A city in distress

For more of my commentary on life in Richmond, Indiana check out RichmondMatters.com.
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edvard munch - the scream  1893If you live in or near Richmond, Indiana, it looks like you picked the wrong year to stop sniffing glue. (Does anyone get Airplane! references anymore?)

Have you ever scored yourself on the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, which measures your personal stress based on which of 43 major life events (death, divorce, job change, etc) have happened to you in the past year? It's an interesting scale because it recognizes that significant life change - positive or negative - brings with it an increased potential for illness and possibly other problems.

I think if we were to do a similar scoring of events in the life of a midwestern city, Richmond, Indiana would be somewhere in the "freaking out" to "going ape-shit" range. I dare say, we're a city in distress.

Even beyond what's happening at the state, national and global level - economic turmoil, war and other violence, toxic political races, Charlie Sheen's career, etc. - I suggest that the last year in the life of our community has been an unusually tumultuous one here.

Just a partial list of some major events I've observed in the recent life of Richmond in no particular order:

  • Early in the year, the Richmond Community Schools system decided to close three elementary schools as cost-cutting measures, with some related labor force reductions enacted since.  The school buildings held a lot of memories and community history for those who had passed through their halls.
  • There's at least a perception and probably a reality that crime of all sorts is on the rise, as some local residents become more desperate in finding ways to get by, and as tensions and conflict rise along the way.  There've been an exceptional number of murders just in the first half of the year alone.
  • Longtime City Councilman and community leader Bing Welch died in January following complications from a stroke. Bing took with him a lot of history and context about City and RP&L matters, and a lot of passion for leadership that was unique in our city.
  • City Council elections and the caucusing to replace Welch's seat brought three new members to Council who undoubtedly have had to learn a lot in a short period of time, under the magnifying glass of public scrutiny no less
  • Richmond Street Commissioner Bill Smith died of a heart attack in April, and was replaced by T.L. Bosell
  • The food distributor Really Cool Foods closed suddenly in November after many economic developers had celebrated it as an example of local growth (and had provided significant financial incentives accordingly)
  • The once-exciting plans for the old Reid Hospital building, a major landmark in the lives of many residents who have experienced birth, death, illness and healing there, seem to have fallen through as the property sits in a dilapidated state with no communication from its absentee owners
  • In nearby Connersville, the once-celebrated arrival Carbon Motors fell through in March as necessary federal loan dollars were denied for the company
  • Jim and Vicki Hair, small business owners with intensely creative spirits, who have driven and inspired a number of local development and artistic projects, announced they're leaving the community and that their Unwind Yarn Shop on Main Street would be closing if they can't find a new owner
  • Indiana University East Chancellor Nasser Paydar announced he would be leaving the community for another position, after overseeing an incredible period of growth and new life at the campus here.
  • Earlham College's new president David Dawson has just completed his first year here, as the College continues to introduce new hirings and position changes for a significant number of faculty and staff.
  • The CEO of both the Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Corporation somewhat abruptly announced his departure from the community in May (effective in June), leaving both organizations with a lot of questions about their future and how the shared leadership model might or might not continue
  • Unemployment rates in Wayne County continue to stand out among surrounding counties, with the most recent report putting us at 9.8% (and we know that these numbers don't even paint the full picture of those who have given up looking for work).
  • The municipally-owned Richmond Power & Light has seen changes in its top leadership, after General Manager Steve Saum was dismissed in February and long-time energy services director Harry Phillips left his position this month.
  • A number of other well known local community members have announced career changes over the last year
  • Richmond officials put a lot of time and energy into application for a "Stellar Communities" grant that we had reasonable confidence in winning, only to find we had not been awarded any funds in this cycle.
  • Even as some great new restaurants and other retail businesses open, some disturbing signs of struggle continue in the central business district as other small businesses come and go with uncertain futures

And these are just some of the changes we see happening in plain view.  There are also the more quiet struggles with illness, the deaths of loved ones, family, parenting, relationships, faith, employment and more.

Of course, not all of these events affect everyone the same way, and I in no way mean to suggest that a career change should be equated with a death in terms of significance.  And there are certainly many parts of the world that have things much harder than life in Richmond, Indiana.  But I think that for many here, whether it's these changes or other life changes, there's sometimes a sense that the ground is shifting underneath us.

If you'll permit the armchair psychology, I think that we need to be very aware of the amount of stress and change our community is undergoing (again, remembering that a lot of it happens privately and quietly), and the impact it has on our personal lives, our relationships with each other in the course of public life, and our ability to think and plan clearly for the future.  If we don't, we risk needless finger-pointing, misplaced anger, taking things too personally, and a lack of perspective as we churn about "what to do."

I don't offer this assessment because I'm hopeless or even pessimistic about Richmond's future; one could make a much longer list than the above about all of the amazing things that have gone "right" here over the last year.  Our conversations about the future can and should be about building on our successes and "what works."

But let's also remember that if we experience being disheartened or freaked out along the way, there's probably a good reason - we've been through a lot lately.

9 thoughts on “A city in distress

  1. Agreed, Chris - timely and valuable observations. Let's also list all the positive things happening in Wayne County - I think that is a great idea! 🙂 A homework assignment for you, but everyone could collaborate on the list. 🙂

  2. There's no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you'll enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane? or run a city...........

  3. As always, Chris, I look forward to reading and hearing your thoughtful assessments. I would simply expand on the perspective that we are a nation in serious distress, and that Richmond as one community in that nation is dealing with that distress better than some, but not as well as others. Leadership typically makes the deciding difference.

    In my eight mostly enjoyable years here I remain convinced that, as a community, we know how to recognize and celebrate success but remain a tad clueless about surmounting failure, which is why we too often neglect to foresee and thus continue to be handed those failures.

  4. It is always easier to be negative and point at examples of where we fall short.

    I would hope that the next generation of Richmond leaders will choose to identify ways to bring the community together around common goals that improve the quality of life.

    Encourage everyone to support something, or someone outside their family and friends.
    Identify good things in the community and suggest ways to create a Richmond where you would want your children to live.

    If you need a start:

    Shop at the Clear Creek Co-op once a week and spend $10.

    Eat at a local family-owned restaurant once a week; promote a favorite to your friends.

    Support the positive work that the Depot merchants are doing and when someone says that Richmond is falling, remind them that a few years ago it wasn't safe to walk through the Depot area at any time of day or night.

    Again, it is easy to see and identify negatives, but it much more rewarding to create a new Richmond with the things you enjoy.

    I will not be coming back to Richmond to live as my children are in Northern California, but I am grateful that Vicki brought me to Richmond. I can tell anyone I meet in San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans or New York, that there is a small town in Indiana that has an amazing history with a location and potential that make it an ideal place to live.

    You don't have to take my word for it either, just ask anyone who was a volunteer during the Model T Centennial who spoke to the visitors who came from all over the world, loved the time they spent in Richmond, and many who didn't want to leave.

    Look forward; Richmond is your home, make it a great place to live.

  5. Unfortunately, there are people in leadership positions because they won an election who have no business making important decisions. These people must believe they are accountable to no one for their poor decisions and mismanagement.

  6. The city missed an opportunity to have your insightful input as an elected official, Chris. Keep thinking, writing, sharing and run again! Richmond is blessed to have you as a business owner and resident!

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