Beyond Digital Disruption: Creating Smart Retro Cities in Nordics and Beyond

I’ve written more than once about how we often deal with cities and communities as though they were separate, unrelated systems — physical development, technology, demographics, etc. — as though they were separate systems, simplyfying or ignoring how the issues that we know or intrinsically care about are tangled up with and impacted by everything else.  Which makes it easier on our brains, but at the cost of actually understanding or being able to effectively solve problems.  Kind of not a great tradeoff.

 

Late last year I was asked to review and give feedback on a report created by Demos Helsinki, a Nordic-focused think tank that examines an extraordinary array of issues relating to changes in businesses, societies and communities.  The report is called Nordic Cities Beyond Digital Disruption: a Novel Way to Redevelop Cities. Here’s what I wrote about it, which is included in a series of testimonials from experts worldwide:

 

The Smart Retro Communities Report accomplishes what very few publications anywhere have: it connects existing built environments, new economic and community models and digital technology, and it traces through how we can use them together across macro-to-micro scale initiatives to address the challenges of the 21st century.  An eye-opener for me, and a report that I’ll be sharing widely.

The report is quite straightforward, very easy to follow, well designed and really insightful — and useful for anyone interested in improving the future of cities, not just in Scandanavian countries.  Check it out.  My deep thanks to Demos Helsinki for the opportunity!

NCBDD

 

Webinar on Inclusive Entrepreneurship from Startup Champions Network!

I had a great time yesterday doing a webinar for the Startup Champions Network — the continuation of the Startup Nation initiative launched by the White House a few years ago. Let by the ever-impressive Bill Kenney,  we had the pleasure of talking about how to enable people who haven’t been part of the entrepreneurship community to be able to capitalize on their potential.

Andrew Young from Startup Weekend New York City told the story of what happened when they did a Startup Weekend in immigrant neighborhoods of Queens and Staten Island, and Jess Knox from Maine Accelerates Growth shared some insights into how their network of rural communities build a sense of the possible in places where entrepreneurs aren’t usually part of the equasion.  And I got to talk about things like peer support, mentoring and coaching, and the reason why babysitting (as in, for babies) can make all the difference.

 

The webinar was done via Google Hangout, and it’s already available for you perusal:

 

 

Thanks again to Bill, Andrew and Jess for such a great conversation!

Introducing a new way to grow better business districts: Neighborhood Grow

Over the past few months, I have been working on a new partnership called Econogy.  Econogy combines business school educators and students with neighborhood business districts to give local businesses and entrepreneurs something they usually can’t afford:

Industry-leading strategic planning and business operation assistance.

 

 

One aspect of Econogy that I am particularly excited about is a service called Neighborhood Grow.  Neighborhood Grow takes the kind of neighborhood planning that we’ve all been doing for time immemorial, and drives that deeper to make a real difference for the business district organization and for businesses themselves.  Instead of simply preparing a plan and then hoping to find the money and expertise to do the work that the organization can’t do alone, Neighborhood Grow allows planning to flow directly into implementation by transitioning seamlessly to the expertise in marketing, branding, management, event logistics and more that have to be mustered if the plan is going to go into action.  

Small businesses and neighborhood organizations often operate by the seat of their pants, doing the best they can on business and management fundamentals despite the fact that, chances are, no one has ever taught them sound practices.  And conventional business management assistance, such as consulting, is too expensive and too elaborate to be of any good.

Neighborhood Grow grew out of a realization that students who are learning business management and related skills need and want opportunities to apply what they are learning in the real world.  These students not only need to build their resumes and show future employers that they have relevant, practical skills, but they increasingly want to do so in a way that makes the world better.  Because of that, universities are increasingly working project-based learning into their coursework, and particularly enterprising students are realizing that they can stand out in the job search when they can show how they have used their skills to make a business and a community better.

The Neighborhood Grow process starts with convening participants and gathering existing conditions and identifying visions, but it then focuses on near-term, practical steps that can be taken to help the neighborhood business district operate better.  This might include re-branding and a tech-savvy marketing campaign; business training in specific skills, creating and managing events, improving accounting and management systems, or more.  Because the focus is on operations, instead of our usual heavy emphasis on design solutions, Neighborhood Grow initiatives can make a real impact in much less time and for much less money than it takes to build a streetscape!

Here’s a flow chart of the Neighborhood Grow process.  NG Process

 

Neighborhood Grow is based on the work of Xavier University’s X-Link and similar project-based learning initiatives across the country.  As far as we know, this is the first time it’s been applied to neighborhood business districts and their organizations.

We’re still in the early stages, and formal marketing materials aren’t all polished up yet. If you’re interested in learning how Neighborhood Grow can help your community, send me a note and we’ll talk!

 

 

What it really means to be an entrepreneur: it isn’t easy, or safe

Last week was the 5th year anniversary of starting the Wise Economy Workshop– my second foray into entrepreneurship and my first that didn’t stem from a lack of conventional opportunities (meaning, this time I chose this path because I wanted to). Normally, that’s a cause for celebration, or at least a Facebook announcement to solicit some of those “Like” clicks that make you feel good even though you know they don’t mean all that much.

But I didn’t.  I said to myself that I had been too busy, too tired.  Too something.

But the fact of the matter is, at that moment it didn’t feel like much of a thing to celebrate. what success looks like

My business is in the middle of a pivot, a repositioning of what I do and what I offer. I added book publishing and sales, promoted myself as a speaker, built partnerships, tried to figure out ways to make money doing this work that can supplement the fee-for-services consulting that I have done for over 20 years.  From an income perspective, the consulting life can sometimes feel like a particularly nauseating roller coaster, and I wanted to even out some of the plunges.

Pivots are hard. Maybe harder than even a supposed small business economic development expert realized.  And certainly harder than then game plan I laid out a year ago looked like.

Entrepreneurship is hard.  Am I doing the right thing?  Can I trust that potential partner? What do my customers want? Do they know what they really want? (You’re supposed to ask them, but sometimes the answer they give you isn’t clear at all).

Entrepreneurship is scary.  Can I pay that bill?  What happens if I put that one off?  How the hell am I going to pay for (fill in the blank)? What happens if…

Entrepreneurship is tiring.  I finished this, but now that is overdue.  The list never, ever ends.  And the amount to do and the people and time you have almost never match up neatly, whether you’re on your own or managing employees. There is overwhelm and there is famine, and sometimes not much in between.

Entrepreneurship is risky.  What am I giving up? What do I lose, do others lose, if I fail?  We like to believe that anything is possible if you try hard enough.  But a high proportion of small businesses in every field fail to see the five birthday milestone that my business has somehow stumbled across.

And entrepreneurship is lonely.  You have to make the decisions. You have to put on the success mask, even when you might not feel so successful today.  You can’t admit to what’s not working, what you’re scared of, the wolf that seems to pace constantly just outside your well-painted door.  Even to your spouse, your partner, your friend, sometimes. They aren’t in your shoes, and trying to show them the dark places might scare them off.   There’s some evidence of a higher than average rate of depression among tech startup founders.  I would not be surprised if that trend covered a much broader small business population.

I’ve put a lot of thought lately into whether we as communities are really doing the right things to foster small businesses and entrepreneurs–and whether we aren’t unintentionally setting too many of them up for ugly and damaging failures.  Should we tell a poor person, a young person, a retired person that they can be an entrepreneur if they just want to enough, when they may lack personal savings, family support, mentoring, and more?

What do the entrepreneurs that our community really needv– needs that we aren’t seeing because we’re allowing us to be satisfied with feel-good stories, and not truly trying to understand?

How many of our entrepreneurship success stories actually end as a small scale tragedies, with failure lost savings, broken relationships, a deeper slide into the personal and community hopelessness that the “you can do it!!!!” of entrepreneurship was supposed to overcome…

Chances are we stopped looking shortly after the happy ribbon cutting, so we don’t find out.

We probably can’t avoid entrepreneurship failures – it’s part of the deal you accept when you start a business.  My suspicion is that we’re not doing enough.

But not asking the question, not paying attention to the full range of issues that differentiate successes from failures, and insisting that faith in yourself is all you need, you can do it if you just try hard enough…

I am pretty sure now that this is not enough.

If entrepreneurship matters, if healthy small businesses matter, if local ownership and investment matter, if economic opportunity for the historically disadvantaged through self-employment and minority-owned small business matter,  then singing our favorite songs from Sesame Street while tossing around a little money and some how-to-start-a-business classes is not enough. Nowhere near enough.

And that’s not a plea for more money.  The answers to small businesses’  needs are not all found in a pitch prize or a program grant.  And money without a sound underpinning can make the fall only that much harder if and when it comes.

I’m in an ideal situation.  I have a business with low costs, plenty of education, a household such that we will not starve when I have a bad month, good health insurance, a good credit score, friends, family… Not to mention a huge ego and an abnormal level of self-assurance.

And even with all those considerable advantages, I have bad months.  I struggle. I get scared.  I wonder if I made the right choice.  I doubt.

