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Rural Matters: A Small Town Texas Mayor Faces A Major Turn-around Project

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Rural Matters: A Small Town Texas Mayor Faces A Major Turn-around Project

An interview with James Decker, mayor of Stamford, Texas

A derelict grain elevator is reflected in the window of an abandoned auto shop in Stamford, Texas, Dec. 30, 2018. Photo by Vincent Johnson

The clock is ticking for small town rural America, but in one of the hardest hit places for population decline in the country, one man has hope. Maybe that's why they elected him mayor.

Special note: This interview was conducted on Dec. 31st, 2018 and the story was a companion piece to an article I wrote for the American Conservative Magazine’s New Urbs section in Nov. of 2019, but only the first story ended up being published. By the time I was sure this one wasn’t going to run and I could post it up here, Covid was a thing, and like most my world was turned upside down. I enjoyed the conversation I had with mayor Decker and loved what he had to say. So despite this being just shy of two years since we sat down together, I still want to post it up and give it a proper submission, but I left the time references in the story based on 2019. Also, he has since be reelected for a second term. He ran unopposed.

They say time passes slowly. Across North Texas, as across much of America, the lack of time however may be more important to the overall health of rural agricultural communities than a lack of rain. Time in length, as well as in changing times, is what has happened to Stamford, Texas, but Stamford is not alone in this story that continues to affect small town America.

Stamford’s newly elected mayor James Decker is blunt, “I don’t have time to be mayor. I make time for it because it’s important. Because I don’t want to look up and run for mayor when I’m 50 and have people think the community is too far gone.”

At 34, Decker is definitely one of the younger politicians in his neck of the woods but sees himself and a small but noticeable rise in the number of young people in Stamford as an opportunity. He’s encouraging friends & others in his generation to get involved; join the chamber of commerce, run for city council, and most importantly, stay in the community.

Born in 1984, just two years before his parents moved to Stamford. Decker went away to college, then law school, before returning to practice law in town. In his opinion between Stamford & the urban communities he’s lived in, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. “You see that there’s cool stuff out there, but there’s reasons why communities like Stamford are important to the fabric of America.”

 

The original brick pavement of Ferguson St. leads past a former gas station and St. John's United Methodist Church in Stamford, Texas. While the bells still ring there and the pews have parishioners, the towns' tax coffers haven't been able to ring in enough revenue to maintain the infrastructure of a town built for 10,000 people, but currently has 3,000, Dec. 30th, 2018.
 (photo by Vincent Johnson)

What’s really important to him in his role as mayor is getting young people to stay or move to town. “A community’s vibrancy and prosperity are based on young people” he said. He doesn’t want people who grew up here to leave and raise kids somewhere else, only to move back in their 50s or 60s. “They’re welcome to come back, but their kids will have no connection to this place” essentially ending the cycle for that family.

A constant cheerleader for the town, Decker goes into his sales pitch pretty early on in the interview about how moving to Stamford can make big economic sense. With a cost of living 70% the national average and housing around 30%, he sees a time coming soon where the economics will be a big drawn for employees that are feeling the pain of housing prices in booming cities like San Francisco & Austin. Especially if their careers allow for working mobily.

He touted the success of how many of Texas’ suburban areas are booming now because they are places where young families can and want to live. However, he feels many are still lacking something key that rural small towns have had for decades. “I see [the suburbs] trying to create culture & environment. And more power to ‘em. They’ve seen the niche, but they’re trying to create culture & environment based on what’s been present in rural communities since Stamford were founded.” Decker reference a suburb that after being founded was trying to build a town square as part of a new subdivision, “Stamford’s had a town square since the first lot was sold. We need to embrace that and realize what people are looking for is out there. We just need to give a reason to want to live and do it here.”

One of Stamford’s newest residents Decker says works for a fortune 500 company and could have done their job from just about anywhere in the country, but fell in love and purchased a historic home that is one of the crown jewels of the town. Simply put Decker says “If someone with no connection to Stamford will do that. Imagine what you can do with people who have a connection and passion for the community.”

