Sunday, July 15, 2007

Crawford, Texas Goes The Way Of Its Most Famous Resident

The Texas town that President Bush is dying like his presidency, slowly, but surely. Quite sad, really. Bush inflicted himself upon Crawford, back in the late 1990s, when Karl Rove decided he needed to be seen pottering about on a 'farm', cutting grass and driving a pick-up.

Bush was good for Crawford for a few years. No doubt some of the locals cleaned up on all that Bush memorabilia, but the last big rush of cashed-up customers the few remaining stores in Crawford saw were the Cindy Sheehan protest crowd.

Crawford might be wishing they'd come back to protest Bush, real soon.

When the Houston Chronicle visited Crawford, they only found one visitor wandering the main street, and he'd been dragged there by his wife :

Shuttered storefronts and eroding retail sales figures show tourism and the Bush memorabilia business are slumping in this once-sleepy farm-and-ranch town of 732 residents.

A for-sale sign is the only thing in the smudged window of the turn-of-the-century, two-story brick building that once housed the Crawford Country Style store. "The numbers just weren't working," said Norma Nelson Crow, who closed the shop at the beginning of the year.

Traffic and sales of shirts, caps, refrigerator magnets and other presidential curios began slowing in 2005, she said. By the summer of 2006, Crow said, her hopes for a turnaround in the business faded. "It was my baby and I loved that little store, but I had to face the facts," she said.

Retail sales figures kept by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts document the slide. In 2004, gross retail sales in Crawford totaled $2.6 million. They fell to $2 million in 2006, down by more than 20 percent.

Nobody is saying things have improved at all this year. "It's pretty slow, slower than last summer," Jamie Burgess, manager of the Red Bull gift shop, said last week.

Only a handful of customers came in during the day to browse her collection of Bush curios and homespun decorative items sold on consignment.

Bill Johnson, owner of the Yellow Rose, Crawford's largest gift shop, said he has been stocking more Texana and Americana items in response to the drop-off in sales of Bush merchandise. "We're changing our mix," Johnson said. "As a business we have to do what we have to do to be successful."

Crawford today is home to a bank, an antique store, two gas stations and some grain silos.

Everyone agrees that 2004 was the high-water mark for Crawford's tourist trade.

"We had a 'Bush 2004' banner across the front of the store, about 11-foot-by-5-foot, white with red lettering," recalled Crow. "People would come in thinking it was Republican headquarters."

Burgess said the president's sagging popularity is at least partly to blame for the slump in visitors. The latest Newsweek poll conducted last month put the president's approval rating at 26 percent, a record low for his presidency.

In Crawford, merchants say they are waiting to see what will happen when Bush's presidency ends 18 months from now.

Burgess said it was "a big disappointment" that Bush is moving toward building his library and museum in Dallas, more than 100 miles away, rather than 18 miles east in Waco.

"We knew this wouldn't last forever, but we expected it would last longer than this," said Burgess....