Laurel to Decatur

One of my favorite TV shows is Home Town on HGTV. It is about to begin its seventh season. It follows the home remodeling efforts of Ben and Erin Napier in Laurel, Mississippi. Their passion is bringing back their Home Town to what it used to be before many manufacturing jobs left. They’re a young couple with two young daughters with plenty of southern no-nonsense sensibility. They remind me a lot of my mother’s family, who originated from Arkansas. Their sayings and look on life is very familiar to me.

It’s impossible not to draw parallels between Laurel and Decatur. It’s not terribly unique in the Midwest, or elsewhere in the United States, to find towns ravaged by job losses in manufacturing. That’s why the Napiers support American made products. Their Scotsman branded furniture is made in Virginia. Instead of just complaining about problems, they along with many others in Laurel rolled up their sleeves to make things better, one home at a time, and one small business at a time.

Of course, the TV show has helped Laurel tremendously, but we can still take lessons to improve our own towns and cities.

A key is young people. When I look back at Decatur’s early history, it is dominated by dreamers and transplants who came here to start a new business and a new life. I’m sure there were many who failed, of whom history has forgotten, but Decatur wouldn’t be here at all without those who were willing to try.

To be fair to Decatur, the city has been battling to keep its head above the water for decades now. Our population continues to shrink, but it’s not all gloom and doom. Downtown has never looked better. It could use some more retail, and new construction, but considering all that Decatur has lost, I think we can still be proud.

Merchant Street looks amazing, especially at Christmas. It used to be a very seedy area in years past. Decatur had its crime and crummy areas in the 1800s and early 1900s, too. Crime is not new. We tend to paint the past as virtuous, when it was far from it. People are people.

I’m thrilled to see the Lincoln Theater be renovated. I had almost given up hope that anyone would save it. It’s especially impressive that it is being saved by the collectively by the community, and not by a single donor. Watching another piece of Decatur’s history be demolished is not something any of us what to see more of.

The Lakefront improvements are living up to expectations, if not beyond. The Devon Amphitheater is a great asset to the city. I’d like to see some more restaurants and tasteful residential areas spring up. As long as they don’t detract from the park setting or block public access to the lake, I’m for more development.

Decatur’s biggest project is our neighborhoods. Some of them are mighty sad. Getting gangs out of Decatur is a high priority. Nobody is going to invest in a neighborhood with a high crime rate. If it means tripling our police force, I don’t care. Do it.

We also have to address the issues that have led to so much crime, like high dropout rates and drug usage. Decatur has available jobs, but they’re not as easy to land as one might think. I’ve seen entry-level jobs advertised that require five references. I don’t even have five references, and I’m almost 52! Many women who were stay-at-home moms don’t. Businesses need to be a little more realistic.

Hooking people up with jobs that they’re suited for is also essential. Not everybody wants to work in a factory, nor are they cut out for it. I sure as heck don’t want a nurse who is just in it for the money. Career development is needed and there are organizations that help, but you’re still pretty much on your own.

Training programs need to focus on teaching the skills you need for a job, and not 200 other things. So many college programs waste people’s time and money with prerequisite classes that have nothing to do with their degree or certificate. Strip it down to teaching the skills needed to do the job. As a nursing friend told me, 90% of what she needs to know to do her job, she learned on the job. School was more of an impediment than a help. It just delayed her becoming a nurse. Nursing programs need to be reworked. The hospital used to train nurses.

More apprenticeship programs are needed. Local unions have good programs, but other industries need to be willing to train. I’m lucky that I found one of the few jobs in a hospital that still does train people. After a few years you can make decent money, or go on to something that does.

You simply don’t have the right to complain that you can’t find workers, if you’re not willing to train them or pay them well.

I think we also need to be realistic about jobs and working. A big reason why so many jobs go unfilled is that society has said most jobs are beneath us. Oh, you’re only a cashier? You’re only a secretary? You’re only a cook? We’re made to feel like clowns for working such jobs, when the jobs are vitally important.

We need to respect work again. Too many people and businesses don’t. Not everybody can be on top, but everybody needs a living wage and respect.

So, yes, it takes good old fashion American work ethic, but it also takes American businesses doing the right thing, such as investing in people and the communities they are located in.

I’m sure that HGTV doesn’t paint a true and complete picture of Laurel, Mississippi, but I still have to admire the spirit of the town. A lot of what I see on Home Town comes down to people simply respecting each other, whatever their contributions are, even if you’re just an artist making sculptures out of soup cans. If you’re helping make life better and doing your part, you’re doing good, and that should always be respected.

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