One of a few grand old homes in Stamford, Texas that is being restored. (photo by Vincent Johnson)
James Decker, mayor of Stamford, Texas, December 31st, 2018.

Part of the Lost Americana series. Find out more at www.LostAmericana.com

Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
Stamford, Texas mayor James Decker in front of city hall, Dec. 31st, 2018. (photo by Vincent Johnson)

It’s questionable what the good old days actually are. What seemed like the golden era for some people may not have been for others. They remember the prosperity, security, happiness, that sort of thing. And you can bring that back even if it’s not going to look identical to what it looked like in 1950, or 1970, or whatever frame of reference you have."

~Stamford mayor James Decker.
Along the main route through Stamford a former gas station is getting a rehab with some vintage flair. (photo by Vincent Johnson)

Positioned squarely in the middle of an area of Texas some people call “the big empty” Stamford was founded in 1900. Built with infrastructure to accommodate 10,000 residents, the city peaked after World War II just shy of 6,000 people. Decker describes the town during that time as a transient trading hub. When many smaller towns dried up, it was hard to hold onto as a hub when all the spokes were falling off. Along with manufacturing and shipping, the railroad went out to and by the time Decker was playing on the streets of Stamford as a kid, the decline had been 30 years in.

Talking to Decker you can hear that he is a mix of both the old days and the future. He mentions how his dad and grandfather would talk about how downtown was a hot spot on a Friday night or he fondly reminisces on memories of the specialized retailers of the Twentieth century, like the local pharmacy, “I remember going into the pharmacy to get a Dr. Pepper off the fountain… and talking to the old man who was the druggist.” The pharmacist Decker referred to, he said was reminiscent of Mr. Gower, from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Regardless of his affection for a Norman Rockwell like memory of Stamford, he’s unapologetic about the new retail landscape. “If you come downtown, there’s several different establishments, but it’s busy on an 8-5 time frame.” Although he hasn’t given up on the possibility of a busy downtown on a Friday night, as a recently rehabbed movie theater, and fitness center on the town square has brought people back after 5 p.m..  He goes on to add that even downtowns in larger cities aren’t the retail hubs they use to be. Today Stamford is one of the biggest towns in the area and it’s where most of the people in the area come to do their shopping. Decker says, “In the old days they came to do it at a bunch of different retail stores, mom & pop establishments. In this day and age, they do it at Walmart & Tractor Supply.”

 

Mayor Decker points out that Walmart & the dollar stores don’t want to do everything. The key for local businesses is “filling in the gaps.” To the right of Dollar General is the old pharmacy Decker mentioned, it is now a flower shop, Dec. 30th, 2018. (photo by Vincent Johnson)

There is something worse than having a Walmart in your town. And that’s having a Walmart in the town next to you.”

~Stamford mayor James Decker.

One of the current targets of ire among some rural communities has been dollars stores, who many feel are forcing out the last of the local retail businesses. Decker’s take on that is to look into the gaps, “It’s become in vogue to bash the dollar stores lately, and I think there’s some valid criticism, but before it was cool to bash the dollar stores, it was cool to bash Walmart.” He adds, “There is something worse than having a Walmart in your town. And that’s having a Walmart in the town next to you.” Elaborating that the tax dollars coming in help the city, but he does admit, the money spent at the big box retailers doesn’t cycle through the community as much as it does with a locally owned business.

He stresses the key is building around the big boxes. “Walmart doesn’t want to do everything” he says, while mentioning finical advisors, farm & ranch real estate brokers, law offices, and an eye clinic with the only optometrists in the area, who all operate out of Stamford. “It’s really incumbent for local businesspeople to step in the gaps.”

One of Stamford’s most glaring problems is in the gaps, but the gaps left by abandoned & rundown properties. Brought about mainly by a max exodus that has affected most rural American communities beginning in the 1950s, the number of abandoned properties in the town is ever present. In 2005 the city started a project called “Reclaiming Stamford” to locate vacant & blighted properties, before working to tear them down if they were far enough behind on taxes, or without a known owner. Decker says the process has torn down about 250 properties, but estimates as many as 500 are left.

