No-Growthers are destroying western communities

Essay by Stephen Lyons

Growth – July 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

My 21-year-old daughter is finally leaving the small western college town she grew up in for a large West Coast city, and I couldn’t be happier. After low wages and a cul de sac of career opportunities she finally figured out that her quality of life would increase educationally, culturally and, most importantly, vocationally in a metropolitan setting.

I had left a year earlier for the Midwest and two years ago her mom left for California.

Like so many of her friends, my daughter had been brought to the West so her parents could fulfill some back-to-land, experience-the-West fantasy. Then we left and she stayed.

Truth is, there isn’t much of a future in the inter-mountain West for young adults. Whether in Hamilton, Moab, Livingston, or Sandpoint, these safe, pastoral enclaves may be great environments to raise kids, but they are not great places to raise young adults.

And we, their parents, have only ourselves to blame. For it is our own strident opposition to development that stifles opportunities for our offspring and forces our children outward. Though we will deny it, this exodus kills any continuity of community.

Recently, a proposal to build a hotel-convention center in a dilapidated section of Moscow, Idaho, was met with fierce opposition by the usual suspects. The possibility of an evil out-of-state conspiracy was raised by a Fresno, California native. A retired professor — a Stanford alumnus — barked out his concerns on an Internet chat line about how Californians needed to control “their breeding.” Despite all that chitty chat, no one mentioned that nearby Washington State University was graduating dozens of young, ambitious adults annually from its hotel and restaurant administration program who would have loved to cut their professional teeth in the area. Seattle, San Francisco and Portland here they come!

When you have college and high school graduates fleeing the premises each year, what is left is a cantankerous, unimaginative group of grumpy old men and women in their 40s and 50s, who cling desperately to an unrealistic goal of no-growth. We Western Baby Boomers, who were supposed to be the cool generators of change, have become paranoid obstacles to sustainability. As our children give up on their homes, they take with them the vitality of youth, along with their creativity and nerve — the very heart of any viable community.

One begins to wonder just what kind of development would be acceptable to the old guard aside from a food co-op, a vintage clothing boutique, a café featuring bitter coffee and an independent book store full of romantic memoirs about the splendor of living “Out West.”

Why are we so anxious, for example, to preserve scraggly weed-choked lots on the edge of towns? Why do the veins in our collective necks pop out when a new subdivision is proposed, even though many of those new homes will house long-time residents who want to trade up, opening older homes to first time buyers? Do we think that, unlike nature, our communities have to remain static?

WE HOLD ONTO SUCH FALLACIES at the expense of our children. They grow up absorbing our own complaints about dead-end jobs and our lack of career choices. They see us settle for less. They listen to us at the dinner table rail and spew against developers. They marinate in a stew of fear. “The Sky is Falling! A gas station opened down the highway! Everything’s ruined! Two new houses in the last six months! More tofu dear?”

It’s not that we should roll over to bad development plans. Involvement and vigilance in local planning is key to healthy towns. But when every proposal is instantly condemned as part of some evil right-wing menace, how does one even get a chance to sort out the good from the bad? When do we begin to factor in our children’s economic future?

In other parts of the country multi-generational roots are set more firmly into the social soil. In this part of the Midwest, where I now live, there are so many opportunities that the kids — whether they go off to college or not — have the choice to leave permanently or to settle in and start families and small businesses. The plumber who installed our new shower went to grade school with the floor man who played T-ball with the carpenter who built our new door. Roots are so strong that it would take much more than a convenience store to cut them apart.

We want our children to spread their wings, fly away and conquer the world. But if they ever do want to return we should be able to offer them more than skateboard parks, groovy cafes and frustrated parents.

Stephen Lyons is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He lives in Monticello, Illinois.