Friday, September 10, 2010

Report from the west. Part 1

I write this as we’re driving across eastern Washington. Don’t worry, I’m not driving just now, someone else is. I’m a passenger. I don’t text and drive let alone write on my laptop while driving. Not even on straight, low traffic western interstates with long sight-lines.

From the Soo, we followed the south shore of Lake Superior to Duluth, went across northern Minnesota and central North Dakota, across Montana (whew! That’s a big state E to W) to Glacier National Park and on to the Olympic Peninsula. Except for the north side of eastern Montana, it was familiar country. My academic training conditioned me to observe the natural environment; my more recent interest in sustainable, place-based economic development led me to look for what seems to be going right or not so right in the communities we visited. I saw examples of both. I won’t comment on the large, famous places. Instead I’ll comment on smaller, out-of-the-way places that may hold some placemaking lessons for the small, out-of-the-way place in which I live and work.

Medora, North Dakota
This former ranching community has capitalized on being the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park ( Teddy Roosevelt isn’t the most popular tourist destination in the country but it has its fans (including me). The park shows off the scenery and ecology of the Little Missouri River Badlands. A pull-off from the freeway offers a view of the badlands without having to enter the park. I think that the view entices people into the park and does not siphon people away from the park entrance gate (and the park entrance fees), but in any case, one lesson is that you’ll do better if you’re right on the freeway. But another lesson is that you need to convince people to slow down and get off the freeway.

The buildings in Medora’s business district all follow a unified architectural theme that suggests old west. The park and the town seem to work together to combine the natural features and the history into fueling visitors’ imaginations with the early days of cattle ranching in the western US. One change in the area since my time there in the late 1970s is mountain biking. Mountain bikes are available for rent from a shop in town. The terrain makes for good mountain biking, but Medora hasn’t become a mountain bike destination in the way that Moab, Utah has. That’s maybe a good thing.
We had a late breakfast in a café frequented by tourists and locals. I find it pleasant to have that kind of mix. The locals didn’t seem to mind it, either. We felt welcome.
Medora has done a good job of making a very attractive gateway to a natural and historical site. Their theme and their desire to capitalize on what visitors want seems to be working for them.

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