Out of the spotlight, George W. Bush’s ‘hometown’ struggles to survive

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The Ticket

CRAWFORD, Texas—As President George W. Bush’s adopted hometown, this used to be the most famous small city in America.

Crawford, located about 25 miles west of Waco, was often the center of the world during the eight years Bush was in the White House.

Bush spent nearly 500 days of his presidency here, where he owns a 1,600-acre ranch just outside of town. He hosted more than a dozen foreign dignitaries, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Britain's then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, as well as members of Congress.

Bush spent so much time in Crawford that White House aides ordered special signage for when he had to address the dozens of reporters who trailed him here. “The Western White House,” the sign, which featured the presidential seal, read. “Crawford, Texas.”

But just as Bush has faded from the public spotlight since he left the White House in 2009 for Dallas, where he now spends most of his time, the town has faded as well.

Within months of Bush’s departure from the White House, several shops on the town’s three-block strip of businesses along Highway 317 closed—including the Yellow Rose, which sold Bush memorabilia along with Texas-themed gifts and art. Other retail shops nearby soon followed.

A few months ago, the Coffee Station, a gas station that also served as Crawford’s only diner and was considered the heart of the city, closed its doors because of slow business. As president, Bush had often made impromptu stops at the diner to grab a cheeseburger, but locals say he hadn’t been seen there in years. The closing has left local civics clubs that used to meet there in the lurch, struggling to find a place to have luncheons.

The business generated by tourists looking to visit Bush’s hometown and from the media and Secret Service who spent weeks at a time camped out near Bush’s ranch when he was in town all but stopped when he left office. The town, home to mostly families who own farms, has struggled to survive.

Indeed, only one shop in town remains open: Red Bull Gifts and Gallery, which sells local crafts and has a section of Bush memorabilia, including coffee cups emblazoned with the logo of “The Western White House.” But that shop might close within weeks, too—amid expectations that business could get even slower as Bush prepares to open his presidential library this week in Dallas, shifting tourism related to his presidency 120 miles north.

‘Things have been really tough. We’re still trying to figure out what we’re going to do,” said Cindy Damon, whose family has owned the Red Bull for 15 years. “We had hoped the library would end up in Waco at Baylor. It would have really helped, but that didn’t happen.”

Speaking to Yahoo News last Saturday, Damon said only “two or three” customers had been in the store that day. Outside, Crawford looked like a ghost town, a major difference from the Bush era, when the sidewalks were often packed with tourists and there were few places to park.

“It was like this before Bush came here,” Damon said, glancing out into the empty street. “We were just a sleepy quiet town that people drove through to get to somewhere else.”

That changed when Bush bought the ranch in 1999. At the time he was a governor running for president and, initially, residents cringed at how a celebrity in their midst might affect traffic and their way of life. But when Bush began spending weeks at a time in Crawford, the town was suddenly enjoying a financial boom. Empty storefronts were transformed into retail shops. A new bank opened. There were more people on the street than anybody could remember in this tiny town of 700 people.

It wasn’t always media or tourists: During the summer of 2005, hundreds of anti-war activists planted themselves in Crawford, protesting Bush’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soon, they opened their own storefront, vowing to remain there in protest of the Western White House until the troops were called home from the wars. But they left town, too—well before Bush left office.

Local officials in Crawford have been trying to attract new business to fill their empty storefronts, while at the same time keeping families who have lived here all their lives from moving away, according to Brent Myer, who has been serving as Crawford’s interim mayor since November. Myer, who landed his job when the old mayor moved out of town, says Crawford has struggled because “we’re off the beaten path.”

“What we are is a good bedroom community. We have good schools and good churches,” Myer said. “As far as traffic goes, we don’t get much, and it’s hard for our businesses to compete with stores like Walmart … in other cities.”

Still, things could be worse, locals say. Just after Bush left the White House, a rumor circulated through town the former president might sell the ranch—a rumor that ceased only after Laura Bush made an impromptu visit to the Coffee Station, where she told locals it wasn’t true.

Still, George Bush isn’t spotted very often around these parts, and locals know when he’s in town. While he no longer flies to the ranch in a helicopter as he did when he was president, residents say they are tipped off by the arrival of Secret Service agents a few days before Bush visits and by an unofficial motorcade of black SUVs.

“He’s usually here around the holidays, Easter and Thanksgiving,” Damon said. “But now that Jenna has had her baby, we’re all wondering if he will just spend time where she is or just stay in Dallas.”

Asked what she thinks will happen to the town if her shop closes, too, Damon says she doesn’t know.

“It’s sad,” she said. “It picked up so much that we really had hope that it might stay that way. … But Crawford has always been a quiet town, and that’s what it is again without Bush. I am sort of aggravated about it. I wish it were a little bit more exciting, but it’s the way it is here.”