Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Learning from the worst 

A writer in the Hibbing Daily Tribune picks up the story on St. Cloud as the worst place to live. He also finds some object lessons for the Range.
I�ve been to St. Cloud twice. To be fair, I�d describe the ratio of fat people to non-fat people as �normal.� My main impression was that, for a mid-sized regional center, it was very easy to get lost in St. Cloud. I know it�s a river town but it�s more confusing than St. Paul � which is hard to imagine. I�ve also noticed that, anecdotally, many of the people I knew who attended college in St. Cloud (home of St. Cloud State, St. Ben�s, St. Joe�s and others) end up drinking a lot of alcohol after going there. Heck, my first beer � consumed at age 18 � was in St. Cloud. Maybe that�s not the town�s fault, but it�s an awfully big coincidence.
I've noticed as well that we have confusing roads. It's both a river town and a rail depot. It's the railroad that's confusing -- it cuts diagonally through the western part of town and can only be crossed in a few places that don't conflict with the station or other loading areas. I remember being in my car my first year here, looking across 9th Ave N at the downtown post office, unable to get there unless I drove over the tracks, and unable to figure out how to get the heck out of where I was.

As to drinking, well, it's a Stearns County thing. Or at least that's the lore of the place.
...I do recall that the town had an extended suburban feel to it. A number of St. Cloud residents work in or near the Twin Cities now, and as such the town has begun to show a homogenized �just off the Interstate� look.
True enough, as I mentioned once here, the town looks increasingly like Maple Grove, and I don't mean that in a good way.
I hope this serves as a lesson for our local towns. I�ve noticed how excited people have been getting about the retail development in Hibbing, Virginia and Grand Rapids. It�s nice to have chain restaurants and home improvement stores. They provide jobs and economic growth. But suburban-style retail sprawl at the edge of your town doesn�t necessarily make it a good place to live. You�ve got to have a spark of originality and culture � something I think we�ve got here on the Iron Range. Don�t throw that all away so you can get a TJ Maxx. Trust me. TJ Maxx isn�t that great.
On the other hand, what's so great about a mom-and-pop store that has styles from the 1970s? Here's the issue as I've seen it here: About 3000 workers leave the City of St. Cloud every day for jobs in the Cities. Add on the suburbs and it might be 5000, out of an area workforce of around 100,000. They are typically somewhat affluent since the jobs they commute to have to pay enough to warrant the transportation costs. (Economists will recognize that story as the old Alchian and Allen 'shipping the good apples out' story. It's one reason wages are lower in St. Cloud.) What are they looking for when they are in St. Cloud on the weekend? They are looking for something that reminds them of where they spend fifty waking hours out of a week's 168 total hours. Why wouldn't they look for a version of their Cities experience in St. Cloud? The chain stores and chain restaurants know this, and so they go. Commuting workers are not going to invest time to learn about local businesses with local names.

There was a story in the newspaper last Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, about people who shop on the internet. Of course they shop there -- it's what they know. One business owner told me later he was miffed at the paper. "We advertise in the local paper, and they write a story about how to avoid shopping in our stores?" Sorry, but the stores they shop in already aren't yours, any more.