Zanesville, Ohio Flickr: Paula R. Lively

Nothing frames the American character more than our small towns. Embracing the mythology of a Bedford Falls, Walnut Grove, Maybury and Stars Hollow, these communities symbolize an ethos of hard work, neighbor helping neighbor, quirky residents and solid values. By contrast, the novels of Sinclair Lewis and the 1950’s bestseller Peyton Place show a darker underbelly—intolerance coupled with false piety and unrelenting tedium.

For better or worse, we are tightly wedded to the belief that these communities define our collective identity. That being the case, the fact that non-urban America has been in decline for a half century speaks to a larger issue: What should be done to reinvigorate the small and mid-size cities beyond our metropolitan centers? Why does it matter?

It’s called “hollowing-out,” a phenomena where the young are leaving in totals so startling that in half of rural communities the death rate exceeds births and the number of residents has dropped to 16 percent of the U.S. population from 20 percent just a decade ago. The best and brightest are gone; the old and poor remain.

Like Zanesville. Founded in 1799, the southeast Ohio town of 25,000 (birthplace of novelist Zane Grey and home to the country’s only “Y” bridge) is worlds away from the leafy suburbs of Columbus 50 miles west. The streets are scattered with dilapidated storefronts, elementary schools, long empty, and weed-invaded remnants of the industrial age. The population has dropped 49 percent from its peak in 1940; a meager 3,500 new structures (including homes) have been built in the past 50 years. Median household income is $26,500 per year, scarcely half the U.S. average.

Zanesville, Ohio Flickr: Don O'Brien
Flickr: Don O’Brien

Sounds bleak. It is bleak. Yet the prognosis for Zanesville is not terminal. Oil and gas is a convenient bullyboy for politicians, especially those rooting for the amorphous green technology industry; for the folks of southeastern Ohio, however, oil is black gold.

In 2011, the Utica Shale project started an ambitious oil exploration venture that will bring an estimated $9.6 billion in revenue and thousands of jobs to the depressed region. It is not an overstatement to say that the folks of Zanesville are ecstatic. Utica Shale contractor Halliburton has agreed to donate $800,000 over 10 years to replace the seats at Zanesville’s Jack Anderson Stadium and build a new athletic facility in nearby Dresden, Ohio.

“What a tremendous opportunity for landowners, jobs, investment, increased sales for local businesses and even philanthropy,” recently wrote Mike Jacoby, executive director of Zanesville-Muskingum County Port Authority. “Our region that has struggled economically for many years is being presented with some economic rejuvenation opportunities that could be once in a generation.”

Mr. Jacoby is absolutely right—economic investment is not a dirty word—it is, and will always be, the lifeblood of towns large and small. Zanesville, long forsaken, is getting a second chance at life. Other cities in other states are not so lucky.

Rank demagoguery vilifying corporations will do nothing to reverse the hollowing out of small town America. Just last month Vice President Joe Biden stood in the Zane Grey Elementary gymnasium to sell various Democratic Party entitlement benefits and assure the crowd that the Obama administration would never support “the privileged sector.”

How can that type of thinking possibly help? More of the same will only hasten the demise of other communities throughout the country. Surely, the answer to reviving our rural interior is hardly simplistic and will take exerted efforts by government, education and business alike; but it’s an investment that deserves serious attention by serious people.

Small towns are the bedrock of our culture. Unless we act, places that bred the world’s greatest inventors, writers, artists and leaders, the real-life Bedford Falls and Mayburys, will be relegated to a faded memory. We don’t need to let that happen.