Everyone knows that Berryville's Mayor, Tim McKinney hit a rough patch last year. My general view on such matters is to throw no stones. Although it was a long time ago, I've been drunk as a skunk behind the wheel, and I've smoked a fatty or two--again, a long time ago. It was only sheer luck that kept me out of the papers and out of jail.
What does matter is that McKinney has apparently retired from night life. What McKinney should not retire from is being Mayor. While it's understandable that he may be tired of public service and sincerely wants to retire, the challenges small cities and towns face over the coming months requires an experienced, competent, and steady hand at the tiller. McKinney has been that steady hand.
More to the point, Berryville is one of the most effectively administered small cities in Arkansas and, as far as rural communities go, it may be one of the better governed towns in the United States. Berryville has been in excellent hands: its infrastructure is solid; its various departments (cops, fire, streets) are professional and highly effective; city hall personnel are responsive and dedicated, and: our tax dollars are wisely and conscientiously managed. That McKinney has accomplished this for so long, and without adequate compensation, is breath taking for its rarity, and for the absence of the acrimony that seems typical of small town politics. It is difficult to know how we can adequately thank him for his years of service.
If there has been a fault with McKinney's tenure in office, it is that it hasn't been particularly democratic--few people are invited into the process (witness the recent Drive By City Planning process)--and his attitude, whether intentional or perceptional, has always seemed like "Father Knows Best."
The facts of the matter are that in relation to city infrastructure, the running of departments, and fiscal management, McKinney probably has known best and, for government to operate democratically it needs a citizenry that cares enough and is responsible enough to get involved in the democratic process. Frankly speaking, many folks in Berryville seem to prefer to snipe from the sidelines, or to get some recently arrived (within the last 20 years) know-it-all Yankee to carry their water for them--and then act surprised and indignant when the Yankee says or does something that needs saying or doing.
Downtown Berryville and the future of Downtown Berryville is a case in point. People are still mad that someone had the audacity to call the Community Building toilet a toilet. But what McKinney probably knows, and what virtually all city planners know, is that the downtowns of most rural communities are not viable as commercial districts because of population and cultural changes.
Consequently, investment follows these changes--which mostly happen along main roads--and naturally enough: government responds to the needs of these new investors, and downtowns are left out of the equation. Other downtown problems such as the lack of infrastructure--parking, access points, fully depreciated real estate, public restrooms, and so on--compound the problem. To put it into perspective, Berryville's Wal-Mart probably remits more sales tax dollars to the city in a single day or week than all the merchants in all of downtown do in a year. Who would you pay attention to, or take seriously?
The "cultural" change I mention above is the memory and changing memory that people have of when downtown was, pre-Wal Mart, a vital and interesting business district. It is fun and instructive to hear "old timers" talk about what the Square was like when they were kids. Yet, social scientists tell us that for memories to have relevance--to be important to--succeeding generations, some of what is memory must also be present and observable today.
For new residents, or for natives born after 1965--memory is transferrable for about 50 years--a robust Berryville Square does not now and never has "really" existed, yet both old timers and city officials struggling with a long list of obligations get mad as hell when these upstarts and outsiders point out the obvious deterioration.
Why bother with downtown revitalization? One reason is that a downtown that looks vibrant and "alive" is a community's most effective marketing tool in attracting new business and residential real estate investors (homeowners). Of course, this is common knowledge, and frankly, boring. It reminds me of what Chesterton said about religion: "The problem with religion is not that it has been tried and found wanting. The problem is that it has been tried and been found hard."
What makes downtown revitalization possible is a city government that combines both incentives to retail property owners to maintain and improve property, and aggressive enforcement of existing codes and new codes that mandate maintenance and standards of appearance. Without these, no amount of money spent on billboards, other advertising, or even tax increment financing schemes will mean anything. Private investment follows public investment; it hardly ever works the other way around.
As for me, I don't have a dog in the fight anymore: I'm retiring this year and will spend my time gardening and clipping geezer hair. Other, more effective, and hopefully forceful individuals and groups will need to take up the matter of the future and especially downtown Berryville's future.
Whether or not Mayor McKinney adds downtown improvement to his list of remaining civic obligations--and he has no reason to unless Berryvillians seek such improvement--I wish him well. I hope he can be convinced to stay in office for at least another term. And I sincerely thank him for the really fine work that he's done and is doing.