Imagine the situation I would be in if a few of those advantages were missing.

 

Entrepreneurship is also thrilling, exciting, empowering, and deeply self-actualizing.  On a deep, personal, fundamental level, I’ve been happier in the past 5 years than I ever was before that, because I can feel and see my own self moving into my potential, the potential that was there for a long time but got truncated and stuffed behind an employers’ priorities.  In a strange way, that’s a gut-level peacefulness that I didn’t start to realize until I took that brave (and, truthfully, kind of naive) step 5 years ago.  For the people whose guts cry out to be entrepreneurs, that is probably the most powerful intrinsic motivation.  And it’s what keeps you going through the lean times and the doubt and the fear.

We say that we value entrepreneurs and small businesses, that we want them to grow and prosper in our communities, for a bunch of reasons. But we don’t act on it very well.

We have to do that work of supporting entrepreneurship and small businesses  better, much better, if we are going to achieve any of those benefits.

We have to cultivate small business, the way we cultivate anything of value. Today we often do little more than throw some seed in a vacant lot (“you can do it!!!!), pass a watering can over the field once or twice (“here’s a loan!!!”), and then wonder why the garden doesn’t explode with produce.  As anyone who has worked a garden knows, successful cultivating takes much, much more.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what small businesses and entrepreneurs —  like me, I guess — really need if we’re going to get serious about growing that increasingly important small business sector of our local economies– you know, the ones that make most of the new jobs and all that.  But I’ve been putting off writing that down until I got some other projects out of the way.

Maybe I need to move that up the list. For myself as much as anyone else.

Building a startup ecosystem: my interview with Mike McGee of Starter League

One of the topics that I continue to study closely is the question of how startup ecosystems and other kinds of small business communities can best be supported, encouraged, fed and enabled to grow into their potential.  I did an interview a couple months back with Mike McGee, a central part of the Chicago startup ecosystem and one of the founders of Starter League, which teaches people from all backgrounds how to code.

 

As you’ll see from this interview, the ability to create web applications isn’t just relevant to “tech dudes” — increasingly, the ability to at least understand how code languages work and how to create things online becomes central to every kind of small business, even in fields where we don’t normally think of coding as a necessary skill.  Mike also gives us some insight here into how the different elements of the startup community in that city relate to each other — and it’s that interrelationship, as much as anything, that has a lot to do with why businesses like Starter League and others are growing in that city.

You can read the full interview at Creating Genius, a lovely publication that focuses on sharing entrepreneur’s stories and to which I have become an occasional contributor.  Here’s a selection from it:

Della:  Who takes your classes? What types of people end up getting involved with Starter League?

code classroom
Inside Starter League. From CreatingGenius Magazine

Mike:  It’s a very diverse group in terms of age, professional background, educational level, city, state, country, etc. The common thread is that our students typically are those who want to transform from consumer to creator.

The common thread is that our students typically are those who want to transform from consumer to creator.

They’ve worked in other industries and they’ve gone to school for another focus entirely, whether it’s history, education, law, retail, real estate. Every professional industry you can imagine. They’ve experienced problems in those areas and they’ve talked with their family and friends about them.

They often say things like, “Oh, it’d be great if I could solve this problem”, but it stops right there, because they don’t have the skills necessary to solve those problems with technology. It’s been festering and boiling inside of them. It’s like “If I could only do this…or if I only had these skills, I could build this app.”

That’s the thread that ties all of our students and graduates together, is that they are just sick of using someone else’s solution, or they’re sick of not having a problem solved. They want to take matters into their own hands and build a solution for it, or just to change their career.

Mike rocks, and you should definitely read the whole interview.  My thanks again to Mike for spending the time with me, and to Lee Constantine, CreatingGenius’s publisher.

 

Two chances to support better entrepreneur/government relations at SXSW 2016

The international tech mega-conference South By Southwest Interactive has been showing more and more interest in how small businesses, startups and tech entrepreneurs can help make the places where they work better – but even though conference organizers pretty clearly want to address the relationship between startups and governments, they seem to get only a few submissions for panels or presentations on those topics.

Well, here at the Wise Economy Workshop, we’re all about helping people rattle those kinds of cages.

I’ve submitted two presentations along these lines for consideration at next year’s SXSW, and as is their usual practice, part of how they choose submissions depends on popular votes.  That’s where you come in.

Here’s the two sessions:

The first is a panel entitled How to work with your local government and succeed.  This session is geared toward entrepreneurs and startup folks who are newly encountering the world of government agencies – and not understanding why they work the way they do.

The second is a workshop called Lead or Feed: How Cities Can Truly Help Startups.  This session is a version of the talk/workshop that I have given in several states and online over the past few years, and it’s focused on helping city officials and staff rethink their economic development efforts to make a real difference in growing their community’s local economy.

The odds of either of these two sessions being presented go up if they get votes on the SXSW PanelPicker.  Voting is free and easy (it does require a very basic signup), and you don’t have to be planning to go to SXSW in order to vote.

You can vote for How to work with your local government and succeed here, and Lead or Feed: How Cities Can Truly Help Startups here.

Thanks for your help!  I’ll let you know what happens.

If you’d be interested in talks or trainings like this in your community or for your organization, just send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com

 

New Short Shot: The Secrets of Retail District Revitalization

I’m delighted to announce that the first in a new series I am calling Short Shots is on the street and available for you!  This brief, illustrated publication(this one is about 30 pages) functions like a quick, enjoyable, easy-to-read exploration of a topic, with pages that you can easily remove and share independent from the rest of it – for example, if you need to make a quick argument to a mayor or council member about how to do something. It’s more detailed than a blog post, but a much faster read than a book.  And easy on the wallet as well!

A Short Shot is a term used in manufacturing.  When you make a bottle or other container out of plastic or something like that you typically “blow” a small amount of the molten material into a mold.  If you do it right, the materials flattens out in a thin layer against the mold, and you have a container with an air space in the middle.  Of course, if you think about that very hard you can imagine all kinds of things going wrong – material is too thick, too much of it, doesn’t spread out right, etc.  And if you’re running a machine that makes a few thousand of these an hour, you have to make sure it’s right before you push the start button.  So a short shot is basically a test mold, one that you use to quickly and inexpensively see if a new idea is going to work.

I love that image, because I think of these Short Shots as a way for you to quickly and easily explore new ideas, without having to put them on that thick”reading list” of books that you know you should read, but …  Short Shot Business District Revitalization cover

This first one is on The Secrets of Commercial District Revitalization — it explores why some of the big ticket projects we put into our downtowns and other commercial areas didn’t make the difference we hoped for, and it looks at the challenge of making these districts work better from a whole different perspective – the local business owners.  If you’re looking for new solutions to making your commercial districts work better, and if you want to help your small business people become more successful, I think you’ll find this worth the very little effort it requires.

The Secrets of Commercial District Revitalization and all the rest of the Short Shots will be available in all of the places where you get your digital Wise Fool Press publications — Amazon Kindle, Square Market and now Gumroad, which works for those of you outside of the USA who haven’t been able to use the Square Market.  If you need print versions, send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com and we’ll make it work.

This Short Shot and most of the upcoming ones are based on talks and trainings that I have done over the years, so if you’re looking for a presentation for an upcoming event, just let me know.

Here’s a sample inside page:

Short Shot Retail revitalization

Final (for the moment) part of New Role for Old Downtowns: Why are small (and really small) spaces important?

This is the last of the reasonably well-developed pieces of the long thing on a new economic role for downtowns that I churned out on a couple of flights over the past couple of weeks.  After this, the document goes more bit-and-pieces.  Probably because we were landing somewhere.

You can find the five previous parts under the “Resilient Communities.” tag.  I’m not sure when I’ll get back to this — I have two other things that I’m supposed to be writing, and this was not on the list — but I will at some point.  In the meantime, I’ll be glad for your feedback.

___

Let’s talk about an Asset: Small Spaces

 

Who would view a small space as an asset?

 

We’re used to thinking of space –floor space, acreage — as a if-some-is-good-more-is-better kind of resource.  New house sizes have more than doubled in the past 40 years, while our households get smaller.  We assume that everyone needs to be able to get away from everyone else, everyone gets their own room, their own bathroom. We want “elbow room,” which often ends up being Rooms Between Our Elbows.  In the western world, among people of even pretty modest means, we want to have more room than we absolutely need.

 

Except.

 

More room means more cost.  More room means more space to clean, to repair, more stuff to buy to make it look not empty, More space to monitor to make sure no one is breaking in or doing something they shouldn’t.

 

More space to pay rent or mortgage on, more space to heat and light and air condition.

 

So if you’re a business, in a world where your competitors seem to multiply every day and pressure to hold your costs in check never lets us, Elbow Room increasingly looks like money misspent.

