Around the County

Reinventing ourselves, from thermostats to main street


Remember when household thermostats were simple little devices consisting of a dial that you turned or a lever you moved? That’s a long way from true of the one I have now. It requires a degree in engineering and the temperament of a saint to use.

“Get a new one,” my son-in-law advised. “A smart one. You tell it what temperature you want in what room and … Bingo!”

I could use a “bingo” moment, so this morning my fingers began doing the walking up and down a virtual digital main street looking at thermostats.

My wanderings took me into a dozen or more “stores” not to mention a detour to Amazon’s mega-emporium where the sight of mattresses reminded me that I’d been considering some major household purchases. Six hundred-odd dollars later (but with free home delivery), my household was well on its way to acquiring a number of items, and I had yet to finish my second cup of coffee, talk to another human or break a sweat. How my bank account felt is another matter.

Sitting back after this experience, it occurred to me that as recently as a decade ago it would have taken hours, if not days, to locate, negotiate, and purchase the same items. In the process, I’d have spoken to numbers of clerks and owners, might have tested the items or taken them on trial.

The money I’d have spent would have stayed in the community, too. It would have helped pay the sales clerk’s salary and rent or mortgage on the store. Some or all of that $600 would have been banked. Part might have gone on to be spent locally on food and clothing, on home rentals and mortgages, on violin or art lessons. However it was spent, it would have rolled over and multiplied as it mingled with other money and passed through various hands, helping the local economy grow.

Just writing this is giving me a guilt complex. Or it would if I could find comparables to my purchases locally. Those haven’t existed for quite a while. As recently as five years ago, I would have gone to Billings. Thirty years ago? It wouldn’t have occurred to my folks to go anywhere except into the stores in downtown Powell (or the Sears catalog) to get whatever they needed. If it wasn’t available there, they did without.

In short, and no news to anyone, the retail scene has changed and small town retail is suffering. In the process, small towns across America have been disappearing. Scraps of paper and tumbleweeds blow down streets once busy with pickup trucks. There, on a Saturday, children begged to have candy included among adult purchases, adults met friends, gossiped and nursed cups of coffee, while teens “dragged” main in their clunkers. 

But before waxing too nostalgic about the way it was, recognizing what we have now and what it will take to maintain and grow our town interests me more.

On the “what we have” side of the ledger, I count our village-like atmosphere and inclusive community environment. We have what most Americans think of when they imagine their ideal home, thanks in large part to the hard work and vision of our citizens and leaders.

Look around, and you’ll see what I mean. Check out our amenities — Plaza Diane, The Commons, excellent schools, good parks and playgrounds, a welcoming main street, a marginally adequate library, a forward-looking, vibrant college and more. It helps, too, that we live in a magnificent rural area with a very low population density, surrounded by mountains and wilderness teeming with recreational possibilities.

But the beauty of the land and our list of assets isn’t enough. Keeping our town alive and kicking has to do with attitude, mindset, and leadership — in recognizing that community development will require imagination, innovation, vision and work. In short, we as a town will have to keep reinventing ourselves to prosper. That’s the hard part.

Which brings me back to thermostats and the way they’ve evolved from a gadget with a dial to this “smart” thing that will respond to the human voice. Earlier, my fingers hovered over one that looked particularly easy to use, but they paused while I read the fine print. Turns out the thing links to your phone or computer, which requires computer literacy, which means …

Nothing is easy.