November 25, 2016
At 64, Dale Higgins remembers window shopping on Main Street in Grand Junction, stopping to be mesmerized by the color TV his family didn’t yet have.
These days, there’s little of that happening on Main Street.
“Private Property/No Trespassing,” warns a sign in the window of a vacant storefront.
“Condemned,” declares a sign affixed to a door this past June by order of the mayor.
Across the street, another sign on another vacant building — the old grocery store — offers a more direct warning to tweakers and anybody else at a first-grade reading level:
Meanwhile, it’s close to noon on a Friday under a brilliant autumn sky.
The sound of schoolkids little more than a block away on the playground of Greene County Intermediate School gives Main Street a sort of ghostly feel, like an episode of “The Twilight Zone” where a man who suddenly finds himself all alone after some undefined cataclysm is slowly driven mad by the laughing and playful shouting of children just out of reach in the distance.
But in the Grand Junction of real life, even the sound of schoolkids will soon die out.
Lifelong residents like Higgins fear the closing of the school at the end of the 2016-17 school year will be one loss too much.
“I probably dwell on it too much,” Higgins confessed on this day, standing inside his auto and tractor repair shop on Railroad Street. “It makes me cringe to think of everything we had.”
He always hoped someone would take over the business he started in 1973, allowing him to retire.
“I can’t rent ’em, I can’t sell ’em,” he said of his buildings.
With the closing of the school — something everyone knew would eventually happen, just not this fast, when the East Greene school district merged with Jefferson-Scranton — Higgins doesn’t anticipate being able to unload his shop anytime soon.
The Grand Junction City Council will take up the issue of what to do with the school building once it closes at its next meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at the community center, according to city clerk/treasurer Katherine Thomas.
Right now, there are fingers to point.
As the country radio station in his shop fittingly plays “She Thinks I Still Care,” the stone-cold classic that George Jones took to No. 1 in 1962, Higgins talks of how he thinks Junction residents might begin patronizing Boone over their own county seat of Jefferson.
“Jefferson was just a way of life,” Higgins explained. “Jefferson and Grand Junction has always had a pretty good relationship, but I think this is going to hurt it.”
George Jones’ croon is unmistakable even from across the shop.
If she’s happy thinking I still need her, then let that silly notion bring her cheer.
But just as few people refuse to drive on U.S. Highway 30 — the modern highway that supplanted the Lincoln Highway and bypassed Grand Junction’s business district in the late 1950s — anger and resentment will likely recede as they always do.
Just how much one town can recede is now the question.
Higgins, a 1971 graduate of East Greene High School, worries that Grand Junction could share the fate of the ghost towns he sees in Texas and Arizona on the way each year to his winter home in Tucson.
“I never thought I’d see it in Iowa,” he said.
Mayor David Kersey, a Grand Junction native who’s in the first year of a two-year term, isn’t ready to accept the worst-case scenario for his hometown.
“Some people think losing the school will turn our town to trash,” Kersey said. “People are looking at it that this is the end of Grand Junction.
“I think we’ll bounce back from it.”
While everyone knew the school would one day close, he said, the city was caught without a plan for the building before a looming budget crisis forced the Greene County School Board in recent weeks to pivot swiftly toward closure.
“It’s better to rip the Band-Aid off now and move forward,” Kersey reasoned.
One block over from Greene County Intermediate School sits Grand Junction Municipal Light & Water.
Unlike Jefferson, which gets power from a publicly traded, out-of-state corporation, Grand Junction residents back in 1932 forged ahead with an electric plant of their own that still serves the community of 824.
“You wouldn’t believe how many lightbulbs I’ve changed over the years,” said Dean Lyons, a 1984 graduate of East Greene who worked his way up to become superintendent of the municipal light and water plant. “We have a service here because we’re part of the community.”
Think of all the lights that won’t turn on — and all the toilets that won’t flush — when the school closes.
“We probably have the most at stake,” Lyons, 51, said.
The school, he said, is one of the plant’s top three customers.
“It’s going to put a substantial hit on the light plant,” Lyons said. “Hopefully we can withstand this.”
Lyons already is preparing to deal with a significant blow to business. This winter will be the first in which Union Pacific
Railroad heats its track switches with propane rather than the municipal plant’s electricity, he said.
Even the railroad — with a local legacy so rich it’s reflected in the town name — has seemingly turned against Grand Junction.
“We just tighten our belt a little more,” Lyons said.
When Lyons started at the plant in 1991, he was one of seven employees. Now they’re down to four — two in the office and two in the field.
“When I first started,” he recalled, “we had a grocery store.”