 

We’ve seen this in office work for decades.  When I started my first planning job in a 1960s building, I had an office with real walls and a door that locked with a click and a wall of filing cabinets and two bookcases.  And I was not anything special; everyone’s office looked like that.  After a few years, we moved to a 1980s building with almost no closed-off spaces.  My office was enclosed by five-foot tall cubicle walls, which surrounded a desk, two side tables, a bookcase and a couple of filing cabinets. A couple of years later we moved to a newer building, and soon walls and bookcases had been reduced to a glorifed computer-holding wall and a three-foot sort of cubby. And while I personally missed the privacy (writers have to concentrate sometimes), I could collaborate with my colleagues a little more easily and it turned out that I didn’t miss the additional stuff  Today, many of my colleagues work in hotelling offices, their work contained in a laptop bag and cloud files and their office for any given day consisting of whatever chair and worktable the computer system tells them is avaiable when they walk into wherever they are today.  Since everyone isn’t in the building at the same time, you don’t need a separate desk for each person, and there’s no point in heating and lighting a space that’s vacant half the time.  As a result, office space per employeed and total office size per establishment has been dropping since the early 2000s.

Similarly, take a visit to the new workplaces of this century – co-working spaces, coffee shops, park benches on the plaza, spare bedrooms.  Look at how much space each person working actually consumes, and compare that to those Mad Men – era offices I described in the last paragraph.

 

The same broad trend holds for many types of retailers.  If you go to the Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas today (a sort of surrogate town center for a community whose downtown isn’t very traditional, constructed mostly of shipping containers), and you go up to the third level on the west side, you’ll find the Art Box.  Art Box sells jewelry, accessories, glass work — little items. They are housed in a half of a shipping container – a space that’s about 15 feet deep. They carry, incredibly, works by about 40 Las Vegas area artisans and crafters — individuals, mostly with full-time gigs doing something else, who made items and sold them at a local market, since there was apparently no other store in town that would sell locally-made crafts.

 

In a 15X10X10 space, Art Box is pleasantly well-stocked, with interesting things hanging or sitting everywhere you look.  In a larger space — say, the conventional downtown store, 30 or 40 feet wide and 100 feet deep or more — Art Box would look half-empty, depleted, dispiriting. It’s not like most of the artisans can make that much more stuff in their non-existent additional free time.  Mix that negative first impression with three or more times higher costs in a bigger space, and it’s not likely that an experiment like Art Box could have gotten off the ground.

 

Meanwhile, from a local and national public policy standpoint, increasing the amount of  entrepreneurship is quietly filtering to near the top of a lot of decision-maker’s priorities, especially as big corporations continue to cut jobs on a nearly-predictable basis and questions about whether jobs that require potentially automated work, like truck drivers, raises the specter of additional millions of people who cannot find employment.  This spurs lots of investment in one-off initiatives, but like in many other areas of social change, the scattering of well-intentioned efforts can create small nearby ripples, but lacks the power to shift the direction of the tide.

 

In addition to entertainment and amenities and all those quality of life elements that we love but would survive without, I think that downtowns can be the natural incubator for small businesses-not just cute retail shops, but the things that will grow your local and regional economy in the future, creating not just local destinations, but products and services that create something genuinely new.  That’s potentially retail, but it’s also tech, services, crafts, manufacturers.  It’s the future economy that includes stuff we can’t yet name, like the smartphone in your pocket if you were trying to imagine it in 1995.
Downtown is the place in your community most likely to have the parts that entrepreneurship incubators need already in place.  But you won’t get those benefits unless you manage and shepherd the district to help the community leverage those assets for the long-term benefit.

A New Role for Old Fashioned Downtowns: The Downtown Asset of Very Small Spaces

Man, I was a lot busier on that plane than I remembered… After posting the first few sections of the long thing that I started writing for no objective reason except that I’ve been thinking about downtowns and entrepreneurs and economics a lot lately, I am finding that I got a little farther into the analysis of opportunties than I thought I did.  You can read my earlier discussions of the challenges I’m starting to think downtowns are facing here, here, here and here.  And I’m still welcoming your feedback.

—-

Your Best Opportunity Stems from your Assets

 

There is a subtle counter-current in economic and community development that is often referred to as Asset Based Development.  It’s a pretty straightforward premise: What do you have to work with, and what’s the best thing you can make out of what you already have?

 

For a moment, let’s apply that strategy to our downtowns.  I probably upset some downtown supporters with that last section – pointing out all the things that being a traditional downtown prevent you from having (and that those governments thatwe want to help us, want to spend their time and money on).  So now let’s turn that around: what do downtowns have, and what could we do with them?

 

Downtowns and other traditional commercial disticts very typically have a few common assets (yours may have some level of these, and it may have others):

 

  • Buildings that look and feel different from other places (often older buildings with different kinds of details and finishes.

 

  • Buildings that are divided into smaller floor spaces than in other parts of town.

 

  • A relatively high number of business spaces relatively close to each other, which means that you can physically move from one to another with less personal effort than it might take somewhere else (especially if you had to do it by walking).

 

  • A relatively wide mix of people, probably wider than the typical office park or cul-de-sac neighborhood.  Old, young, weathy, poor, different looks, different sounds. Like you, not like you.

 

  • Public spaces – places where people can be without having to buy something or have someone’s permission to be there.  Sidewalks, benches, street corners, parks.

 

Note that I have defined all of these, not in terms of how they’re traditional or The Way Things Used To Be, but in terms of how they differ from other, often more recently-constructed places in town.

 

I did that on purpose.

 

I did that to highlight something that we all basically know, but we don’t think of as an asset: the scale of life in a downtown is different from other types of places.  Instead of

 

[graphic of a bunch of relatively large squares spread out]

 

our downtowns have

 

[graphic of tightly packed small squares]

 

Now, those of you who are already downtown/new urbanist acolytes, don’t jump ahead of me.  The message here isn’t the tightly packed small squares are better!!!

 

The message here is that the tightly packed small squares are different.

 

What I’m working toward here is an economic argument: That Which Makes You Unique Makes You Valuable [I wrote about this here].

 

What you are willing to pay for something – anything –  depends on something more sophisticated than the old Supply and Demand mantra we learned in high school.  I will pay more for something if it is unique or distinctive AND it promises to meet my needs in a way that other things can’t.  A price premium – the kind needed to make a real viable market when cheaper basic options are available —  requires both.  If it meets my needs but it’s not unique, the availabilty of cheaper, basically comparable products will push the price I am willing to pay for the unique thing lower.  If it’s unique but it doesn’t meet my needs, it’s price won’t matter to me because I don’t want it.

 

Therefore, downtown’s new market opportunties will be those types of uses that not only like downtown spaces –that appreciate ornate moldings and access to good coffeee — but will benefit from the full range of assets the place provides in a meaningful way.

 

Let’s talk about an Asset: Small Space

 

Who would view a small space as an asset?

 

We’re used to thinking of space –floor space, acreage — as a if-some-is-good-more-is-better kind of resource.  New house sizes have more than doubled in the past 40 years, while our households get smaller.  We assume that everyone needs to be able to get away from everyone else, everyone gets their own room, their own bathroom. We want “elbow room,” which often ends up being Rooms Between Our Elbows.  In the western world, among people of even pretty modest means, we want to have more room than we absolutely need.

 

Except.

 

More room means more cost.  More room means more space to clean, to repair, more stuff to buy to make it look not empty, More space to monitor to make sure no one is breaking in or doing something they shouldn’t.

 

More space to pay rent or mortgage on, more space to heat and light and air condition.

 

So if you’re a business, in a world where your competitors seem to multiply every day and pressure to hold your costs in check never lets us, Elbow Room increasingly looks like money misspent.

 

We’ve seen this in office work for decades.  When I started my first planning job in a 1960s building, I had an office with real walls and a door that locked with a click and a wall of filing cabinets and two bookcases.  And I was not anything special; everyone’s office looked like that.  After a few years, we moved to a 1980s building with almost no closed-off spaces.  My office was enclosed by five-foot tall cubicle walls, which surrounded a desk, two side tables, a bookcase and a couple of filing cabinets. A couple of years later we moved to a newer building, and soon walls and bookcases had been reduced to a glorifed computer-holding wall and a three-foot sort of cubby. And while I personally missed the privacy (writers have to concentrate sometimes), I could collaborate with my colleagues a little more easily and it turned out that I didn’t miss the additional stuff  Today, many of my colleagues work in hotelling offices, their work contained in a laptop bag and cloud files and their office for any given day consisting of whatever chair and worktable the computer system tells them is avaiable when they walk into wherever they are today.  Since everyone isn’t in the building at the same time, you don’t need a separate desk for each person, and there’s no point in heating and lighting a space that’s vacant half the time.  As a result, office space per employeed and total office size per establishment has been dropping since the early 2000s.

Similarly, take a visit to the new workplaces of this century – co-working spaces, coffee shops, park benches on the plaza, spare bedrooms.  Look at how much space each person working actually consumes, and compare that to those Mad Men – era offices I described in the last paragraph.

