Around the County

A vital town center

By Pat Stuart
Posted 5/27/21

I’m impressed,” one of the architects who visited our town and library recently said to me. “There’s lots of cars on your main street. And, it’s the middle of the …

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Around the County

A vital town center

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I’m impressed,” one of the architects who visited our town and library recently said to me. “There’s lots of cars on your main street. And, it’s the middle of the week.”

Well, his surprise was understandable. So many farm towns the size of ours present wide, bare streets backed by the dusty glare of empty show windows. Once, those windows boasted color and commerce with dresses, shoes, implements, notions, bolts of cloth and all the other normal necessities of life. 

That could have been us.

Seen through the architects’ eyes, I felt a burst of pride. An hour later I drove down Bent, noting cars filling most parking spaces. That’s the way it was when I was a grade school student, too. The amount of activity, also, seems the same. But almost everything else has changed. 

Then, I’d walk from school, trees fronting it along Second Street, then pass the (smaller) library, where I might pick up or drop off a book. I’d then turn left onto Bent and go down a few doors to a drug store.

Inside you’d see the interior filled with things to buy, merchandise stacked right up the far walls to the ceiling. But the real heart of the place sat along the north side: a soda bar, its stools seemingly always occupied by patrons. Root beer floats, banana splits, milkshakes, malts, and more ... you bellied up to the bar for those delectables. If my mother was waiting for me, nursing a cup of coffee, she’d smile. 

And I’d sigh. No treats unless I’d saved enough from my allowance. We weren’t poor, but we nursed a nickel then. Pretty much everyone, it seems to me, did.

The rest of Bent Street’s stores held much the same. Maybe not the sweets children love but merchandise, things to spend hard-earned money on. Merchants sold clothing and stationery, retailing saddles and harness, offering books and furniture, flowers and implements.

Saturdays I’d trail along behind one of my parents as they did their shopping. After or before, we’d stop at a café for a tuna sandwich and a glass of milk, my folks drifting to other tables to catch up on gossip, someone always putting a quarter in a juke box and selecting what? An Elvis Presley hit, maybe. 

That’s how I first heard “Blue Suede Shoes” and Bill Haley’s “Rock around the Clock.”

Then came the innovations of Walmart and McDonald’s. We all know how their merchandising models proliferated. We all remember or have been told how one by one and over many years Powell’s main street merchants held their “Going out of business” sales. 

It wasn’t that their customers didn’t want to support them. They were friends and neighbors, but ... One by one the buildings went up for sale or the owners looked hard for new tenants.

Because lifestyles were changing hugely. We had more disposable income. We had more and better vehicles and televisions and, then, computers. The digital age arrived with a vengeance to really exact change. Downtown could die or adapt. Most did the former, the towns around them becoming shadows of their former selves. Some disappeared altogether; their names erased from maps.

Which is why what’s happened here is so phenomenal and worthy of an exclamation by our visiting architect. He knew. Architects are experts on main streets or town centers and how they reflect the social capital of a town, show whether its thriving or declining or, worst case scenario, dead.

As for here, many, many hands and a lot of innovation and creativity have gone into keeping Powell a vital community. Many work hard every day to that end. The result? Adaptation so that visitors to our town see the same kind of busy main street that has existed since the town’s founding.  

Not that the process isn’t ongoing. Nonetheless, we’ve made it this far, and I’m impressed. If you aren’t, you should be, too.

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