Business is tumbling

In late 1971 we arrived to find Ashland awash in butcher papered windows, each concealing a failed business from public view. The locals, seemingly unaware of the repercussions, were grumbling about the loss of timber mills and wigwam burners that previously underpinned the local economy and kept a jaundiced eye focused at the Festival, which looked back at the townsfolk and saw only an ocean of volunteers.

The retailers, for the most part, had no training or background in marketing, advertising, display or promotion. It seemed that we had a secret contest: how many dead flies in the front windows could be counted from the sidewalk. As the merchants catered mostly to locals, there was no apparent need to lure them in to shop, so the flies kept piling up as the cash registers kept clanging away at a modest, yet predictable rate.

It is through this lens that I now view the newly papered storefronts downtown. While contemporary merchants use point-of-sales registers, manifold displays and freshly dressed display windows, they are confronted with daunting obstacles to take their minds off of the tasks they need to accomplish to stay vibrant.

Health inspectors buzz through town like the traffic on Interstate 5. The fire department seems to guarantee that $80,000 will be fined from certain pockets...though this is just a drop in the bucket. Our archaic sign ordinance has been tasked to raise money, with the full weight of staff pushing and pulling. Public input is kept at a minimal and manageable level while the town's most sacred task is to keep visitors fully clothed.

Yesterday I trundled through town noticing, again, that butcher paper is weaving its way over display windows. Two French restaurants have closed, one for good and the other repossessed. Meanwhile a new French restaurant is opening in the same spot where two other restaurants have gone under. Our reaction is to run a front page story about the new venture. I wish them the best but feel that the city's only interest is making sure that they collect taxes and pay their utility bills promptly.

Unlike the '70s, today's business owners spend a lot of money keeping up appearances, trying to look good while besieged by every sports team, good cause and global movement. Doing this while trying to keep stock on the shelves and making payroll is quite a balancing act that can teeter on disaster if anything goes wrong.

I try to stay positive in these times of economic duress yet am empathetic enough to actually feel the true mood of the small business owners who have fallen under the whip, lashed from every quarter by entities eager to protect their budgets, regardless of economic calamity. It does not take long for shopkeepers to get the correct feeling they serve only to make payments to keep bureaucrats flush with bucks at the cost of jobs, inspiration and hope.

I believe that the phrase for such a condition is referred to as indentured servitude and, if you do not like it, just hop a freight train and get going. With all the parked railroad cars on the tracks these days finding a spot is a cinch. You simply need to set up camp and wait a couple of years for your ride to get rolling.

I wonder what would be the response to the sight of tumbleweeds blowing through downtown. For starters, we would be taxed for picking up and disposing of the rolling reminders that days can be lean and mean, while our French restaurants might add a new and inexpensive entree to their menus: Thistle Tartar, surely a boost of creativity that our visitors and locals will find sticks to their bones along with a 5 percent tax to process the residue. was last seen trying to cook a tumbleweed stew in a large cauldron. Unfortunately his last two batches were whisked away by a little old lady dressed in black and riding a broom. At first things were thorny, but, as the wind picked up, Lance decided to make some tumble brownies and dream of life in the Old West.

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