and integration with the national economy insured that items would be more diverse and generally less expensive. And they all had loading docks in the back, where the tractor-trailers disgorged their palleted contents over level surfaces onto concrete slabs.

And now gasoline is suddenly more expensive than it has been since 1935 and a large part of the rationale for all this centralization has (rather) suddenly been eliminated. And it doesn’t look like it will be resurrected. What should the response of small towns be?

Start businesses that make products that you need. It’s time to re-develop mills, creameries and slaughterhouses. It’s time to make furniture and (non-art) pottery on a small scale. Fill the downtowns of our villages and hamlets with retail outlets for these products.

Is this sustainable in and of itself? Probably not. How can it be supplemented? Through information technology. The vast majority of the graduates of our local central schools do not stay in their hometowns after they graduate. It has likely been decades since even a simple majority were retained locally, but now even if someone wants to stay there is almost nothing for them to do except take a place in the family business … if one exists and is viable … or start their own business, a daunting idea and often impracticable given the amount of debt accumulated in the course of getting a college education.

We need to remind our local legislators of the importance of getting high-speed Internet service into as much of each county as can be managed. This is important not only to build overtly technology-based businesses like software design, graphic design and business services, but is also quite helpful to ‘old fashioned’ undertakings like creameries and pickle-makers, who need to be able to monitor market information and advertise their wares to a non-local market.

Long-distance transport of goods will not disappear, but we should shift away from an economy primarily based on it and revive the commercial sectors of our small towns.

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