A small community at a crossroads

 

As I write, Custer County School in southern Colorado is under the watch of armed sheriff’s deputies. This follows the suicide of a 15-year-old boy last week — the second such tragedy in about a year’s time — and a bizarre rumor that somebody was planning a shooting at the school.

This rumor apparently had its basis in a drill for just such a scenario, which was conducted last week and addressed in two robo-calls from the school superintendent. However, I noticed when I dropped off my son at school this morning that about only half his classmates were lined up for the Pledge of Allegiance, and as it turned out, overall school attendance was low.

Such is the world we now live in, even in this quiet community in the shadow of some of the most magnificent mountains in the country. Nowadays, there seems to be a shadow deeper than that thrown by the highest peaks at sundown.

This past winter, the political divisiveness that’s been building for nearly two years reached a high pitch when the county commissioners decided to pull the county’s legal advertising from the community newspaper, The Wet Mountain Tribune, and award them instead to the Sangre Sentinel, which underbid the Tribune.

The Tribune has been the community’s newspaper of record for 130 years. It’s a typical small-town weekly newspaper with mainly local news and photos, and a clearly marked opinion section. The owner, Jim Little, is a longtime friend, and I think he does a good job of keeping his opinion on the opinion pages.

The Sentinel, on the other hand, explicitly bills itself as a “conservative” newspaper. A sign hanging on the front of the office says so. Its contents include local news offerings interspersed with articles about national topics such as the “Hollywood Jihad” against American Sniper, and government plots to take our guns away. The Sentinel made its appearance about the same time as the issue of marching with guns in the annual July 4th Parade created a major brouhaha and attracted national attention two summers ago. 

My opinion on this is that the commissioners made a choice to spend taxpayer money to support a political cause, and this is just plain wrong. In recent months I have had friends from out of town tell me they no longer visit because their perception of the community has changed following the parade flap and the advent of the Sentinel. I also know two families who are making plans to move away because they can no longer deal with this element of the community. I know others who already have left.

These are once-regular visitors who will no longer spend their leisure money here, and former residents who will no longer “buy local” after they move. In a small community the snowball effect of this kind of exodus is huge, affecting the tax base and school funding.

Which brings us to a larger question: Why would a local business owner advertise in the Sentinel? Regardless of your personal political belief, why support something that scares people away from the community? If this keeps up, the only legal notices left to print will be the delinquent tax roll.

Custer County is a great place to live and has a lot to offer for a wide variety of people regardless of political and religious beliefs. However, the perception people currently have of our community seems to have been hijacked by a loud and fringe minority emboldened now by its own “newspaper of record.”

At the same time, many of us wonder why two young boys took their own lives. It’s easy to blame the gun culture here and the ready access to firearms, but there has to be something deeper that prompts a young person to actually reach for a gun and use it on himself. Could it be the empty storefronts, the multitude of For Sale signs, and the hundreds of homes on the market? This might well make it difficult for a teenager to see a future here … or a way out.

Custer County seems to have reached a crossroads, and residents need to start asking some serious questions about what sort of community we all want to live in. If I owned a newspaper here, I’d forget about the legal ads and start digging at the issues surrounding our community identity and the people that we let speak for us. If we want some honest answers to the questions troubling us, maybe we should start by asking the kids.

Hal Walter is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is the author of “Full Tilt Boogie — A Journey into Autism, Fatherhood, and an Epic Test of Man and Beast.”

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