According to legend, Grand Junction once had four grocery stores, a movie theater and restaurants.
If the opening of Highway 30 to the north of town in the late ’50s put the local economy on life support, then the farm crisis of the ’80s practically pulled the plug.
“We’ve lost the tile block plant since I was here. That was a big user,” Lyons said. “Main Street gets smaller. Businesses dry up and move.”
“When you lose your grocery store,” he added, “that’s the start.”
Mayor Kersey, a 1989 graduate of East Greene and a Greene County deputy sheriff, doesn’t mince his words when describing the situation his generation inherited.
“I believe our forefathers screwed up the city for us, 50, 60 years ago,” he said.
He said there’s an urgent need to improve Main Street, which he called “pretty sad in a town our size.”
“We need to find a way to get new businesses in,” Kersey said.
The municipal light and water plant, according to Lyons, has historically given free water each year to the municipal swimming pool.
This past summer, however, the pool didn’t even open due to repairs the city of Grand Junction couldn’t afford to make.
Admittedly, Lyons isn’t sure what the loss of the school will do to the town as a whole.
“I’ve never lived through a school closing,” he said.
Higgins, who until this past January served six years on the municipal light plant board, said his repair shop immediately felt the impact when high school students moved to Jefferson for school.
No longer were there teens to drop off cars before school for oil changes.
He worries about his own business, but fears the whole community will feel ripples from the school’s closure.
“I think we’ll see it in the bank. Possibly in our phone and internet service,” Higgins said.
As an auctioneer, Higgins has been to his share of dying towns.
“I’ve seen it in my auction business,” he said. “I’ve been to a lot of towns that lost their school. It just kills them.”
Like everyone else in rural Iowa, Higgins has watched for years as young people venture off to destinations like West Des Moines, never to return.
“It seems like once they get a taste of it,” he said, “they ain’t coming back to this.”
Eventually, Lyons said, the loss of big electric and water customers will be felt by the residents of Grand Junction themselves, who are getting poorer.
At 28 percent, Grand Junction has the highest rate of people living below the poverty level than any other town in Greene County, which has an overall poverty rate of 13.4 percent, according to census data.
Grand Junction’s median household income of $36,563 is more than $10,600 lower than the median income in Greene County as a whole.
Higgins said he sees drugs as a major problem in Grand Junction.
At any given time, “at least a third” of the town hasn’t paid its light/water bill.
By law, though, Lyons can’t disconnect anyone for nonpayment between Nov. 1 and April 1.
That, he said, gives them time to run up thousands of dollars in utility bills.
“And then they move,” he said, describing a growing problem.
And yet, Lyons still has faith in Grand Junction.
He moved to town in 1982 as a junior in high school. His dad, Gary “Gig” Lyons, was police chief.
Another sign of the times: Grand Junction no longer has its own police.
“It was awesome. A very friendly community, open arms,” Lyons remembered. “I’ve never left. I enjoy it that much.”
He and wife Lora — a 1986 graduate of East Greene whose grandpa hired his dad — have raised four kids in Grand Junction.
Their youngest daughter is a junior at Greene County High School in Jefferson.
“I just stuck it out. I knew this is where I wanted my family to be raised,” said Lyons, who’s also the varsity girls basketball coach at Greene County High School.
“It’s still a good place to live,” he added. “It’s not all doom and gloom.”
The shiny new $1.2 million community center on Main Street is nearing its first anniversary in January, although the building doesn’t generate as much business as it could for the municipal light plant thanks to its use of solar energy.
The nearby Louis Dreyfus Commodities ethanol plant isn’t yet a decade old and generates thousands annually for the county — including $339,449 in property tax — but for the municipal light plant, it’s just far enough over the city limits that it’s not a customer.
The $178 million ethanol plant, open since 2009, is tantalizingly visible from the Casey’s General Store on Highway 30, which, along with the Rueter and Neese ag equipment dealerships, counts as one of Lyons’ top users of power.
A new salon, Lyons beams, is coming in next door soon to the bowling alley on Main Street.
In the rural Iowa of today, success is measured one small business at a time.
For 21 years, Cindy Danielson has made the short, 7-mile commute from Jefferson to Grand Junction to work as a bookkeeper at the municipal light plant.
“I see the same thing in Jefferson,” Danielson said. “There used to be a lot more stores uptown.”
Lyons, who loves attending concerts at Wild Rose Casino in Jefferson, is concerned about the entire county.
It’s hoped Grand Junction isn’t the canary in the coal mine.
“I don’t want this county to shrivel up,” he said.