The last few years, North Country voters have been wrestling with the idea of eliminating layers of local government, and consolidating some services — particularly with school districts.
In Canada, local governments have been far more aggressive, bringing together political leadership, and population, into bigger clumps.
Now, there’s a debate underway in Japan over how (and if) to rebuild small villages following last year’s devastating tsunami. This from the New York Times.
The debate here centers on the future of Onagawa’s rapidly aging and depopulated fishing villages, which, reachable only by twisting mountain roads, dot peninsulas that spread east and south of the town center here. Three other villages, located on two nearby islands, depend on a ferry that runs only three days a week for access to the mainland.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Our challenges in the Adirondacks, the St. Lawrence Valley and the Champlain Valley are often spread over vast, remote areas. Isolation is an issue. So is our rugged terrain and our costly infrastructure.
And then there is the simple reality that, these days, people prefer to live in larger communities. In Japan, according to the Times, the disaster brought these big questions to a head.
So after the tsunami destroyed all 15 of the fishing villages that make up part of Onagawa, Nobutaka Azumi, then the mayor, proposed a reconstruction plan that seemed sensible enough: consolidate the villages.
Having just a few centralized communities would save the town money, Mr. Azumi said, and perhaps increase their chances of long-term survival.
But the village elders fought back, saying they wanted the government to rebuild their ancestral villages so that they could spend their last years there.
Younger residents, many of whom supported consolidation but were vastly outnumbered, were left grumbling among themselves.
Obviously, the North Country’s situation is very different. We don’t have the “clean slate” that the tsunami forced up the Japanese.
But it strikes me that economic and demographic forces may be creating much the same dynamic.
Perhaps it’s time to think about shifting more of our tax dollars, more of our public sector investment, more of our school and infrastructure dollars, to pay for hub communities — investing in large enough towns and villages that they might have the critical mass to survive long-term.
Another challenge for us is that, as with the Japanese, the decisions here are made by a predominately aged class of politicians, many of them entrenched in local government for years or even decades.
In many cases, it’s difficult to imagine the kind of innovative risk-taking that might be needed to save individual communities, or to merge forces.
On the other hand, some of this process is probably already happening organically.
As school district enrollments dwindle and close, and as services are focused in hub communities, we may find ourselves clumping up by default.
But I wonder if this evolution might be less painful, less risky, if we tried to make some of these decisions deliberately. As always, your comments welcome.