 

The same broad trend holds for many types of retailers.  If you go to the Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas today (a sort of surrogate town center for a community whose downtown isn’t very traditional, constructed mostly of shipping containers), and you go up to the third level on the west side, you’ll find the Art Box.  Art Box sells jewelry, accessories, glass work — little items. They are housed in a half of a shipping container – a space that’s about 15 feet deep. They carry, incredibly, works by about 40 Las Vegas area artisans and crafters — individuals, mostly with full-time gigs doing something else, who made items and sold them at a local market, since there was apparently no other store in town that would sell locally-made crafts.

 

In a 15X10X10 space, Art Box is pleasantly well-stocked, with interesting things hanging or sitting everywhere you look.  In a larger space — say, the conventional downtown store, 30 or 40 feet wide and 100 feet deep or more — Art Box would look half-empty, depleted, dispiriting. It’s not like most of the artisans can make that much more stuff in their non-existent additional free time.  Mix that negative first impression with three or more times higher costs in a bigger space, and it’s not likely that an experiment like Art Box could have gotten off the ground.

 

The Future of Old Fashioned Downtowns: What can Our Downtowns do (and not do)?

Continuing my series of  parts of … something… exploring a potential new future role for traditional downtowns and business districts.  You can read the previous sections here, here, and here.  Might as well see where this goes…

 

So what do we do?

So, here’s the key question:  how do we increase and demonstrate the pragmatic, real-world value of downtowns – not just to downtown lovers and entertainment – seekers, but to the entire local economy?  How do we make downtown a more integral, essential, necessary part of the local economy?

 

I think the secret lies in claiming, reinforcing and articulating a new economic role for downtowns, one that can compliment and reinforce the dining/shopping/entertainment economy and the economic actors that come in search of that.  In a lot of communities, that role, that new opportunity, is as the incubator, the nursery, of the local economy’s future.  Downtowns already have the parts and the preconditions.  And increasingly, they’re fulfilling that role without anyone but a few insiders really realizing it. But people who care about downtowns and about the health of their local economy need to help downtowns step into that role, and communities need to give renewed attention to that role.

 

Not everything to everyone

OK, let’s not get too carried away here.  Clearly there’s a whole lot of roles in a local economy that downtowns aren’t really set up to do anymore, since we developed all those choices that we talked about before.  Brick and mortar retailers of basic goods and services – the stuff we need everyday – typically have to operate at a larger scale, a bigger physical footprint, than they did in the 1900s because all those choices means that they face enormous competition that holds their profit margins to the slimmest of amounts.  There’s a reason why it’s hard to find laundry detergent and paper towels in the little downtown groceries that sometimes take root in the wake of downtown residential development: there’s not enough profit margin in those products to make them profitable for the store, especially given the amount of precious shelf space they take up.  Even when a larger grocery store can make it work, such as in some of the most booming downtowns of the past couple of decades, you’ll find a much wider range of selection in high-end products, and fewer choices and smaller containers of basics.  That’s not just because the shoppers are generally more affuent.  It’s because the smaller spaces mean that the retailer has to move higher-margin goods, like prepared foods, to make enough profit.

 

Similarly, I think we all have to admit that the relatively tight quarters and small floor plates in downtown areas don’t lend themselves to assembly-line manufacturing. If building a product requires conveyor belts, robots, large machines, large quantity packing and shipping, rail spurs, loading docks, etc., there are very few spaces inside a traditional downtown that can accommodate them.  They just need too much land, in addition to any other unpleasantries that might not be appreciated by residents and diners (lots of cities have a sort of grey belt around their downtowns that historically included manufacturing, and may still today, but that’s a physically different area than the traditional downtown),

 

Obviously there’s other businesses that don’t fit in a traditional downtown — either they would have a hard time operating in that environment, or they would have negative impacts on other downtown uses.  Coal mine?  Warehouses?  A couple thousand office workers who all need immediate physical access to each other?  Most traditional downtowns would have trouble accommodating these.  They are types of uses that came along after the traditional downtown environment was established.

 

Here’s the deep challenge: these kinds of businesses – large retailers, manufacturing, warehouses, big offices, coal mines — that’s what people typically think of as “economic development.”  And it’s what a whole lot of city officials and mayors and members of council – and economic development professionals – think of as “real” economic development.  This is the stuff that they spend time and money on – sending staff on a trip to sell a business on moving to a community, building roads and sewers and running power lines to new development sites, giving incentives to get those businesses to move to town.  The size of business that they’ve been willing to tout as a “win” has been shrinking, but that’s because the size of businesses as a whole has been shrinking.  And sometimes these generally smaller businesses end up downtown because their employees want places to dine and drink and live the interesting city life.

 

But to many economic developers, government heads, elected officials, and the like, the purpose of the work is to bring in the biggest new thing you can get.  The measurement is volume: number of jobs, payroll,amount of new taxes.  How much the deal added, and how much it increased the amount available.  This is serious business.

 

I don’t mean that to knock my economic development colleagues – that is the job that many of them are charged to do. But for downtown supporters who want the places that they care about to mean more than novelty and entertainment, that purpose presents a challenge:

 

The types of economic activities that city governments and other agencies put their primary emphasis on, the types that make a real difference in the numbers they need to show…

 

Those, most of the time, don’t fit in a downtown space.

 

This is how we ended up with the downtown-as-entertainment-district. Economic practices and the impact of economies of scale changed, and the “serious” businesses moved where they could get more space, more land, bigger buildings, etc. The businesses that could fit in the smaller spaces were cast, and sometimes cast themselves, as niche, speciality, cute.  Appealing, but without “real” benefit, without substantial and easy-to-count impact on the entire local economy.

 

That’s why many more cities today have economic incentives for a new warehouse than they do for a new downtown cafe. From their perspective, the first is a need, the second is a nice-to-have.

 

The Future of Old Fashioned Downtowns: the Economics of the Situation

While I was travelling over the past couple of weeks, I found myself strangely sucked into writing this…I don’t know what it is yet…. about rethinking the economic role of traditional downtowns and other commercial districts.  This is Part 3 of the segments that I have more or less complete at this point.  And since I’m not on an airplane anymore and actually have to work on everything else now, it’s still a work-in-progress.

This section builds on the parts I published here and here and tries to tease out the economic implications of the fairly limited roles that we’ve often applied to downtowns.  Again, I don’t know exactly where it’s going yet, and I know it’s not going there fast.  So your comments are most welcome.

___

The Economics of the Situation

At its core, the kind of downtown I have been describing has an existence whose purpose is to capture disposable income.  It’s a place where the value that the place offers is dependent on its ability to offer novelty, to provide something that appeals to the consumer’s changing tastes and trends.  It’s a place marked by adependence on a narrow consumer niche, a narrow range of goods and services.  To borrow Nassim Taleb’s terminology, it’s fragile — lacking in options, short on Plan B strategies in the face of a Black Swan disruption. Easily broken. Lose your edge in that competition to Somewhere Else, for whatever reason, and you have nothing to fall back on.  There’s no other ecnomic game in that neighborhood.

 

We already went through this in many cities with the nightlife districts of the 1980s, such as the Flats in Cleveland or the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.  We can see now how that one-note tune doesn’t always age very well.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I love independent shops. Virtually every piece of jewelry I own (If you have met me, you know I have a vicious addiction) has come from an independent shop in some downtown in the US or elsewhere. Almost every painting or print or art glass or piece of ceramics in my house (same disease), plus a good deal of the furniture, same thing.  That dining and shopping for entertainment downtown thing I just disparaged? I do that All.The.Time. Did it this morning. It’s probably my only hobby. It’s the absolute only type of shopping that I will choose do.

 

But….

 

We have been leaning on our ability to grow a larger and larger collection of People Like Me.  And while the boutique economy definitely has a place in downtowns (and a place that’s I personally, selfishly want to have in downtown…)

 

I am getting the uneasy feeling that it’s not enough.

 

Needs versus wants

We have struggled for a couple of generations now with what downtowns mean, why they matter, why they are worth our investment and our attention in an auto-oriented, thousands of shopping options, buy it on the internet world.

 

The cold fact of the matter: while we may like downtown retailers, or restaurants, we don’t need them.  If our favorite coffee shop or craft store or high end shoe retailer closes up, we are not going to starve or go barefoot.  We’ll get what we need or want somewhere else–and if we don’t have that choice downtown, we have lots of other places today where we can meet those same basic needs.  We may not like them as much, relate emotionally as much, but we’re not going to starve or go barefoot.

 

This is the core economic shift, one that started with shopping malls and continues with Amazon, and it’s one that we have not yet fully figured out how to navigate.

 

Traditional downtowns were designed to be the place where we met both wants and basic needs. All those buildings stuck right next to each other grew up because we needed food, and shoes, and lodging, and entertainment, and places to talk with other people. Our great grandparents went downtown not because it was novel or interesting, but because that was where you got the stuff that you needed.  And if the shoe store didn’t have your size, or the dry goods store only carried a kind of soap that made you itch, you were more or less out of luck.  You had few other options.

