As this winter’s snowstorms ebb, they leave behind a trail of devastation that seems to touch every business sector across Malheur County. Onion sheds, dairy barns, people’s homes – the snow loads that crumpled structures have taken a toll on people’s lives and livelihoods.
Part of that toll ripples through our most rural – and perhaps most vulnerable – populations. In the past two weeks, two communities have lost their local markets to building collapses. Last week heavy snow took down the roof at the 100-year-old Adrian Market, and the week before a similar load claimed the roof at Willowcreek’s iconic store and restaurant.
To look at these events as mere business losses is to miss an important point. In rural communities, these local markets are not merely commercial enterprises.
They are gathering places for the people who live in these splendid but isolated places. They are places to catch up with neighbors, to share a cup of coffee and conversation while picking up a loaf of bread or jug of milk. They are places where the everybody knows your name, as the song goes, and that can be one of the great comforts in small-town life.
Yet more important, these markets provide jobs for local people and can be a lifeline for some of their customers, particularly those on a tight budget. Without these places, rural folks must travel many miles to other communities for their shopping. The gas for those trips eats into the money already earmarked for food and heat.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of attention to the concept of “food deserts” – places where people have no grocery options and limited means to travel to commercial outlets. Such discussions usually focus on missing grocers in big-city neighborhoods. Stories highlight the urban mom who must ride on multiple bus lines to get to a big market, or the fixed-income elder who can’t manage tote bags and public transportation hurdles.
But food deserts are not just an urban phenomenon. They occur in the rural expanses of the West, in small hamlets where there are no bus lines and where not just a few, but many, miles stretch between people and the stores they need. Local markets fill the gaps.
The loss of one or two small town markets in Malheur County may not make huge headlines in urban Oregon. But the role these businesses play is not small, and needs acknowledgement from us, if not from beyond our borders. Adrian and Willowcreek have been fortunate to have such long-lasting businesses in their midst. We hope the owners will be able to rebuild, and we urge the communities they serve to support them in that effort. After all, it’s not just about shopping – it’s about community self-reliance. – SC