OUR VIEW: Maroney Commons, a cautionary tale“Ladies and gentlemen, either you are closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community.”
By: Editorial board, The Daily Republic
“Ladies and gentlemen, either you are closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community.”
That’s a line from the musical “The Music Man,” a 1957 play about an out-of-towner who slipped into mythical 1912 River City, Iowa, to sell expensive instruments for a boys’ band.
The problem was that River City didn’t have a boys’ band. Didn’t have any interest in one, in fact. But slippery salesman Harold Hill convinced the townsfolk they needed such a group as a way to keep their potentially mischievous boys out of trouble.
And he was just the man to sell them those instruments, even though he himself didn’t have any idea how to play them and had no intention of sticking around once the sale was complete. All Harold Hill needed was something to spook the people; in River City, it was the presence of a pool hall.
“Oh yes, there’s trouble,” Hill sang. “Right here in River City. With a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool.”
Did Harold Hill swoop through the town of Howard in recent years and sell the people there — along with members of Congress and others — a bill of goods?
Literally? No. But in the wake of Howard’s recent failed Main Street venture, we can’t help but draw comparisons.
Last week, The Daily Republic exhaustively told the tale of Maroney Commons, a building constructed in Howard that was designed as a place for “leaders from small towns to design and build 21st century rural communities.” In short, it was where townspeople could gather to discuss ways to save their communities from outmigration, with the supposed saving of Howard and Miner County as examples to follow.
The price tag for the building was $6.5 million. Just one year after it opened it is now shuttered, a monument to high hopes, big dreams and risky spending of both private donations and public money.
As its boosters were pushing for construction, the population of Howard was sharply falling. In hindsight, it’s easy to focus on another pitfall: Without a definite and established stream of revenue, no business can last — not even one backed by the most enthusiastic of supporters.
Upon much review, we see no evil intent in the failure of Maroney Commons. After spending many hours in Howard in recent months, we find that the biggest mistake was simply falling in line with the “Music Man”-like rhetoric that placed Maroney Commons on an economic pedestal, out of reach of reality.
We blame the boosters, whose constant glowing comments about entrepreneurial spirit apparently obscured reasonable expectations of future revenue.
We blame politicians who pushed for grants and low-interest loans instead of seeking answers about sustainability.
We even blame ourselves for getting caught up in the glowing optimism. We had many chances to question this process, but just didn’t.
Many of South Dakota’s small towns are indeed in trouble, indicated by declining population. Maroney Commons has shown us that we just can’t fall for the simple mentality that if we build it, people will come.
Harold Hill, the swindler from “The Music Man,” didn’t sweep through Howard and bilk the townsfolk out of money recklessly spent on band instruments. But many of us still fell for what turned out to be a flighty idea, to the tune of a $6.5 million building that may never again find a use that will justify the cost. That’s sad.
We hope towns continue their fight to stay alive, but now they must use Howard’s story as a cautionary tale.
Just as fictional River City didn’t really need band instruments, Howard really didn’t need Maroney Commons.
In an ironic and sad twist, perhaps this will be Maroney Commons’ real legacy — saving small towns by showing others how to fight, but also sometimes what not to do.