 

As we discovered that we didn’t need those downtowns anymore — as our cities developed other options for selling people the goods and services that they needed– people had the ability to access new choices And most of them did exactly that.

 

Some of us like to tsk tsk and shake our heads and point our fingers at how foolish and short -sighted those people were, who gave up on their downtowns and moved to those tract houses and shopped in those souless shopping malls. But we can only do so because we weren’t there, or because time fuzzes up our memories. Our great grandparents wanted choices, more choices than they could have in their downtowns, with their one or two options. And especially after living through the privations of the Depression and World War II, with the country suddenly having choices again, we have to admit that we can empathize with how they felt.  And we as consumers have been enjoying ever-increasing choices ever since.

 

If a traditional commercial district’s primary economic niche today, is to provide a diversion, an escape, a mini-vacation for people in a certain segmente of the economy, the place may look good and generate good publicity for the community, and it will certainly generate some jobs and some revenue and some taxes.

 

But because it caters to a subset, and because it’s desirable to that subset but not essential to that subset (or anyone else), the traditional business district that fits that profile runs the risk of finding itself, sooner or later, back in the old fight for relevance that many of them thought they had won in the ‘90s.  When public budgets are shrinking, and demands on the nonprofit sector are exploding, and the very nature of what and how we buy everything from toothpaste to fine art is being subsumed into the Grand Shopping Mall of the World on the Internet…

 

Then making the public policy and state or municipal budget case for a part of the city that dominated by boutiques and interesting restaurants is not going to get any easier.

 

An interesting side element here: tax incentives for historic building rehabilitation and public or nonprofit funding of downtown programs were typically sold to politicians and the public,at least initially, as a way to fill a market gap, a way to get downtowns back to making substantial contributions to the community’s overall economy.  The promise was that filling the gap between what it costs to rehab a building and the value that an anti-downtown market would attach to it would give downtown businesses and building owners a chance to rebuild their piece of the local economy, to find a new economically-viable purpose and get back on their feet.

 

As I’ve written elsewhere, economic development incentives are typically assumed, at least in theory, to serve as a catalyst, a kick-start, a way to get over the initial market roadblocks facing a new idea and get on to fulfilling a place’s market potential. And as I’ll say below, I think there can be legitimate reasons for an incentive or public support to continue in perpetuity.  But the fact that we still need downtown programs, still need investment incentives, could be argued to indicate that we haven’t really made a dent in realizing most downtowns’ market potential.

 

The Economics of the Situation

At its core, the kind of downtown I have been describing has an existence whose purpose is to capture disposable income.  It’s a place where the value that the place offers is dependent on its ability to offer novelty, to provide something that appeals to the consumer’s changing tastes and trends.  It’s a place marked by adependence on a narrow consumer niche, a narrow range of goods and services.  To borrow Nassim Taleb’s terminology, it’s fragile — lacking in options, short on Plan B strategies in the face of a Black Swan disruption. Easily broken. Lose your edge in that competition to Somewhere Else, for whatever reason, and you have nothing to fall back on.  There’s no other ecnomic game in that neighborhood.

 

We already went through this in many cities with the nightlife districts of the 1980s, such as the Flats in Cleveland or the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.  We can see now how that one-note tune doesn’t always age very well.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I love independent shops. Virtually every piece of jewelry I own (If you have met me, you know I have a vicious addiction) has come from an independent shop in some downtown in the US or elsewhere. Almost every painting or print or art glass or piece of ceramics in my house (same disease), plus a good deal of the furniture, same thing.  That dining and shopping for entertainment downtown thing I just disparaged? I do that All.The.Time. Did it this morning. It’s probably my only hobby. It’s the absolute only type of shopping that I will choose do.

 

But….

 

We have been leaning on our ability to grow a larger and larger collection of People Like Me.  And while the boutique economy definitely has a place in downtowns (and a place that’s I personally, selfishly want to have in downtown…)

 

I am getting the uneasy feeling that it’s not enough.

 

Needs versus wants

We have struggled for a couple of generations now with what downtowns mean, why they matter, why they are worth our investment and our attention in an auto-oriented, thousands of shopping options, buy it on the internet world.

 

The cold fact of the matter: while we may like downtown retailers, or restaurants, we don’t need them.  If our favorite coffee shop or craft store or high end shoe retailer closes up, we are not going to starve or go barefoot.  We’ll get what we need or want somewhere else–and if we don’t have that choice downtown, we have lots of other places today where we can meet those same basic needs.  We may not like them as much, relate emotionally as much, but we’re not going to starve or go barefoot.

 

This is the core economic shift, one that started with shopping malls and continues with Amazon, and it’s one that we have not yet fully figured out how to navigate.

 

Traditional downtowns were designed to be the place where we met both wants and basic needs. All those buildings stuck right next to each other grew up because we needed food, and shoes, and lodging, and entertainment, and places to talk with other people. Our great grandparents went downtown not because it was novel or interesting, but because that was where you got the stuff that you needed.  And if the shoe store didn’t have your size, or the dry goods store only carried a kind of soap that made you itch, you were more or less out of luck.  You had few other options.

 

As we discovered that we didn’t need those downtowns anymore — as our cities developed other options for selling people the goods and services that they needed– people had the ability to access new choices And most of them did exactly that.

 

Some of us like to tsk tsk and shake our heads and point our fingers at how foolish and short -sighted those people were, who gave up on their downtowns and moved to those tract houses and shopped in those souless shopping malls. But we can only do so because we weren’t there, or because time fuzzes up our memories. Our great grandparents wanted choices, more choices than they could have in their downtowns, with their one or two options. And especially after living through the privations of the Depression and World War II, with the country suddenly having choices again, we have to admit that we can empathize with how they felt.  And we as consumers have been enjoying ever-increasing choices ever since.

 

If a traditional commercial district’s primary economic niche today, is to provide a diversion, an escape, a mini-vacation for people in a certain segmente of the economy, the place may look good and generate good publicity for the community, and it will certainly generate some jobs and some revenue and some taxes.

 

But because it caters to a subset, and because it’s desirable to that subset but not essential to that subset (or anyone else), the traditional business district that fits that profile runs the risk of finding itself, sooner or later, back in the old fight for relevance that many of them thought they had won in the ‘90s.  When public budgets are shrinking, and demands on the nonprofit sector are exploding, and the very nature of what and how we buy everything from toothpaste to fine art is being subsumed into the Grand Shopping Mall of the World on the Internet…

 

Then making the public policy and state or municipal budget case for a part of the city that dominated by boutiques and interesting restaurants is not going to get any easier.

 

An interesting side element here: tax incentives for historic building rehabilitation and public or nonprofit funding of downtown programs were typically sold to politicians and the public,at least initially, as a way to fill a market gap, a way to get downtowns back to making substantial contributions to the community’s overall economy.  The promise was that filling the gap between what it costs to rehab a building and the value that an anti-downtown market would attach to it would give downtown businesses and building owners a chance to rebuild their piece of the local economy, to find a new economically-viable purpose and get back on their feet.

 

As I’ve written elsewhere, economic development incentives are typically assumed, at least in theory, to serve as a catalyst, a kick-start, a way to get over the initial market roadblocks facing a new idea and get on to fulfilling a place’s market potential. And as I’ll say below, I think there can be legitimate reasons for an incentive or public support to continue in perpetuity.  But the fact that we still need downtown programs, still need investment incentives, could be argued to indicate that we haven’t really made a dent in realizing most downtowns’ market potential.

 

The Future of Old-Fashioned Downtowns: the public policy coal mine canary

This is the second part of…. well, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but something about downtown revitalization.  I posted the first part here, which kind of frames up the problem.  This part talks about what I’ve been seeing more specifically that’s starting to make me think we have a problem.  Your challenges, corrections and insights welcome.

What I’m Seeing: Public Policy as the Coal Mine Canary

 

This is what worries  me:  As I read and scan and talk to downtown colleagues nationwide, I’m seeing cities, both big and small, that fight internally, often over and over again, about whether the increasingly shrinking pot of money for making-the-community-better type projects should go to downtowns, or to other areas, which often claim (and often with a good deal of evidence behind them) that downtown investment only benefits Someone Else. In many cases, that Someone Else is richer, newer and sometimes differently-colored than the neighborhood. And downtown, it appears, is perceived as being mostly of benefit to Them.

 

The other thing I am seeing is that state programs that support downtown organizations, mostly by advising and training them and helping them connect to their peers in other downtowns, seem to find themselves with their heads on the political chopping block with depressing regularity.  Washington State recently became the most recent that I know of to write a draft budget that eliminates their Main Street program, a path that multiple states across the United States have at least taken a good hard look down over the past 15 years.  So this is not a new situation.

