BLAIR, NEBRASKA (OCTOBER 13, 2023) Blair, Nebraska stands emblematic of many of America’s cherished small towns, grappling with the quintessential conundrum: how to retain its tight-knit, community-driven spirit while adapting to the evolving needs of a new generation.
I moved here in 2003. My wife and I raised our family here. This is our home. One of the reasons I wanted to live in Blair was that this was a small-town that had all that we needed. There was no reason to drive to Omaha, I thought. Blair was, in fact, “a country mile north.” (Some of you may recall the Woodhouse Ford commercials that made it a selling point, the distance from Omaha, that is).
The last few years, though, I’ve seen people remark – with increased frequency – that Blair needs something more. Something new. Something for “the kids”.
So, I asked a group of Blair folks a simple question: What does Blair need most? I offered three light-hearted choices to start the conversation (Restaurant, Pawn Shop, Book Store), the answers I got back show the question touched a real nerve, and is a serious issue for some very smart folks in Blair.
A stark reflection can be heard in the words of Don Morgan, who observed, “In the many years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen bowling alleys, theatres, roller skating rink, game room, and many eating places that failed to thrive. Not due to not enough people living here, but due to not enough people using these services.”
Morgan’s sentiment isn’t unique to Blair. Across the country, towns like Bisbee, Arizona, and Braddock, Pennsylvania have faced eerily similar challenges. Bisbee, once buoyed by mining, had to confront the void left behind when the mines closed. The town’s very essence was at stake. But Bisbee’s story also offers hope. Through concerted community effort, it reinvented itself as an arts and cultural hub, a destination rather than a relic of the past.
Braddock, Pennsylvania, too, echoes Blair’s trials. A steel town that once roared with industry, Braddock’s heartbeat slowed dramatically as mills shut down. Like Blair, Braddock had to grapple with urban decay, a dwindling population, and the challenge of attracting new businesses. Yet, it’s in these challenges that Braddock found its resilience, turning to art, urban farming, and grassroots initiatives to spark revitalization.
Delving back into Blair’s discourse, several key themes emerge:
- Recreational Spaces: There’s a significant demand for indoor recreational spaces, as noted by Shawn Hall Smith. These spaces, beyond entertainment, foster community bonding. They’re reminiscent of Lanesboro, Minnesota, another small town that turned to arts and culture for revitalization, emphasizing community engagement to strike a balance between local needs and tourist attractions.
- Quality and Relevance: Proximity isn’t enough. Blair’s offerings, like those in Bisbee or Braddock, must resonate with modern preferences without forsaking the town’s legacy. Jessica Huey’s insights underscore this, emphasizing the need for local establishments that can compete with bigger cities in terms of experience.
- Civic Responsibility: Lloyd Aaron’s concerns about vandalism highlight the larger issue of civic responsibility. Like Braddock’s urban farming initiatives, Blair could harness community-driven projects to foster a sense of shared ownership and pride.
- Economic Dynamics: Blair’s changing demographics hint at evolving market dynamics. This shift requires a reimagining of Blair’s offerings, ensuring they resonate with contemporary tastes. Erika Moreno’s observations touch on this, suggesting a need to align with the tastes of Blair’s younger populace.
- Local Patronage: The support of local businesses remains paramount for Blair’s economy to thrive. Matt Saunders’ insights into local patronage resonate with Don Morgan’s reflections, emphasizing the cyclical challenges of local business and the vital role the community plays in supporting them.
In the tapestry of small-town America, Blair, like Bisbee, Braddock, and Lanesboro, stands at a crossroads. The path forward demands collaboration and vision. As these towns have shown, revitalization is achievable, but it requires a delicate balance: honoring the past, embracing the future, and always, always prioritizing the community at the heart of it all.
Kylie Snyder’s lament is a testament to this sentiment: “There’s not even much to get out and do in Blair. That’s why so many people go to Omaha… It’s nice to get out of the house and be able to do something different sometimes without driving so far.” This longing for local engagement and entertainment is universal among small towns, emphasizing the need for localized solutions.
Yet, there’s also a note of caution and a plea for support from local residents. As Don Morgan stated, and Matt Saunders echoed, “Most things people are saying we need are already here or used to be here but closed up cause it wasn’t supported.” This reinforces the cyclical challenges of local businesses and the essential role the community plays in supporting them.
The story of Blair is not just its own, but a reflection of many towns across America, each navigating its unique challenges but bound by a shared spirit of resilience and community. Blair’s destiny will be shaped not just by its amenities but by the strength of its community bonds. The experiences of towns like Bisbee, Braddock, and Lanesboro, alongside the voices of Blair’s residents, underscore the importance of collective effort and vision in charting a prosperous, vibrant future.
We agree with Don Morgan. He rightly says, “not enough people using these services” is the problem Blair faces. If Blair wants to remain Blair, local business leaders need to find a way to bridge the gap between what people want, and they will use. It’s too easy for people to “drive to Omaha” for Blair’s leadership to ignore this issue – unless the goal is to be “North-North Omaha” someday.
If Blair is to remain Blair, we believe the effort must begin today, while the hills between Omaha and Blair still make the drive “a country mile north”.