Most of the buildings on Stamford’s town square are occupied, or in good shape, but a few blocks away you can see the effects from years of declining population in the area. (photo by Vincent Johnson)

There again Decker sees opportunities. He recalls many buildings that were in danger of falling down while he was in high school that now have a business in them. His family, partially responsible for saving some, did renovations and then rented them out to people starting businesses. Some of those businesses have since gone on to buy the buildings. A process that may not have happened if the whole process was handled by the new business.

Despite what the internet and retail landscape has done to the specialty stores in Stamford, he’s excited about the internet economy. “We can decry how retail has changed because of the internet. Or we can look and say, man the internet has revolutionized the world, how can we use that to benefit our community?”

One aspect of that may come from a former Stamford resident and friend of Decker’s who runs a successful IT company. Decker said he has employees all over the country and has been talking with him about how to bring his business and others to Stamford. Decker does mention a hurdle that Stamford and other rural areas have to clear, and that is getting higher speed Internet access to these communities. Agreeing that highspeed Internet access is to rural America today, what electricity, telephones, and paved roads were to rural America fifty to seventy years ago.

In the end economics are the main factor he admits to attracting new people. Relating to how it’s different for an 18 year-old fresh out of high school or someone in their mid-twenties, but it’s a whole different story for a thirty-something raising kids. He’s heard from several childhood friends who moved away and would love to come back if the economics were right.

Again he mentions that Stamford has people who move back when they’re older, or retired, but it’s after their kids are grown and it’s all about that connection to the place he’s looking to keep. “We want to get ‘em back…so their kids have an affinity just like they did.” He adds “It’s a whole lot more appealing to it around grandparents, in the same high school you went to school in. The same church. The same people looking out for your kids that looked out for you.”

Decker looks back on the memory of what he was able to experience of the “old days” but goes on to note “It’s questionable what was the good old days actually are. What seemed like the golden era for some people may not have been for others.” He mentions factors like labor issues, prosperity, & segregation. “They remember the prosperity, security, happiness, that sort of thing. And you can bring that back even if it’s not going to look identical to what it looked like in 1950, or 1970, or whatever frame of reference you have.”

In the end Decker knows time is his biggest issue, noting that Stamford’s issues didn’t happen overnight, saying “We need to be more honest with ourselves. A textile plant closes, and you lose 50 percent of your jobs in a community. That’ll get your attention in a hurry.” Then transitioning into how the changes in agriculture over 50 years were hard to perceive on a local & multigenerational level. “There was no big boom moment” as he calls it, to shake everyone up.

 

Two water towers look over Stamford, Texas. December 30th, 2018.

 (photo by Vincent Johnson)

Looking towards the economic future of the town, Decker feels the answer lies in technology orientated jobs, but adds “You don’t want a boom, or bust” warning against a silver bullet solution.

In college economics professor he had gave him some feedback on his project about rural economies, to the effect of; the best possibility to grow your economy is with your existing businesses and not some moon shot on a big company. He said, “if a company is willing to come to your town when you offer them a bunch of incentives. What’s stopping them from going to another town when they make a better offer down the road?” You find the people with a connection to the community who are looking to make it better.

Stamford appears to have found at least one of those people when they voted Decker into office and with his wife and one-year old child, in a very personal way he’s brought two new people to town who now have a connection to the community.

 

The town square isn't as busy on weekends and past 5pm as it used to be, but it has seen some buy in from local businesses and entrepreneurs, Dec. 30th, 2018. (photo by Vincent Johnson)

Want to see what the mayor has been up to lately? Well don’t wait for me to update you, get it straight from him. He’s pretty active on Twitter. @JamesDecker2006 Click that link and follow him, because searching for “James Decker” will only get you a ton of links to country pop star Jessie James Decker.

 

Some excerpts from the video interview with Stamford, Texas mayor James Decker

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