 

At the same times, states such as Ohio and North Carolina have looked at cutting, or cut, the tax credits that they have offered for historic preservation. My definitively non-scientific recollection has been that some state or the other has had to fight to maintain these programs pretty much every year for the last decade,or more — despite the fact that they can almost always point to great stories of landmark buildings rescued from being a blot on their communities, and all sorts of facts about jobs created and money invested of the type that politicians and advisors purportedly want to see.

 

(For those of you who are complete insiders on downtown issues, please realize that I’m trying to paint a picture of broad trends without writing War and Peace and losing everyone else. Every place, every fight, every story has its own details. They’re all special. I know that. That’s not my point here. Thanks.)

 

The macro-trend that I think I am picking up looks like this: Many downtowns are more vibrant and more interesting than they used to be, but, to a relatively large proportion of the people who are in charge at the city and larger level, those vibrant downtowns look like a happy piece of fluff: a positive and pleasant thing, but a luxury — a nice thing to have, but not a core need or something that the community cannot live without.  

 

I’m a diehard downtown advocate, but I’m also a practical person. And as I look at many of the downtowns that I encounter in my travels, I think I can understand what they are seeing, even if it’s not the whole story.

 

Too many downtowns, at least to the casual observer, look like entertainment districts for the relatively wealthy.  We’ve allowed a lot of downtowns to develop a one-dimensional, Flat Stanley economy: the place where all the hot new dining concepts land, and the one-of-a-kind homewares can be had, and where people still “shop” for recreation, the way kids of my generation would hang out in the mall and amuse themselves by spending money on sodas and CDs and maybe a pair of sunglasses.  Yes, we’ve helped many downtowns develop as places where people may now live in nice apartments, but the people who choose to live in them tell you that they moved there to be near the restaurants and the bars and the music and the cool little shops. Only later do they start complaining about the lack of stores that sell laundry detergent and paper towels.

 

The thing that concerns me is not that there are places where this exists. I want to shop and eat and live there, too.
What bothers me is that when our communities decide that this is enough.  When we decide that such a limited economic role for a downtown or commercial district is all we need, and when we focus on getting more and more of the same because it looks like it’s working.  We mean well, but when we do that, we are setting ourselves, our boutique owners, our restaurants and our residents up in a weak long-term position.

Building a Small Business Ecosystem in Montana

Two weeks ago I had the great opportunity to do an expanded version of my Small Business/Entrepreneurship ecosystem talk for the Montana Economic Development Association and for a selection of business owners and community leaders from Great Falls, Montana and surrounding communities.  With both groups, I had a chance to not only do the talk, but to also do some hands-on training (using methods oddly similar to those in Crowdfunding Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better…).

When I do sessions like this, the organization usually picks up some local press, but the quality and insight of the reporting that we received from the Great Falls Tribune was head and shoulders above what I’ve come to expect.   Not only did they do this very nice article that included this pretty good summary quote:

It may be tempting to put up some banners and flower pots, design a nifty logo and put window displays in vacant buildings, hoping economic development follows, but Rucker said that is rarely successful.

Instead, local governments can take leadership positions when community members are unable to move the needle on big challenges. Other times, government can be more of a feeder instead of a leader.

The difference is offering support instead of doing things local nonprofits and business owners can do themselves, she said.

barbershop
Marvin Newkirt at The Barbers Chop Shop (Photo: TRIBUNE PHOTO/AMANDA DETERMAN)

But they also accompanied it with this more in-depth article that weaves together some of my comments fron an interview with stories of local small businesses, quotes from other local leadership and statistics from the Small Business Administration.  I especially liked how the reporter, Briana Wipf, pulled this insight out of our interview:

While Rucker was in Great Falls, she heard about existing projects by residents who wanted to see revitalization in the community.

“It clearly demonstrates that this is a place that has a social fabric,” she said.

But even communities that don’t already have that tradition can build a network of individuals and business owners who want to build a town ripe for entrepreneurship.

That won’t happen overnight, but grass-roots movements are better at recognizing “what the best use we can be looks like,” she said.

 

 

 

To Build an Entrepreneurial Community, Listen to the Entrepreneurs – from Tech.Co

While I was at South By Southwest Interactive last week, the tech news and event platform Tech.Co very kindly invited me to come in and do a video interview.  I love Tech.Co and its folks because they do such an excellent job of not only documenting emerging trends in technology nationwide, but of also exploring how technology ecosystems work and how they can be better fostered.

I was particularly impressed with how Tech.Co reporter Ronald Barba pulled the sense and theme of what I’ve been thinking about out of what I said — better than I said it myself:

And, according to her, what they’re finding at EngagingCities is that there’s an overall higher emphasis on communities nowadays; people want to connect across different kinds of industries, across different tech sectors, and want to get involved in many different ways. This has really contributed to a kind of organic growth of several ecosystems.

Policymakers, however, can help push that growth further, and enables people to turn the ecosystems in which they live into their preferred kind of community. These policymakers can’t make that happen, though, when they’re the only ones developing the plans for these new communities. In order for a tech community to fully develop, legislators need to actually listen to the demands of those tech entrepreneurs.

I think good listening and community-building is actually more of a two-way street, and that in a lot of places the most robust tech startup communities are the ones that are also bringing new solutions and new energy to addressing bigger community problems.  But I’m often surprised at the kinds of assumptions we sometimes make about what “those tech people” need to thrive in our community, and how often we don’t get into meaningful conversations with them about how to really catalyze those emerging opportunities.  As I’ve said in the Small Business Ecosystem talk that I do fairly regularly, both parts of the equation need to understand each other — and flexibly lead or feed the ecosystem, based on what it needs and who is available to do it.

You can read the summary article here, and watch the video below:

 

 

 

Look What You Can’t Get Away With Anymore: A Case Study on Economic Development Incentives

But the deal was approved with no opportunity for public vetting, and even now Mason leaders either can’t or won’t answer this key question: How much will new P&G employees net the city in income taxes? Without knowing the answer to that question we don’t know how long it will be before the income offsets the benefits Mason is giving P&G.

Economic packages are the the cost of attracting new development in the current global business climate – but communities must go into them with all of the facts, and it’s not at all clear that Mason did.

–“Questions remain on Mason incentives” From the Editorial Board, Cincinnati Enquirer (http://www.cincinnati.com/story/opinion/editorials/2015/03/19/questions-still-unanswered-incentives/25013003/)

——-

I debated hard about whether to write about this one.

I have two problems:  First, the town in this story is close to where I live, and I know some of the city staff members.  Second, my husband is with P&G.  He has worked at this facility in the past and will probably work there again in the future.  And I will be the first to say, from long personal experience, that this company does a consistently better job of corporate citizenship that almost any multinational company you will encounter.

But.  There’s a crucial cautionary tale here, and it’s one that neither you nor your electeds can afford to ignore.

First, note the level of scrutiny being given to the deal by the newspaper, and coming from no less than its Editorial Board.  From where I sit, an editorial from this historically conservative publication criticizing a local incentive deal is unusual enough.  To give that attention to an incentive deal in a suburban community is even stranger (if you know Greater Cincinnati, you know that Mason is an major suburb, but it’s still a suburb).  Like most old-line newspapers, the Enquirer usually focuses on the center city and pays relatively less attention to the suburbs.  On top of that, this paper has been historically sympathetic to most of Greater Cincinnati’s big businesses, including P&G.

I think it’s an important indicator of how the general public (and press) perception of incentives is changing. Prior to 2008, when this surburb was the hot spot of the fastest-growing county in Ohio, when revenues for places like this seemed destined for long-term growth, I doubt anyone at the Enquirer or anywhere else would have given this deal a whole lot of thought.  Certainly not enough to schedule a phone conference with the editorial staff.  But even though Mason’s overall desirability in the region is still extremely high, a broad zeitgeist of strained budgets and future budget uncertainty has shifted general attention more intensively onto a spot that would have sat largely in the shadows a few years ago.

If a historically conservative masthead is raking a suburban community over the coals for an incentives deal involving one of the region’s favorite corporate citizens, what’s the likelihood that your incentive deal will sneak past your professional media — or the amateur muck-rakers in your town who have much more of an axe to grind and might have fewer professional qualms about laying into you?  Our incentive deals were maybe not newsworthy when we were all flush with money, but now the kleig light has been turned squarely on us.  You might survive the scrutiny, but you’re probably going to take some bullets in the process.

Second, note what happens when the mayor tries to work around the information that he does not have.  Although his points are probably reasonable assumptions with regard to the spin-off impacts from moving a lot of high paying jobs to this facility, he has nothing to go off of except his assumptions.  And not surprisingly, it doesn’t go well.

Developing relatively solid, numerical estimates of the costs and benefits of a deal like this isn’t rocket science. You don’t need an economics professor or a REMI model or a consulting budget that requires a bonding issue.  You can probably do a reasonably good job with a pen and paper and a high school diploma.  In fact, that’s probably a better approach than the usual black box impact study because you and everyone looking at it can understand what you’re doing.  But regardless, you cannot get away anymore with not doing the math.

