Municipalities are having a tough time of these days, no doubt about it. Being the lowest on the governmental totem pole as they are, they get to bear the brunt of all those wonderful initiatives like `restructuring,’ `downsizing,’ and `social contracts.’
It works like this: first, the taxpayer puts the squeeze on the federal government for more services and less taxes. After making a few cuts, the federal government passes the worst of the problem on to the provinces. They promptly scream loudly about being “fiscally kneecapped,” make a few cuts themselves, and pass the problem onto the municipalities. Municipal governments, with no other level to pass it down to, are the ones who get to put the squeeze directly on the taxpayer.
Hmm. Put in that light, the whole thing looks rather circular all of a sudden doesn’t it?
Anyway, the municipal officials are the lucky devils who are as close to the people as any government is likely to get. Especially in small towns, where the mayor is likely to be your next door neighbour. In order to avoid being snarled at by an irate ratepayer while out raking the lawn, many of them spend long hours on their budget. They argue, make cuts wherever possible, sweat, empty out reserve funds, and pound the table. Finally, after a great deal of work, they come up with a budget with a 0% increase in taxes.
Only to have the local school boards tack on a 52% hike because they too, have been slashed by the provinces.
The ratepayer, who only ever looks at the bottom line, goes and snarls at the lawn raker anyway. And deity help that mayor if the ratepayer hit a pothole on the way over. Actually, if I were a mayor, I’d make a point of removing all sharp objects from my backyard. I’d also keep a firm grip on my rake.
So, faced with federal and provincial cutbacks, a stack of bills, a long repair list, and a snarly tax base, what do officials do? A lot of them have discovered that the best way to handle the situation is to attract more people into the town. After all, filling a pothole will cost $50 no matter what. It’s easier though, to split the bill up between five people instead of two.
Thus, economic development departments are born. In some places, the method for attracting tourists and homeowners to a town consists of putting up a statue of a goose, so people can take those goofy “here I am in Anytown, Ontario” shots. In other places, it involves promoting some kind of festival, perhaps having something to do with cherry pits, or those spin-you-`til-you’re-sick midway rides.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some excellent departments out there, working hard on developing historical tours, great fishing spots, and attracting companies by the dozen. I only mention them because I of course, have a much better idea for making towns grow.
Start a coffee shop.
Yes, I’ve spent many long hours researching this, studying it from every conceivable angle. What I’ve discovered is that every town, no matter how tiny, or how big, has at least one coffee shop. The bigger the place, the more coffee shops there are. Coincidence? I think not.
In small towns, they take the form of a little hole-in-the-wall place, usually on main street, with a name like “Darlene’s” or “Mrs. G’s.” The men from the nearby farms come in first, early in the morning, wearing Pioneer Seed hats, and muddy boots. The women come in later, perhaps around 10 a.m., once their husbands are safely out of the way. It’s the place where the coffee is good, the gossip is better, and intractable problems like the Russian situation and the sports strikes are solved over a slice of pie.
In larger places, these cornerstones of population growth take the form of the doughnut franchise, but the principle is the same. Coffee shops are the seeds of civilization.
Recent archeological discoveries prove it. At a dig at one of the world’s first permanent settlements in Ancient Sumeria, scientists have discovered a remarkable store front sign that has the words “Kaffkei Mujj Isa.” Loosely translated, that means “coffee sold here.”
So economic developers take note: skip the fish fry, and start a coffee shop.