Ardell Brede, the mayor of Rochester, Minn., was shocked a few weeks ago when a police lieutenant showed him the crumbled remnants of a storage shed, blown to bits.
It was all that remained from a group of drug entrepreneurs' unsuccessful efforts to cook methamphetamine. The explosion had melted the paint off the walls of a nearby barn.
"We have got to get the people playing around with methamphetamine to realize how terrible it is," Brede says. "Besides the people becoming addicted to it, it'll eat the enamel right off a truck. This is the biggest issue we're dealing with."
Brede's concerns echoed those of several other mayors of small and mid-sized towns across the country this month who said that drugs — and specifically methamphetamine — have become a scourge in American towns.
Brede and other mayors joined hundreds of their counterparts from cities big and small two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., for the annual Conference of Mayors. But while big city leaders used the conference to air concerns from the drug trade — gang violence and homicides rates — Brede and other small-town mayors say they're dealing with drug-related problems of their own.
Their towns are battling the growing use of methamphetamine, or speed, among residents, as well as the hazardous amateur lab work needed to make the drug in backyards. In many ways, the mayors say, their problems are a small mirror of the crime that often plagues big cities, where drug turf battles, gang warfare and addiction lead to high homicide and violent-crime rates. Small-town drug crime may seem less violent, they say, but it's no less dangerous.
"Methamphetamine is one of our biggest problems," said Dan McArthur, mayor of St. George, Utah, a community of 70,000 residents in the southwest corner of the state.
"We tried putting drug task forces out there, but that just ended up pushing the problem into the [surrounding] county," McArthur says. "We have to find a way to eradicate it instead of just forcing it somewhere else."
Many of the drug-related problems small towns are seeing are precursors to the larger drug problems in big cities. In rural America, teenagers find access to a ready supply of drugs and become addicted, while addicts rob and steal to keep up their habit.
In Burnsville, Minn., theft and stolen property are particularly difficult for the local police. Burnsville, a 62,000-person town located where the state's largest interstate divides, has become a mecca for retail shops and malls. In recent years, it has become the fourth-largest retail center in the state.
"We have a lot of issues concerning shop lifting," says Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz, who said many of those stealing are connected to methamphetamine production and use.
As a result, she says, "We've put some great programs in place, we've started a neighborhood watch program, we're training people to make phone calls when they see something to try to lower the crime rates."
For Mayor James McClinton of Topeka, Kan., a mid-sized city of 122,000 residents, the proliferation of drug crime in big cities has triggered problems for his police department.
"What we see is a lot of people in the drug trade leaving the large cities and coming to medium cities like ours to hide out," McClinton says.
"You have to stay on top of them," McClinton says, "because they bring their problems with them. As soon as our officers arrest someone, they almost always make hits" on big cities' warrant lists.
In addition to drugs, a number of mayors say small towns and cities are also dealing with other crime, the kind that plagues many cities throughout the United States, big or small. Some small town mayors say they're seeing an increase in domestic violence, while others say they're dealing with issues of cultural conflict, as their counties and towns become more racially and ethnically diverse.
Most mayors say regardless of all the activity and resources a big city can provide, they don't aspire to that kind of life. They prefer their towns the way they are — small, quiet and, for the most part, safe.
"We don't have graffiti, we don't have gangs," says St. George Mayor McArthur. "And that's the way we want to keep it."