Column: Out with the old, in with the new

Published 9:47 am Thursday, January 24, 2019

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

This revelation, made by Socrates more than 2,400 years ago, is simple enough to agree with, albeit difficult to execute.

A walk through our downtown district shows that at least a portion of our communities has embraced Socrates’ encouragement to focus on building the new.

However, a scroll through comments on certain Facebook pages (Leader Publications’ included) proves that a significant portion insists on focusing all of its energy on fighting for the old.

I understand completely what Niles once was. Since I was a little girl I have heard tales of families impacted by the closing of major plants like Tyler and Simplicity. I have seen the photographs of big box stores like Montgomery Ward in our downtown district and reveled at the town it once was. I am well aware of this impact, which has trickled down through generations.

I have also spent many a weekend like this past one watching thousands of people flood our streets. In less than stellar weather, more than 12,000 people trekked through the snow, excited to see beautiful sculptures during the Hunter Ice Festival last weekend. Like most other weekends, I heard satisfied customers leaving our restaurants with full bellies, and saw plenty of visitors travel in from out of town to visit our antique shops.

In the last 20 years, Niles and Dowagiac have grown in ways I never would have guessed were possible. From redesigned streetscapes to façade improvements and new businesses, the communities only faintly resemble what they once were. Those committed to growing our communities work tirelessly to do  so, even with constant negative feedback from those who insist the only definition of success is what was successful 50 years ago.

Meanwhile in Cass County, enormous portions of Cassopolis and Edwardsburg have put their heads together on looking to the future — “Imagining” what Cass and Edwardsburg can be. Much of this work is already done in Niles and Dowagiac, and the feedback is still mostly negative.

In Niles, we have a new distillery opening very soon, new food choices in our downtown, a new hotel being built, multiple new housing projects in the works, an energy company planting its roots — the list goes on and on. But every time one of these new developments is shared with residents, a portion of our community responds unfavorably, scoffing at the new and asking for the old.

There is no doubt the economic downturn that killed the Niles of yore was devastating for many, but that does not mean the progress we have made is not positive.

If you look at small towns throughout America, the most economically successful have created entertainment districts full of restaurants, microbreweries, shopping opportunities, distilleries and movie theaters — a model downtown Niles has followed to the letter.

Even still, a large portion of our local residents refuse to shop at the stores right in their backyards. Many have never eaten at the restaurants in our downtown, or even visited the local movie theater. And yet they wonder why some businesses do not stick around, or why it is so difficult to recruit larger industry to our area.

I have to wonder: Is fighting to recreate the old preventing us from building the new?