Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Dreams of a downtown shattered

A couple of weeks ago I was waxing nostalgic about my first newspaper job at The Current-Argus in Carlsbad, N.M., some 16 years ago. Maybe that jogged my memory or maybe it’s the hot weather we’ve been having, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that time in my life.
The address for The Current-Argus was on South Main Street. Main Street. Just the words conjured all sorts of romantic notions of what my life would be like. I’d be working in a building right on Carlsbad’s Main Street. I had visions of a bustling little downtown of wide sidewalks and brick buildings, the courthouse and police station and City Hall all within walking distance of each other. Main Street. I would rush out the doors of my newspaper office building over to the courthouse for a verdict or over to City Hall for the next council meeting, rushing past people I knew, waving along the way, pointing to my watch to indicate in a hurried fashion that I couldn’t stop to chat this time. Main Street.
It took me four days’ driving from New Jersey before I pulled into Carlsbad on a sweltering summer afternoon. Highway 285 comes up on Carlsbad from the southeast on the south side of town. After checking into a motel for the night, I set out to explore my new town.
Mind you, this was all before the time of Google maps and street view. Heck, it was even before the time of the Internet, if you can believe such a time existed.
I drove into Carlsbad proper on Canal Street. I passed motel after motel, fast-food place after fast-food place, car lots, gas stations and convenience stores along with all of their accompanying plastic signs, parking lots and withering landscaping. I drove on, my hopeful eyes set on the horizon waiting for my idyllic downtown. I kept driving a couple of miles until I came to a sharp turn west. A-ha, I thought. Around the corner must be the oasis. Another two miles of strip malls and convenience stores and chain restaurants and I found myself on the edge of the desert again, leaving the city.
Wait, where was my downtown? Where was Main Street? Where were my brick buildings and bustling sidewalk traffic? Eventually, I found it. Abandoned, falling apart, vacant. Save for the beautiful historic courthouse, the downtown was dilapidated, neglected, empty. Main Street had become an industrial backage road populated by low-slung steel buildings and work yards. I was crestfallen.
Carlsbad had grown, to be sure. But it had grown into an ugly city of chain stores and restaurants, aesthetically displeasing with little to no character at all. Walking in Carlsbad was an aberration, a source of confused looks, as if the pedestrian were in some sort of distress or mental incapacity.
Is this what’s in store for Kuna? Is this what we will become? A few years ago, an urban renewal effort was nearly consummated but was quashed. Two years ago, when City Council members approved plans for a big-box store at Deer Flat and Meridian roads, there was talk about revitalizing downtown. Now again, next week, a group of community developers will offer their ideas about downtown.
Let’s get this done this time. Quit talking about it and just do it. I fear that City Council members, faced again with a tight budget, won’t budget any money for a grant writer or money for downtown renewal.
Meanwhile, locally owned businesses with character and identity close and chain stores open.
I predict that 20 years from now, with our 120,000 residents, our Wal-Mart and Fred Meyer and Walgreens and Subway, people will look around and say, “Why did they let their downtown fall to pieces like that?”

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