Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What if Mike's Right?

"MailMax" is a local paper distributed to homes throughout Berrien County every Saturday. The tab-sized paper is filled entirely with ads and columns. It's not a newspaper. It's an ad delivery vehicle.

Still, everyone I know reads Pat Moody's "Moody on the Market." The column begins on the front page, below the fold, and usually continues on to two inner pages.

The paper's tagline is "Michigan's Great Southwest," and Moody, the Executive Vice President of the Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce is an apt spokesperson for the area. His column generally consists of information about local movers & shakers, businesses coming in and going out, and other developments of note.

To Moody, all development is good. He writes rapturously about the Harbor Shores development which will boast a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course -- but only by annexing part of a park that was deeded to Benton Harbor, one of the poorest cities in the state, nearly 100 years ago, and by developing what was once wetlands.

Moody is also careful not to rile the Powers That Be in the area.

His column on why the local airport should, in essence, be publicly funded in order to privately benefit Whirlpool Corporation was a keeper.

And he is practically the only person in the county who has nothing but good things to say about Lakeland Community Hospital -- a political powerhouse with an "alleged" history of telling the local daily paper how much space it wants reserved on the front page above the fold for a story of their choosing, and of informing doctors that they need to order more tests such as MRI's and CAT scans on a higher percentage of their patients if they wish to remain on staff.

Don't get me wrong. I read Pat's column. I like to keep up on what's going on, and he does a good job of keeping the public informed. His writing is usually sprinkled with lots of bold words, intended, no doubt, to help the reader zero in on what's really important. In print, Pat is rarely coy, or cutting, callous, or cruel. But every so often, the veneer slips -- as it did this past week.

Pat, it seems, does not well tolerate those who disagree with him. Here's the opening salvo of this week's column:

It would appear that I have finally worn out my welcome as author of the Moody on the Market column here in MailMax. At least that's the case with Mike B. of Benton Harbor. Mr. B. recently left me quite a bitter voicemail message saying, in essence, that it's time for my Pollyanna World to cease and desist. I have transcribed the message so that nothing can be taken out of context. See if you share Mike's take and let me know if it's time to turn the column over to him. Here, word-for-word is his message:

"Hey, Pat, um, I read your column every week. Um... you should change it to, like, Pat Moody's Fairy Tales, and maybe, um, start the column out, "Once upon a time..." Drive around this area and see how many houses are for sale... how many lots are for sale... how many businesses. Go to Bridgman and see how many businesses are out right now."

"Mike" then names two businesses that have shut their doors. He doesn't get their names quite right, and Pat editorializes about it. The column continues:

"And in St. Joseph, Three Oaks, Galien. I mean... I don't know how you can say this area's getting better when they're building houses... houses... houses... and condos... and nothin's sellin'... and there's -- I've never seen so many houses for sale in my life. It's probably ten times what it was last year for sale, and all my friends are moving out of this area.

"There's nothing for kids to do any more -- All they're doin' is building houses and condos where things used to be... and, I mean... this is a... It's like Fairy Tale World you're living in about how great this area is.

"And, ever since the riots, my insurance has tripled... and my house... I mean it's... I don't know. I think you, um... I'd like to write a column for MailMax myself and write about the businesses that are going out and I'll bet it'd be ten times as long as your column. Well... You have a good day, sir. Bye."

Pat wraps things up with:

Mike is clearly not a happy camper, and doesn't appreciate it if I tell you about good things happening. He'd rather this column be about the bad things.

He tells people how to contact the publisher if they agree that "Mike" should get his own column... Then he leads off the next paragraph reporting that a local business has closed!

From a writer's point of view, I found the tactics used to discredit "Mike" and to belittle his concerns most interesting. For instance:

* Transcribing, word-for-word, a voicemail message. Really, now. How many people would come off sounding learned, literate, and well-spoken if subjected to seeing their voicemail messages in print?

* Deliberately including "verbal fillers" such as "um," and "I mean," which are routinely excised from most transcription.

* Transcribing words phonetically ("nothin's sellin'") in order to make the speaker appear boorish and uneducated.

* Putting words in the mouth of his "opponent." Contrary to the column's opening lines, "Mike B." never says that Moody has "worn out his welcome," or claims that it's time for his "Pollyana World to cease and desist." What I read simply sounded like a man who wonders why he doesn't see both sides of an issue addressed -- and is frustrated by what he considers to be a consistently skewed approach.

* Inserting editorial comments and question marks as parentheticals within the text of the transcribed message to call "Mike's" veracity and accuracy into question.

Writing & presentation aside, however, as a Berrien County resident, I find it most interesting -- and most telling -- of all, that Moody completely ignored the meat of "Mike's" concern.

Because what if Mike's right?

Drive down virtually any road that receives MailMax distribution, and you'll not only find houses for sale, but you will also find acres and acres of subdivisions on what was once farmland.

Agricultural acreage, some still planted with corn, bristles with signs announcing Development! Commercial! Estates! Lots Available!

Century farms are up for sale. While they await their inevitable dissection by developers, they are unwelcome, anachronistic oases of green surrounded by a sea of "McMansions."

I see the point of Mike's questions as I look out my window.

Less than half a mile away, multiple condo units are going into what was once a business. At the same time, the house across the street has been for sale for over a year. And the 40 acre parcel that borders the north side of our property is for sale at a rabidly inflated price. "For Sale" signs sprout in yards instead of "Yard Sale" signs.

Shouldn't there be some sort of Grand Plan? For instance, if you put 100 homes on what was once 20 acres of farmland, where are those kids going to go to school? Will enough be added to the tax base to pay for the additional buses, teachers, police officers, and firemen required?

Corn and cows don't need much infrastructure. They also don't need "second homes" or "vacation homes."

This area of the country has been an agricultural community for over 100 years. The farms, vineyards, and orchards were more than just part of the county's charm -- they stocked the county's kitchens. But as the farmland dwindles, so does our self-sufficiency. We become reliant on others to provide what was once readily available.

I don't have a pie-in-the-sky view of rural life. But I do share some of "Mike's" concerns.

How CAN you say this area's getting better when they're building houses... houses... houses... and condos... And nothin's sellin'... All they're doin' is building houses and condos where things used to be.