If this is new territory for you, check out Elaine Harpel’s Smart Incentives for a good grounding and sound policy and process guidance.  You can also take a look here and here for my take on incentives, which is also in the Local Economy Revolution book.

I wish Mason well, and I hope that they can use this as a catalyst to help their bright minds prepare for scrutiny next time.  But this should set off some warning bells for all of you:

Do the math and be prepared to talk about it.  Because you will probably have to.
Oh, and if anyone knows how I can make sure that my husband ends up in an office where his cell phone actually gets reception after he moves there, would you let me know?

Meet and Mentor with EngagingCities Managing Editor (um, that’s me) at SXSWi

I posted this at EngagingCities yesterday.  Right now I have slots available in Austin, so if you’re going, come visit me!

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Are you or someone you know trying to start a civic technology business?  A social enterprise?  Interested in exploring how you might be able to leverage tech to move the needle on big issues? Or just a technology/policy wonk?

Also, are you or they going to South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi)?

If you said yes, join EngagingCities’ Managing Editor Della Rucker for a Mentor Session on Saturday, March 13.  These sessions are informal one-on-one discussions designed to give you a valuable connection and some quick insight on a business or idea you’re working on – no matter what stage you’re at.

Mentor sessions do require RSVPs. and you have to be attending SXSWi.  If you are, you can sign up for Della’s mentoring session here.

If you’re not attending the conference but you will be in town and want to chat, just tag her on Twitter –  @dellarucker.

I’ve done lots of mentoring, but never a SXSW event before.  I’m hoping to meet many of our readers and get to spend some thinking time with you!

Marketing Detroit (and other places): the deeper challenge

As I wrote last week, Andy Levine from DCI asked me and a few other economic development professionals to respond to the “Extreme Makeover: Detroit Marketing” challenge, as a part of a post he was preparing for Forbes.com.  I posted the full piece that I had written, on the expectation that Andy would only use a bit of it, and he used more than I expected. Here’s the piece.

As I used to tell my writing workshop students back in my teaching days, the more concrete you make your writing, the better.  So, of course, the part that ends up in the Forbes article includes the oh-so-pretty picture of covering up a nasty scar with a thick application of makeup.  I think we all know how well that trick works…

To my surprise, the Detroit MetroTimes picked up the article, and said:

We particularly like this quote from Della G. Rucker, principal at Wise Economy Workshop:

“I know an extreme makeover sounds appealing. You spend a lot of money, you get a brand new fantastic look, right? But it is Detroit’s flaws that make Detroit unique. And real. You can’t hide them anyway. So be honest about them. Strive to address and fix them, but own them. Trying to hide them, when everyone and their mother knows they’re there, just makes them all the more obvious. It’s like putting a heavy layer of pancake makeup over a big scar — it might look better from a distance, but when you get close enough to connect, the caked mess says more about you than the actual flaw does.”

That was nice to see.  Thanks, folks.

But as I look at it again, I’m struggling even harder with the basic premise:

Is Detroit “the toughest sell in America,”as Andy said?  Well. maybe, possibly — if you’re talking only about the largest US cities, and you’re talking about marketing that city to everyone, everywhere.  And that’s what he probably meant (Forbes doesn’t want to run War and Peace, after all).

I would argue that Detroit already has a hell of a brand, a whopper of a marketing presence — at least in certain circles, among people who are attuned to what Detroit has to offer.  For crying out loud, I can’t go a week anymore without someone trying to tell me about Shinola, the Detroit-based watch manufacturer that completely bases its own branding on the Detroit Brand.

Now, caveat emptor: I live in the next-door state to Detroit, my husband is a product of the Detroit suburbs, I visit southwest Michigan pretty regularly, and I pay closer attention to Rust Belt and city revitalization and all those kinds of stories than the average joe.  So I might be a little too close to the situation to see what EveryOne Else in the world sees in Detroit.  And that powerful “brand” might be a niche thing, like a Shinola watch, and it might not have enough supporters to support the level of market presence that its population size and its physical scale needs to be sustainable.

But… Detroit most definitely has a brand, an it’s a powerful one.  Detroit right now is this collection of amazing, compelling, incredible stories…some hopeful, some tragic, many unresolved.  All powerful.

It’s a place that, even at the lower level where these stories have been finding their voice, you can see people of all types and of all backgrounds…resonating to it.  Responding to it.  Relating to it.

In a sense, the Detroit Story, writ large, is like a sweeping cinematic experience that pulls you in from the opening scene and then you can’t bring yourself to get up to go to the bathroom or get your popcorn out of the microwave.  Of course, the incredible and often cruel struggles that many Detroit residents face aren’t entertainment, and it’s crucial to the future of the city and the country that their situations improve, by a lot.

Think about the power, the emotional pull, of a place where people are fighting and trying and sometimes failing and rising with determination again.  Consumer goods use all kinds of tactics to tease an emotional response out of us.  For cryin out loud, they use lost puppies to sell beer and teddy bears to sell toilet paper.

Why?  Because we, all of us, make spending decisions based on our emotional response, in addition to logic.  Doesn’t matter what our income level, education level, self-importance level is. Otherwise, all marketing would consist of press releases.

Detroit doesn’t have to manufacture emotional response.  Detroit has it.  In bucketfuls. And I assure you, it’s more intoxicating than any mega-brew.

That’s why I said that a city that faces challenges like those Detroit has needs to own its flaws.  That history, that striving, even the striving among the wreckage, that’s what makes a place real.

We have so many Botoxed cities, pretty spin jobs, places that are desperately trying to invent overnight the kind of real-ness that Detroit and Cleveland and Milwaukee and their neighbors have.  Because they can see that when people only choose you because you’re cheap and you require little effort, they don’t have any reason to build the emotional connection that compels them to make a real investment.  They can see that because they’re living with it now.

So… I don’t think Detroit is a hard sell.  Detroit has pride.  Detroit has determination.  Detroit has a past and a present and a future that are complex, and messy, and unpredictable, and interesting. And it’s a place where a person, a business, would have a fairly decent chance of being part of building something that they can truly care about.  And Cleveland, and Buffalo, and Mansfield, and Elyria, and South Bend, and Rockford… you can pick the flavor that suits you best, but if you want a place you can sink your teeth into, I can show you several dozen.

Marketing, traditionally, was about razzle-dazzling you into thinking Product A was the answer to all your needs. After a hundred years or more of traditional marketing, it’s pretty clear that the bloom is long off that rose.  Marketers of all types are desperately trying to convert from flash to relationship building.  And if you have a relationship with someone or some place, that means that you care about it.

I’d say that for marketing Detroit, and other Rust Belt cities, the time has come.  You have the kind of product to sell that a lot of people are looking for.  So the real task, and the focus of your marketing, is actually pretty simple:

Start spreading the news.

City Botox or Own Your City’s Flaws?

The awesome Andy Levine from DCI asked me to contribute to one of his new regular serioes of articles for Forbes magazine. He asked me and a handful of other people about our recommendations for an Extreme Makeover for Detroit.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not trained as a marketer or a branding wizard, but I’ve spent enough years around the amazing cluster of those bright minds in Cincinnati that I guess I have learned a few things.  And, of course, I have a soft spot for Detroit as a sister Rust Belt city.

But that doesn’t mean I’m in favor of dolling a place up and trying to make it something it’s not

Since I’m assuming that Andy will only use a bit of what I wrote for him, I’ll share the whole thing here.

Hi, Detroit.  I’ve known you for a long time. I’m from the neighborhood.  And I think you’re great. But yes, the last few years — all right, decades — have been tough on you.

I know an Extreme Makeover sounds appealing.  You spend a lot of money, you get a brand new fantastic look, right?  We do that with houses… and people… all the time.  At least on TV.

But we know in our guts that Grandma was right: looks can be deceiving.  And we’ve been burned too many times by cities pulling glossy bait-and-switches. My hometown of Cleveland can tell you all about that. We can all see when it’s fake, now more than ever.

Your flaws make you unique. And real.  And you can’t hide them anyways.  So be honest about them.  Fix them, strive to address them, but own them. Trying to hide them, when everyone and their mother knows they’re there, just makes them all the more obvious.  It’s like putting a heavy layer of pancake makeup over a big scar — it might look better from a distance, but when you get close enough to connect, the caked mess says more about you than the actual flaw does.

The Detroit Homecoming that you all did last year… That was brilliant. The fact that you matter to important people who have made their name somewhere else gives you the kind of endorsement many marketers would commit felonies to get.

That’s meaningful. That’s powerful. That’s real. Do more of it, and publicize it.

Consumer marketing people say, “your brand is your promise.” Effective marketing isn’t about trying to be everything to everyone.  Effective marketing is about finding and connecting with your tribe — with the people who want what you can honestly promise.

The real question isn’t, how surface pretty we can make you or how much City Botox we can inject. The real question is, how do we show the world who you are and what you are striving to be. Because what you need, what we all need, is to be known and understood by the people who can love us.

