Educated in a small town/ Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town/ Used to daydream in that small town/ Another boring romantic that’s me. – John Mellencamp.

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I was born in Defiance, Ohio, which isn’t really a small town, but lived the first few years of my life in Ayersville, which is. My dad was a math teacher and a job at Lincolnview in the early 1970s transplanted our family to Hoaglin Township. The small town of my childhood became Middle Point.

Growing up in a small community, one develops predictable allegiances. The movie Hoosiers may have caught the attention of city kids, but there was more in it than Jimmy Chitwood’s last second shot to us hayseeds. Gene Hackman’s drive through the villages of the Indiana countryside trying to find Hickory resonated strongly, as did the people he found – those were our grandparents.

The gyms of that movie were the gyms we played junior high basketball in the 1980s and that are now mostly gone. Oddly, also gone are most of the gyms where we played high school basketball in the 1980s.

The small town still thrives in Northwest Ohio. But Van Wert County struggles more than our neighbors because our small towns, save Convoy, have lost their schools. Back in the Hoosiers era, the Van Wert County basketball tournament was something – York, Van-Del, Convoy-Union, Wren, Willshire, Hoaglin-Jackson, Ohio City-Liberty. All of those are now absorbed into something else, something bigger. Without the schools and with Wal-Mart eliminating the utility of most of our village stores, there is a creeping sense of decline in our villages. My question two years ago was what can be done to change that? I sought advice from Jared Ebbing, the Community Development Director of Mercer County, where small towns seem to thrive like nowhere else.

We already utilize some of Ebbing’s strategies. Rebuilding infrastructure through Community Development Block Grants and other funding has been steady. Convoy got its highway rebuilt last summer, Middle Point will get major upgrades soon, and Ohio City is progressing through the first stages of another large grant. We’re learning how to use the revolving loan fund to enable more projects.

But what stuck with me from my time with Ebbing was a story he told about a company looking to locate near Mercer County. The company was deciding between two locations and Celina was geographically between them. The company’s rep stopped for a meet-and-greet with Ebbing as he was passing from one to the other, just to make contact and introduce himself. Ebbing asked the guy if he could just have an hour of his time.

Ebbing proceeded to take him on a quick tour of Mercer County. I don’t remember which towns, but seems like Coldwater, Fort Recovery and St. Henry were involved. The company rep was impressed. He brought back some of his compatriots later for an expanded tour. That company, after having narrowed its choices to two sites prior to its visit, Celina being neither of them, located in Celina and is now one of its larger employers. But it wasn’t Celina that closed the deal, it was the rest of the county.

Our towns are actually in decent shape - there are still mostly nice homes out there. It’s just that one damn windowless, roof-caved-in, abandoned house on every other block that makes each of our villages seem like they’re falling down. One of the more successful programs I had a chance to be involved with last year was called Move Ohio Forward where the state provided grant money to tear down dilapidated homes. The cost of the average teardown, even with the EPA’s ever over-involvement, wasn’t outrageous – usually between six and ten thousand per home.

The Phoenix Initiative is something I have put forward to further this effort. The idea is that the county can partner with a village or a township to tear down a house – sharing the cost fifty-fifty. A lien would be placed on the property with hopes to later recoup the investment. But just the elimination of a neglected and crumbling house would be worth the cost multiple times over for the rest of the community and the county – and, in the end, to the ability of the City of Van Wert and Delphos to attract large employers.

It’s not as easy as all that, though. You’d think you could just pick a junk house and proceed. But some of the owners of these properties have what might be termed delusions of profitability. The trick is getting permission to tear things down – eminent domain is easy for the feds, not the locals. But if we can get just one a year in each of our villages, a disturbing trend could be reversed prior to its becoming irreversible.

Our small towns may never have industry like Leipsic, New Bremen or Ottoville. But they can certainly be the shining, quiet, desirable bedroom communities they used to be. It’s counterintuitive, but to build well, we need to look harder at tearing down.

This and other Wolfrum columns can be read at toddwolfrum.com.