Has Lane County Finally Solved Its Paradox of Plenty?

Movies 12 in Springfield is closing for good this Sunday. Lane County’s venerable discount movie theater will be demolished to make way for the next iteration of Gateway Mall. I’d like to invite you to hope with me that its loss points to a much larger gain for all of us.

This isn’t the first time Movies 12 was marked for deletion. When Cinemark 17 was being built 15 years ago, we all assumed that the older theater on the other end of the mall would be shuttered. It only made sense.

But the Cinemark executives in Plano, Texas had information we did not have. They determined that this community would line up to watch also-ran movies at rock-bottom prices. And they were right.

For years and years, more people preferred to watch old or bad movies, so long as the price was right. Cinemark’s larger and more luxurious theater in the same location has done better on blockbuster weekends, but daily ticket numbers have only recently passed Movie 12’s totals.

If people vote with their feet, they voted for cheap.

Architect Otto Poticha for years has called Eugene the “land of good enough.” He wants to save Eugene’s city hall building partly because it’s one of the few expressions of extravagance in our built environment.

An entrepreneur once confided in me after a long day, “Man, you people really love your scarcity.” We’d made do with so little for so long, it was all we knew.

None of this would surprise an economist. They call it the “paradox of plenty” or the “resource curse.” Areas with abundant natural resources grow their economies more slowly than areas with less abundance. Diversity of revenue sources not only makes an economy more resilient, it has a similar effect on its residents.

Change is welcomed where prosperity comes from multiple sources, because that new thing might be the Next Thing. Conversely, reliance on resource extraction teaches people to keep to themselves. They become skeptical about innovation and uncomfortable with diversity.

All humans really need are sustenance and warmth. Where housing, heat and food can be produced locally, external market forces can be effectively ignored. Shielded from the specter of starvation or frostbite, people settle for what they can do for themselves. The political courage that comes from making hard choices doesn’t develop.

When your wealth is in the ground, “dig deeper” is not a moral metaphor. It’s an economic strategy.

This is why oil-rich countries often lag behind others in education, standard of living, and consensual social order. When change finally comes, it can be very unpleasant.

In the late 1960s, our city fathers (they were all fathers) came to the conclusion that the circus was being run from the monkey cage. Free love, cheap housing, and easy drugs moved in and didn’t leave, for a very long time.

When the spotted owl and automation blocked the lumberjack’s career path, our resource curse came into full view. We hadn’t diversified our economy because we hadn’t needed to. Suddenly we needed to, but we didn’t know how. We tried to branch out. Marathon. Hyundai. Symantec.

Something shifted. History will show it happened slowly, but those who were here will insist it happened all at once.

Federal District Judge Michael Hogan teamed up with architect Thom Mayne to build an outrageous courthouse and Eugene had its first signature building in a generation.

Joey Harrington’s image was unfurled in New York City and the University of Oregon became a national brand. Buildings and helmets and magazine covers followed. Enrollment surged, but also changed.

More students came from farther. They came with more money to spend. Their new apartments offered granite countertops. Slowly we upgraded our own kitchens.

Eugene has begun to emerge from the haze of its adolescence. The resource curse may finally be lifting. Diversity is being embraced more deeply. Each dollar we spend — for movies and other necessities — is beginning to move more quickly, out of and into local pockets. The velocity of money tracks with economic development.

It may be that the best has just begun. Pass the popcorn.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.