Monday, June 14

Big things, small places

One thing I noticed on my cross-continent drive was a tendency for small towns to build really big things to attract tourists. This was especially the case in North Dakota, where there was very little sign of civilization aside from Fargo and Bismarck, the two largest towns.

I spent one night in Jamestown, North Dakota, which claims to be home to the world's largest buffalo sculpture.



I also passed through New Salem, North Dakota, which features 38-foot-tall Salem Sue — allegedly the world's largest Holstein cow, weighing in at 12,000 pounds (the "Holstein" qualifier makes me wonder if there isn't a larger, non-Holstein cow out there somewhere, but a quick Google search didn't turn anything up).



A plaque in front of the cow says, "Salem Sue was erected in 1974 at a cost of nearly $40,000.00 contributed by dairymen, farmers, businessmen, the dairy industry, and area residents. The New Salem Lions organized the project, and the club continues to maintain the site."

That seems like a lot of money for a giant cow. In today's dollars (there has been lots of inflation since 1974), Salem Sue cost about $187,000 to build — and that doesn't include upkeep. For a town that Wikipedia claims has 938 residents, that cow cost about $200 per resident.

But when you think about it, maybe the giant cow actually pays for itself. Schmucks such as myself will turn off the highway to check out Salem Sue, and if they're lucky, maybe we'll go shopping at the bustling Golden West Shopping Centre, or spend a night at one of the two motels in town.



Spread over 36 years, the cow costs just $5.26 per year per resident. When you put it that way, it's not hard to imagine the cow paying for itself in terms of the economic activity it generates for New Salem.

It begs the question why more small towns don't build giant novelty sculptures to attract economic activity. But there is an easy answer: a free-rider problem. New Salem residents who don't contribute to the giant cow can still reap the benefits of tourists passing through town. So there is an incentive for people to try to shirk and hope their neighbours will pay for the cow.

With a town of less than 1,000 people, however, it may be easier to co-ordinate on these kinds of projects. And since everyone probably knows each other, it might be easier to guilt your neighbours out of free-riding.

My guess is there aren't too many community-organized giant sculptures in larger towns. I'll bet most would be government-funded precisely because of the free-rider problem.