As you enter Florence, you can see that many of the businesses that were on the side of the road have died.
There’s a gas station that recently shut down with a “For Sale” sign in front. The road that leads to the one-story city-hall-slash-municipal-courthouse is almost barren.
“You are beginning to see our downtown buildings,” says Florence mayor Mary Condon, pointing out a building with a sign reading ‘Florence Friendship Days.’ It’s one of the oldest buildings in Florence, she says, dating back to the 1850s. It’s a beautiful, long, two-story building made of limestone that brings to mind buildings you’d see in old Western movies. It has character — but it has no tenants. It’s empty, as is the building to the left of it.
Downtown Florence is T-shaped, and as Condon walks up and down the T, she keeps count of the number of empty buildings.
Through her informal study, she concludes that about 50 percent of the downtown buildings are empty — but then on the other hand, 50 percent of them are full.
Condon meets Elizabeth Moon – a science fiction writer who lives in Florence – outside a western wear shop downtown with a turquoise door.
Moon says the shop used to be a hardware store about 30 years ago. Now, Shane Elms owns and runs the shop, which sells cowboy shirts, boots, hats.
“My dad owns the Western store up in Stephenville, if the name sounds familiar,” Elms says. He recalls the time Conan O’Brien was in town and taped a segment at his father’s store.
“The challenge was to take one of his producers — metrosexual guy — and dress him like a cowboy — and it is funny as heck,” he says.
Like most kids in Florence, Elms left after high school. As did his now-wife, also from Florence. But unlike many of the others who get out, Elms and his wife came back. They are part of a group that wants to bring new life to Florence, and one thing they think is badly needed is a new hardware store.
“A big store wouldn’t hurt anything – somewhere people can work would be good. Since we have probably the highest unemployment rate than the rest of the world – seems like, around here,” Elms says.
But now that the highway loop keeps folks from driving through Florence like they used to, who’s going to shop at a big hardware store in town?
“Of course – you can’t have the business without the people. But, you can’t have the people without the business. So…” says Elms, articulating the kind of “chicken and egg” problem Florence seems to be grappling with. Which comes first: businesses for people to want to patronize, or the people who want to patronize future businesses?
Read the rest of the story at KUT News.