COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- In Pensacola, Fla., a crowd of pink, plastic flamingos on the lawn means someone is having a birthday. The flamingos are usually for a major, zero-ending birthday, so on the day you turn, say, 50, you walk out of the house, and there are 50 pink flamingos to greet you. I report this to prove that travel is culturally broadening.

Also on the Redneck Riviera, an annual sporting event I trust will soon attract national television coverage: the Mullet Toss. Kenny Stabler, formerly with the Oakland Raiders, throws out the first mullet in the yearly fish fling, and then, less famous mullet chuckers compete.

Near as I can tell from a quick visit, the major problem along the Florida Panhandle is rapid development. Same old same old, except that both the old-timers and the newcomers have a strong interest in preserving the natural beauty of the place. By now, everyone knows what happens if you don't control growth. The phenomenon known as "strip commercial" appears -- endless stretches of tacky, plastic, franchise food joints.

Maybe this conflict should be covered by sports reporters: the neck-and-neck race between those who want to preserve natural beauty and the greedheads who destroy it. Which side surges ahead this week with a clever end run around the zoning commission? Are local enviros able to intercept a pass, as it were, by discovering an endangered species in some nice marsh, thus saving it from rapacious developers?

The only time I ever envied columnist George Will a lead was one time when he visited Denver, where I then lived, and was deeply impressed by one of the ugliest stretches of endless, tacky, strip-commercial development in the nation. "I could never think of a good use for the atomic bomb," wrote Will, "until I saw Colorado Boulevard in Denver."

If you think this blight is limited only to big cities and rapidly growing small ones, you ought to come to Cookeville, Tenn., a tiny college town set in the lovely hills of middle Tennessee. Boy, they have 'em all, lined up in an endless profusion of enormous signs, a forest of signs that completely shuts out the vistas of purple hills running into the distance: KFC, Domino's, La Tapatia, Hardee's, Little Caesar's, McDonald's, Papa John's, Ponderosa, Red Lobster, Taco Bell, Wendy's, Waffle House, and so on and so forth. I exempt the DQ on account of it's probably been here since Methuselah was young -- it's a Southern thing.

You can find people here who consider this progress, but suppose the franchise invasion that followed the new interstate and liquor-by-the-drink to Cookeville had instead been a flowering of local entrepreneurs. Instead of a whole lot of people working for low-pay national corporations, you'd have a lot of small-business owners, buying their produce and meat from local suppliers, not to mention their tables, chairs, linen, flatware (plastic or otherwise), etc. Bidness-wise, it would have been a much better deal for Cookeville, Putnam County and much of middle Tennessee.

Middle Tennessee was a depressed and isolated area until relatively recently; it's hard to farm these gorgeous hills. So it's understandable that people here would welcome any business that wants to move in.

It's harder to understand why a place like Florida (which has had a relentless real estate boom going since the '20s) would, at this point in its development, want any more big companies settling there. Florida's tax base is notoriously tourist-oriented; all that more industry would do is ruin the beauty that attracts the tourists.

Where they've got this figured out (almost) is Arizona, with all those unpredictable libertarian Republicans in the Legislature. They're fixing to pass a bill over there that would stop the state or any of its political divisions from offering tax breaks, new roads, cheap electricity, free water or anything else to inveigle some out-of-state corporation to come and build there.

And before you dismiss that with "Arizona is always goofy," take a look at all the studies showing that the jobs attracted by giving these special tax breaks to corporations do not pay out, even in the long run. In Time magazine's classic Barlett-Steele report on corporate welfare, this particular form of welfare was thoroughly exposed as a financial disaster for the states and towns that participate in it.

But Arizona is not the only state with innovative legislation in the offing. Right here in Tennessee, the Road Kill Bill has attracted attention.

This little doozer would stipulate that should you mash some critter on the highway, you are entitled to cart home the remains and pop 'em in your stew pot without having to get a deer or critter permit from the state hunting agency. Well, fair enough, unless the animal-cruelty folks say this would encourage people to run over critters.

But suppose you find a tempting, tasty critter on the highway that was not dispatched to glory by your own vehicle? What then? Many and varied are the problems faced by our state legislatures, some of them enough to try Solomon.

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