Shamokin area could use a 21st century LAREDO
Shamokin's 150th anniversary should be about more than celebrating. It should also be a time for reflection. Where do we go from here?
Those who look to history for answers do so at their own peril, because the future is never going to resemble the past; 2015 will never be like 1965. We need a serious reality check, a renewal of community pride, political and civic leaders with vision and a new economic revitalization strategy. Most of all, we need another LAREDO.
LAREDO, the acronym for the Lower Anthracite Regional Economic Development Organization, was founded in early 1967 to promote industrial development in the "coal region" of eastern Northumberland and southern Columbia counties, an area extending from Centralia to Trevorton. LAREDO's avowed purpose was to coordinate efforts to stimulate economic growth in an area that was still suffering from the death of the anthracite industry. Area leaders were rightfully alarmed by the mass outmigration of residents due to the absence of job opportunities and a decaying infrastructure. LAREDO saw itself as the voice for 60,000 people who continued to love the area but were beginning to lack confidence in its future. It wanted to work with everybody (elected officials and established industrial development groups), but didn't want to overshadow or supplant anyone.
From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, LAREDO, it seemed, was everywhere, assuming the role of tireless advocate for local causes. It's greatest success, of course, was the Glen Burn mine tour, which attracted about 20,000 in its first season in 1968. The attraction, which lasted until 1977, defied all expectations and proved, beyond all doubt, that Pennsylvania's anthracite heritage had tourism potential.
But that wasn't all. Early on, LAREDO conducted an extensive survey in an effort to identify the area's job needs and public expectations. Significantly, the organization was a leading promoter for years of plans that never came to fruition to construct a four-lane limited access highway connecting Interstate 80 near Danville with Interstate 81 at the Mount Pleasant interchange (the Minersville exit). LAREDO didn't just give lip service to the idea; it brought the state Secretary of Highways to Shamokin to hear the message firsthand.
If an issue was important to the region, you could count on LAREDO to weigh in.
For example, LAREDO did an inventory of the 1,152 stripping pits in its service area in an effort to encourage reclamation of the most dangerous or unsightly ones. The group protested loudly when the 1970 congressional reapportionment put Shamokin and Mount Carmel in different U.S. House districts.
Obviously, the continued economic decline of the lower anthracite region is proof enough that for all of LAREDO's good intentions and hard work, the organization was not completely successful in attaining its goals. No doubt LAREDO made its share of mistakes in how it handled some issues. Personalities often get in the way of progress, especially in small towns where egos can be large and resources are thin. But in the end, LAREDO was battling economic and cultural forces that were probably beyond its control, and the group deserves everlasting credit for fighting the good fight.
"In unity there is strength" was the message promulgated by LAREDO organizers at one of the first meetings. There was a growing recognition that the area's economic situation was so bleak that communities could only be saved through a coordinated effort. They felt it was about time to abandon parochialism in favor of regionalism.
It was a message that made sense then, and still does today.
Regionalism, when thoughtfully and effectively applied, can work. The Route 901 improvements and the new Cameron Bridge would never have been possible without the support these projects generated across municipal boundary lines. But as we survey our world from a 2014 perspective, a world that poses even more challenges than the world of 1967, it's time to ask - where is our engine to promote economic growth, our advocate for regional progress?
We sure could use an organization like LAREDO these days.
(Betz is an assistant editor of The News-Item.)