A Wednesday afternoon, the sun was shining, nature was humming, a train barreled down the track; its horn echoed off the buildings. A person crossed Main Street at Confederate and sat down. Yes, right in the middle of the road.
Stories circulate from the natives to the new residents about how Fort Mill used to be, about how Main Street used to be. Looking at the papered windows and crumbling brick, it is hard to imagine a time when Main Street bustled and was prosperous.
“When a man points a finger at someone else, he should remember that four of his fingers are pointing at himself."
Why is it possible for a person to sit in the middle of Main Street in the middle of the afternoon?
Before we start pointing fingers and complaining about this person or that company, consider “when a man points a finger at someone else, he should remember that four of his fingers are pointing at himself,” Louis Nizer, a notable trial lawyer.
It doesn’t matter who or what is to blame. Pointing fingers and complaining about this or that doesn’t fix the problem at our doorstep. We should look at the towns that lost everything in the economic collapse and how they are rebuilding their future.
What did they do to turn it around? How can their success be reinterpreted for use in Fort Mill? And, what do we want to ensure does and doesn’t happen here? Our future is in the hands of We.
FORT MILL'S MAIN STREET
From the early days of settlers, American towns grew out of connecting points and trading posts. As early as 1650, European traders used the Catawba’s hunting trail, which later became known as Nation Ford Road, for its natural fords to reliably cross the Catawba River to the southern outpost in Augusta, Georgia. The ford led to the development of several intersecting trading paths and the settlement of “Little York” by Thomas “Kanawha” Spratt in the mid-1700’s.
Nearly a century later, plans to modernize the connection between Augusta, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina took shape. The train track followed the path of Nation Ford Road and was built upon the natural ford. A train depot was built near Main Street, which help spur the growth of the town, and in 1873 Fort Mill incorporated. The original Main Street began development in 1860, at 124 Main Street and housed Jones Drug Store; The Fort Mill Times recently vacated this building. Within 20 years, Main Street began to grow again with the local textile boom. Over the next 50 years, buildings were added and some were rebuilt due to fire. All the buildings of the historic district are architecturally significant and represent Late 19th and Early 20th Century commercial design typically found in a small town in the South Carolina foothills; even though some owners have changed the facades of their buildings.
MAIN STREET USA
“When you live in a small town, everybody is family. Everybody has to come together to help each other and just get through life. That’s what it’s all about,” Snellville, Georgia resident on Stories from Main Street, Smithsonian.
“Everybody has to come together
to help each other and
just get through life."
Until the late 1970s, Main Streets all across America ruled the commercial roost. As malls replaced Main Streets and Interstates replaced state highways; our town centers became obsolete. Today’s Main Streets only thrive because the community makes a conscious effort to support it. Each Main Street project usually began through the work of activists and preservationists.
Main Street once housed the local market, hardware store, barbershop, ice cream parlor, soda shop, and drugstore. Nearly everything one would need to live daily life was available on Main Street. Then, America was forced to choose bigger, better, faster, with more options and more calories. The result is now we are a mass-consumer and commuter country. A place where twelve butter options does not seem crazy, and having a public meltdown over slow service seems justifiable. The life we lived, our parents lived, will never exist again without conscious effort to change it. Life sped up and greed overtook our desire to be a good neighbor. America became a “What about me?” society. We complain that it is not as safe for our kids as it was for us. We became more concerned about how other parents were not helicopter parents; rather than seeking ways to make the streets safer for all the kids. There was a time that kids were allowed some freedom; a time when the news did not make parents paranoid about the dangers out there, while ignoring the fact that crimes against children are at historic lows. Your child is in more danger with a relative than with a stranger.
We try to do everything and be everything living up to the ideal 1950s while keeping up with the Joneses, and impressing our neighbors, colleagues, and friends. We buy the biggest house our salary can afford while driving the premium new car, and closets full of clothes that we never wear just because commercials tell us that it makes us a whole, better person, and contributing member of society. The back upon which this country was built, Main Street and small business, has been dismantled by greed, over-consumption, and ego. If we want Fort Mill to thrive, we need to make a conscious effort to put “We” before “Me.”
Fort Mill is growing. That can’t be stopped. It has changed. If you want Fort Mill to have some semblance of what it used to be, right now is the time to act. People are moving here from around the country. They don’t know what Fort Mill used to be. However, we can teach them about what Fort Mill needs to be and how we support Fort Mill by supporting Fort Mill businesses and its people. Fort Mill is no longer a town in the country; a crossroads of interstate commerce. However, Fort Mill can stand up and demand that it not loose its charm. Together, we can ensure the town retains its roots and be seen as more than a bedroom community for Charlotte. If we’re not careful, Fort Mill could end up like Clermont, Florida.
Clermont is a small town that became a bedroom community for Orlando overrun by chain stores. “I moved here when I retired and I loved walking around downtown. My favorite restaurant was in a historic house,” said James Ray of Clermont, Florida a town in a neighboring county and 25 miles west of Orlando.
