If gasoline reaches $3, Marion’s theater project may be well-timed

The question that began this story was whether people are going to change their buying habits if predictions come true that the price of gasoline will reach $3 a gallon this summer.

If it happens, members of the Marion Advancement Campaign could be farsighted in building a community center-movie theater complex to offer added services at home in an era that could see people looking more to where they live to provide amenities of life.

Sociological research done in the 1970s at Kansas State University by Cornelia Flora determined that Americans are tied sociologically to the use of the automobile.

How far we go to buy a service, or what is offered in our home town, is tied to how conveniently we can go get it in a car.

You’ve seen it most of your life in the admonition, “Shop at home.” Leaders of small towns have at times felt crushed by the rush of their citizens to hop in their cars and buy their goods and services in larger cities that are only a half-hour or an hour away.

When we look back to a kinder, gentler time when the home town meant more, we had Flora’s research that showed the counterpoint that where and how our families live is mostly determined by the automobile.

Sure, you might like the town where you live. But you also looked at how far the commute was to the job you took whether around the block or an hour away.

The lifeblood of our towns may depend on what they have to offer their citizens. Another K-State researcher, David Darling, an agricultural economist who is regarded at the Kansas Department of Commerce as the state’s foremost retail-flow analysis expert, has his finger on the pulse of that small-town lifeblood.

He has been acquainted with the “dual communities” of Marion and Hillsboro, and he took immediate interest in Marion’s efforts to build a movie theater and community center.

“It’s very aggressive of them, very interesting and very commendable,” Darling said about MAC.

In research he had done in the 1980s and 1990s, Darling determined by analyzing local markets that the things people most want in home towns are basics-of-life type of services.

He said this would include things such as hair care and dental care. For merchandise goods, people would go out of town.

People would also travel far for entertainment, including everything from restaurants to movies.

Looking at the demographics of who uses services, Darling said he hoped the Marion group realizes that when it comes to spending money for movies, “Movies are for kids. Don’t expect a 70- to 75-year-old couple to spend much to support a movie theater.”

The most critical group to include in support of a movie theater, Darling said, is the 18-to-25-year-old group. They go to the movies the most often, they spend the most money, and their support, or lack of it, can make or break a movie theater.

Darling said that even if MAC operates the theater as a non-profit operation, it needs to look to where there are college students in the immediate trade area. The most obvious place is Tabor College at Hillsboro. Darling advised MAC to do all it can to bring Tabor students into the support loop.

He also suggested involving high school clubs.

As for habits changing to buying more Services at home because of higher priced gasoline, Darling said researchers have determined that “a certain threshold has to be met over $2 a gallon for gasoline before people will change community patterns.

“It may be that it will have to be over $3,” he added. “I think we’ll see changes by then.”

Darling said that with gasoline prices now at $1.90 or below a gallon, people are continuing as they have before. He said people also have shown that they would rather adapt to changing technology than change habits. A person might buy one of the new hybrid vehicles before changing culturally, for example.

When he measures the economic climate of communities, Darling looks at such things as “pull factor,” which means the percentage factor comparison between how many dollars are spent in town versus how many community dollars spent out of town.

A Marion County town holding at above 50 percent might be expected to be doing well, he said.

The theater could also become part of a factor manufacturers and businesses use to determine where to locate. Darling said they look at the quality of a community measured by its schools, retail businesses, health care, stability of labor force-everything it has to offer.

They also look at getting land, the tax environment and recruiting labor, he said.

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