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SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 18, 2007
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Who cares about Greenville?

Decatur is awesome.

The Daily is running a series of articles regarding what went into the success story of Greenville, S.C. Previously we have run similar articles on Tuscaloosa and Columbus, Ga. Many wonder why we bother. As one anonymous caller said to me a few weeks ago, “If you don’t like Decatur, go somewhere else.”

I’m not going anywhere else. The reason: I love this city. I love the relaxed, unpretentious geniality of its people. Its blue-collar roots give it a work ethic and pride-in-self that seems immune to the vagaries of outside management.

An active faith community, and the generosity that comes with it, separates Decatur from many cities its size. Even its feistiness is endearing, whether aimed at smoking ordinances or sales-tax increases or national TV shows that attack its schools.

We are who we are, and if high-priced economic consultants want to label us “Mayberry-ville,” so be it. They can stay in Los Angeles where they belong.

So why the focus on other cities, a focus that comes with the implicit suggestion that Decatur would do well to adopt some of the strategies they have used to become who they are?

The reason is that treading water — maintaining the status quo — is not an option.

Jeff Thompson, senior economic analyst at The University of Alabama in Huntsville, put it this way: “Cities can grow economically or they can shrink,” he said, “but it’s awfully hard to stay the same.”

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox put it this way: “If any urban area does not grow, it dies on the vine.”

However much we may want Decatur to stay the same, it is not going to happen. As our population ages, we will have fewer people in the work force and fewer tax dollars. As our infrastructure ages, we will have more pressing needs for those tax dollars.

If we compete with Huntsville rather than complement it, we will lose jobs and people and businesses.

If Decatur does not plan its future, there are indications the inevitable change will be in the wrong direction.

Median wages in Decatur are dropping fast, leaving us with less buying power — and potentially a lower quality of life — than in past years.

The percentage of statewide banking deposits found in Decatur-area banks is shrinking.

The State School Report Card for Decatur City Schools gives the system a “C-” for spending per student as compared to schools nationwide, and our test scores show it.

The number of students eligible for free or reduced lunches has increased by almost 50 percent in the last decade, and the number of households below the poverty line has increased that much in just six years.

So the Decatur we loved 10 years ago is not the Decatur of today. If the trends continue, the Decatur of tomorrow may be one that cannot attract our children.

Will we grow, or will we die on the vine? Controlled growth seems the better option.

I don’t want Decatur to become a carbon copy of Greenville, S.C. If I did, I would move there. What I do want is for Decatur to remain vibrant, to reverse the trends that threaten its essence.

We are changing. By studying strategies that worked in places like Greenville, S.C., we can make sure that the change is for the better.

Contact Eric Fleischauer at eric@decaturdaily.com.

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Eric Fleischauer
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