Clermont was a country town where orange groves dotted the rolling hills. Downtown sat just off the state highway and a few miles from the Turnpike. The town welcomed the Orlando commuters, the subdivision developers, and in less than 6 years the population increased 207%, according to the US Census.“How do you know when a town is about to boom? Walmart moves in,”
“How do you know when a town is about to boom?"
“How do you know when a town is about to boom? Walmart moves in,” Mr. Ray joked. The once empty state highway is now filled with chain restaurants and fast food franchises, Target, Walmart, Home Depot, car dealerships, and chain furniture stores.
Mr. Ray is not too pleased that the country town he chose for retirement has boomed, “it used to be that if you needed to buy something you had to go into town. Now, I can just go across the highway to Target. Most people do. It’s unfortunate because I like the small town life. I like to know that Bob owns the hardware store and Mary always has pumpernickel in her bread baskets on Tuesday. It’s simple. It’s personal.” All of the new subdivisions were built on the orange groves of Clermont creating a dual personality. On the east side, Clermont is a “clone town,” a small town that looks like any other small town dotted with McDonald’s, Walmart, Target, and TGI Friday’s. On the west side and hidden in the historic district, a cooperative effort between the South Lake County Historical Society and the City of Clermont to save historic sites.
During the boom, historic buildings were relocated from the east side and the highway to the historic district where they were renovated, preserved, and repurposed. Businesses still struggle in the historic district because they are in the opposite direction of Orlando. The new residents of Clermont patronize either the chains near their home or drive east to Orlando.
Vacant lots were open for business by international conglomerates before the community of Clermont had time to react. Most towns see economic growth over a decade or more.
Fort Mill’s Main Street took 80 years to develop, but was gone in less than a decade. Fort Mill’s growth trajectory is greater than Clermont’s. Within two years, Fort Mill will more than double its population without any local commerce to sustain it; leaving great interest and room for international conglomerates, which means more of our money leaving the state to support the lifestyles of billionaires.
Local can be global. Main Street just outside the center of Carver, Massachusetts is dotted with historic homes, trees and cranberry farms. In Plymouth County, Massachusetts buying Ocean Spray cranberry products is localism. Ocean
“We’re very similar to most other major consumer packaged goods companies–we create, we innovate, we advertise. But, we are very different in that our owners are 750 farmers around North America. They are the only shareholders in the company, and they are the farmers who deliver the fruit that go into the majority of our products,” Randy Papadellis, Ocean Spray’s CEO told Forbes in 2010.
“Local can be global."
The goal of the cooperative is to increase the price of the cranberry in order to support its owners. In 2000, the price of a barrel of cranberries was $12. In 2010, the price of the barrel neared $64 per barrel. They were able to achieve this through innovation and extended product lines like Craisins, a dried cranberry snack.
As the dollar per barrel raised, the employment of locals to work on the farmers also grew. The more money that goes back into a community, by the community, creates opportunities and jobs. Lower income wage earners need to spend every dollar they have to make ends meet; so the more money they earn, the more dollars are pumped right back into the local economy.
Each harvest, the farms open to tour groups and host community events to greater impact their bottom line, which further benefits the greater community.
Localism is not just about buying from the mom and pops, but also, the industries headquartered there that employ our neighbors, and treat their employees responsibly. Treating employees with respect starts with competitive salaries so that the employee could own a home and support the family. A company doesn’t do the community any service if it forces its workers to collect food stamps to make ends meet while the owners kick back in their “McMansions.”
HOW CAN YOU BE A LOCALIST?
Localism is the conscious and discerning act of buying. Over the last few years, bottled water has been a hot topic because of the waste it creates. So, some people started buying personal, reusable bottles. If we were all as concerned about our neighbors as we are about plastic waste; we’d all live in a better community.
“Our dollars and our voice are two of our greatest strengths."
Buying consciously is asking questions about the product:
Is this product made in my town? If no, is this product made in my
Being discerning about your buying practices is the first place to start. The next level would be to consider the business ownership: Is the company locally owned? Franchises are usually locally owned; however, if the headquarters are in another state, how does that fully benefit the community? All franchises are different, so it’s important to understand how that business works. Ask: What fraction of your dollar stays here?
Expect companies to excel on all levels. Supporting a bad business just because they are local doesn’t benefit the community. Being a Localist doesn’t remove Capitalism; it encourages Ethical Capitalism. If a business doesn’t respect its employees, the community, or customer, then they don’t deserve your business. You are purchasing approval of a business with your dollars.
Hold businesses to a high standard. Demand that they source locally and pay their employees responsibly. Demand respect and a sense of community.
Our dollars and our voice are two of our greatest strengths. Let’s not let Fort Mill became a “clone town” like Clermont, Florida where our dining choices are chain restaurants or drive into the city. Let’s take the lessons from Carver, Massachusetts and create good things right here in Fort Mill, South Carolina - a prosperous small southern American town that encourages neighbors to put We before Me.
About S Wright
Featured in The New York Times, AmericanExpress OpenForum, Intuit Small Business Blog, and The Washington Post.