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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Monday, February 23, 2009

"The Future...The Undiscovered Country"*

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, March 15, 2009
as "At Crossroad, Hopefully City Takes the Right Path"

Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey

I’ve been intrigued how the concept of “the future” is perceived. For some in Johnstown, it seems that the best future would be a return to the past; when the mills were roaring, downtown was buzzing, and everyone was flush. But the world has changed. Johnstown must change along with it.

In 1970, sociologist and futurist Alvin Toffler published a book entitled “Future Shock.” Toffler discussed how the effect of “too much change in too short of a time” leaves a populace suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation.” Humans are resilient to a point, but when the world turns upside down overnight, even the most prepared find themselves reeling.

Johnstown is suffering from a type of Future Shock. The city is historically a blue-collar town. If you didn’t work iron, steel or coal, then your business income depended on those who did. The collapse of those industries left a gaping wound that to this day has not fully healed. The loss of Johnstown’s signature industry has forced the city and its people to redefine themselves.

Through the efforts of the late Congressman John Murtha, several firms have arrived, bringing much-needed jobs. But, prolific he may be, but immortal he is not. Already there are worried whispers about the fate of the area’s economy now that he is gone. One local man told me, “Losing Mr. Murtha will be worse than losing the steel mills.”

It is time to think seriously about the future. If Johnstown wants to be a magnet for economic development, then it must be able to target those businesses that fit in the economy of the 21st century.

We have a disciplined and ethical workforce. However, manufacturing still drives the mindset. Labor-intensive smokestack industries are on the wane, as technology replaces human labor. Information, or “data,” has become the new coin of the realm, and the movement of megabytes is the new production line. The world has gone digital, and if you don’t know how to use a computer and standard business software, you need to learn. Nearly every company uses them in some fashion and those who remain unskilled in their use will be left behind.

Micro-municipalities litter the greater Johnstown area, each with their own expensive police, fire, and public works departments, along with entrenched politicians and bureaucracy. Few out-of-town business owners in their right minds would attempt to navigate the dizzying array of municipal laws and regulations in order to come here. For the sake of its citizens, and to attract outside businesses, a city needs to run efficiently. After all, Santa’s sleigh would never get off the ground if the reindeer pulled in eight different directions. In a previous column from May 2007, I pointed out that consolidating all the communities from the West End to Windber would instantly elevate Johnstown from the 34th largest city in Pennsylvania all the way to number 4. That would increase the city’s political influence in Harrisburg immeasurably.

While the effort to raze empty and abandoned buildings has increased, there are still far too many of these structures. Empty and abandoned houses, some of them burned-out shells, are not only structural hazards, but also provide nesting places for disease-carrying vermin. Landlords, some of whom don’t live within 200 miles, have artfully used the bureaucratic process to keep the city away from their crumbling properties, while failing to make repairs. Eminent Domain laws should be aggressively applied for the sake of those who live in those neighborhoods. Private property rights form one of the vital foundations of our Republic. However, those rights include a share of the responsibility for the safety of the community.

The Johnstown area does have a lot to offer:

• This is an area of incredible natural beauty. The hills and mountains, the lush forests and abundant wildlife. Mild summers, winters that would have inspired Norman Rockwell, and a spring and autumn pallet of breathtaking beauty.

• Johnstown is still a safer place to raise a family than many others. Houses are affordable; the cost of living is more than manageable. Traffic is tolerable and commutes are relatively short.

• The best part? The people who live here. Warm, friendly, generous almost to a fault; committed to a family-centered community.

The city stands at a crossroads. One fork leads to decline and decay. It is the easier path, because it requires people to do nothing. The other path leads to a bright, prosperous future. It is a difficult path, strewn with rocks and potholes and lined by naysayers mired in the status quo. But this path, however arduous, leads to a bright future, the glittering success of a resurrected Johnstown.
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