No more lipstick on the pig: community branding and marketing from smart people (plus, me)

Last week, right as I was marching off into a string of conference gigs, my esteemed friend Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America launched this impressive E-book full of community marketing and branding advice from the brightest names in economic development marketing… and me, for some reason.

Given Ed’s undisputed marketing pedigree and the experience of many of the other folks Ed reached out to for this project, I was glad that I could add to the conversation.  I don’t typically think of myself as a marketing or branding specialist – most of what I know about those topics has come from years working with some of the brightest minds in the consumer marketing and branding world.

But because I work so closely with emerging issues in communities, technology and communication, I had something to contribute, after all.

You should read the whole e-book — and, if you don’t already do so, follow Ed for more excellent information on this topic.

To give you a taste, here’s what I submitted.  But I think the most important thing you can take away from this exploration is that, in parlance I learned from P&G marketing wizards, “your brand is your promise.”  It’s not about a pretty picture, it’s about sharing and communicating what your community is about.  And it has to be honest, now more than ever.

Here’s…uh…me:

—-

Others have talked a lot about authentic-ness, truthfulness, the promise nature of a brand, etc. That’s gospel truth, now more than ever. Branding/marketing of all types has become more about human-ness, real-ness, and relationship, and the demand for that from potential consumers intensifies every year. The more “brands” learn to do that, whether they’re selling shampoo or cars or downtowns, the more the audience that views and judges brands demands that real-ness.

The public’s ability to sniff out what’s fake or dishonest, or just too overly cleaned-up, is increasing at a speed that should leave us all reeling if we think about it.  And the younger the message recipient, the more intense that ability seems to get.

Whatever slight wiggle room we used to have for spinning the story, for putting lipstick on the pig….it’s just about gone.

pig with lipstick
From “2guystalkingmetsbaseball.com.” No idea where they got it.

And that puts an enormous, and potentially impossible, burden on the usual approach of trying to capture the “essence” of a brand in a logo and a color scheme and a tag line. There has to be much, much more substance and meaning behind it — much more than we in this field have usually bothered to develop, and much more than I suspect most communities typically want to invest in.  Until they realize that they have no choice

The other piece of community branding/marketing that is changing is the expectation among “consumers” (not sure that’s the right word in the community branding context) of not just a two-way conversation, but a relationship.

Look at what’s happening with popular music, the way bands and singers and the like not only share more, but interact more, with their audiences. Fans post stuff about their favorites, and more often than not the singer actually responds. Saul Kaplan had a great piece on Medium last month about Taylor Swift and how she has built this incredible fan base though public responses to individual questions/requests- it’s as close to a personal relationship with a few million people as you can get.

I think people who are in branding and brand management for both consumer goods and places probably don’t really understand how high that bar is rising.

The brand management — the ongoing, organic, situation-specific communication, in lots of little pieces over lots of time, is increasingly what seems to separate the successful brands from those that fall flat. We know and say that people respond to people (or at least personable-ness), and that’s both easier, and harder, than designing a logo or a “brand campaign.”

I still think one of the most potentially cutting-edge models of community branding that I have every seen is the Agenda 360 Story project in Cincinnati. Nick Vehr probably knows the inner workings of that better than I do, but I was so struck by the depth, the meaningfulness, the extendability of that initiative — which, as far as I can remember, didn’t involve a graphic design package at all.

Postscript: Ed chose to call out this line in big orange print:

“Whatever slight wiggle room we had for spinning the story, for putting lipstick on the pig….it’s just about gone..”

Thanks, Ed.

Your Help Needed! Help me continue the discussion about Downtown Las Vegas… in Las Vegas!

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m looking hard these days at the Downtown Project in Las Vegas as a potential new model, and certainly a source of some pretty exciting new ideas, about how to revitalize communities.  That initiative has been getting some national press, but I’ve been frustrated with that because most of what’s been written is either simplistic hero worship/hero failure crap, or focused solely on the tech startup component, which is only one small part of the story.  I’ve been spending as much time there as I can, and reading and following along and trying to understand when I’m not, and I’ve had the huge privilege of developing lovely friendships with some of the folks who are part of that landscape.

I’ve written about the Downtown Project here and here and here, and my plan is to do a slim book trying to make sense of that experience in the context of traditional community revitalization.  I gotta get the current book out of my hair first (a whole ‘nother story), but the Downtown Project one is definitely in the works.

But it’s scary to write about a complex, multi-piece thing when you’re not really a part of it, and I know that I could very easily get it wrong.SXSWv2v logo

That’s where you come in.

The folks who stage South By Southwest have a smaller, tech and media-focused event that they host in Las Vegas during the summer, and I have proposed a talk for that conference that would lay out my findings and give me a chance to get better feedback from the people who are living there every day.  The organizers seem to be interested, but part of their selection criteria is based on a popular vote system.  Which means….

I need votes.

You don’t have to plan to go to SXSWv2v in order to vote.  But you do have to do a very simple sign in before you can vote.

Here’s the link: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/44131.  If you are willing to vote, or leave a comment, or share this link to your friends and cronies, I’ll be very grateful.  But you only have until Friday, January 23!

Come to think of it, that’s my birthday.  Your vote would be a pretty nice present.

Thanks.

Don’t Let the Recovery Fool You – A Mark Barbash Special

I’m delighted to be able to run this article from Mark Barbash, one of Ohio’s finest economic development types.  Mark and I have given talks together, run trainings together, staffed projects together and generally agreed with/argued with each other in lots of places over the last few years.  Mark combines an enormous depth of boots-on-the-ground experience with a strong ability to think independently and use that experience to get Good Things Done.

This article appeared briefly at LinkedIn, but through some dark evil magic disappeared from the site a couple of days later.  Who knows why.  But you should read it — and think about it.  A lot.

I’ll try to talk Mark into letting me run his upcoming articles in this series here as well, and I’ll forward any comments you want to leave here.  But you may also want to keep an eye on some of the economic development groups on LinkedIn, including Ohio Economic Development, Economic Gardening, Economic Development Specialists,

Here’s Mark:

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Executive Summary: While most indicators for 2014 are showing a generally recovering economy, millions of working-age American have been left out. This is an opportunity for pig with crutcheseconomic developers to make our work more impactful by adding value to our communities by not just growing jobs, but also growing family income and wealth.

 

The economic report for the end of the year provided encouraging news. About 252,000 jobs were created in December, and the improvement came across a wide range of industries. The national unemployment rate was 5.6%, down from 5.8% a month ago and down from 6.8% a year ago. (1)

But a closer look at the data makes clear that the current economic resurgence is a recovery for only some. And that should concern those of us who work in economic and community development.

Let’s look at several key economic indicators that tell a more nuanced story, and document a disconnect between the headline and the full story.

  • Long Term Unemployment Continues: While overall unemployment is down, there are still 2.8 million people among the long-term unemployed. Older workers and African Americans make up a larger share of this group, who also have a 20-40% harder time finding work.
  • Many People have Dropped Out of the Workforce: Many people who want to work can’t find work, and drop out of the labor market. The Labor Force Participation Rate actually dropped to 62.7% — an historic low.
  • While Productivity is Up, Wages are stagnant: Even if people can find work, because wages are not going up, many families continue to struggle to pay the bills.
  • Poverty Continues to be a Challenge: There are still 41.6 million Americans in poverty, in both rural and urban areas of the country. And 1 in 7 families have used a food bank in the past year, including many working families. (5)(6)

If this were a “normal” economic recovery, we would be seeing improvement in all sectors. But this recovery is not normal. It is very different than any previous recessions because these underlying problems — wages, part-time workers, discouraged workers — are not coming back as the same time.

One of the issues is that at the same time we seem to be coming out of the recession, the economy is going through a major transition, brought on by technology, demographics, risk aversion and globalization.

In short, this means that many people who would otherwise be able to get jobs are not able to do so. And when they do get work, wages are insufficient to really make any earnings progress.

 

What Does This Mean for Economic Developers?

In short, if wages and families do not grow, our communities cannot really grow.

We’ve all been working hard to be at the cutting edge of development (technology based economic development, creative class, economic gardening, global trade).

But when the job growth is not accompanied by wage growth and a reduction in poverty, it’s important that we step back, reevaluate, understand what’s happening in the lives of the people we have chosen to serve, and make sure our programs are responsive.

When I have this discussion with peers in the industry, I generally get two very sincerely held responses: The first: “Community development is not economic development.” And the second: “This should be left to the nonprofit human services and workforce sector.”

“That’s Someone Else’s Job”

The challenge with this response is NOT that there isn’t a need for specialized approaches to community problems. The people who work in human services and CDCs do indeed have important roles. And a community that doesn’t have a strong advocate for job training programs or for alleviating poverty has abandoned many of its citizens.

The real challenge is that by taking this hands-off approach, EDPros are missing opportunities to make our industry more impactful by infusing community value-add principles into our business attraction and retention efforts.

Here’s something to think about:

 

Value-Add Community Development

Building communities means adding value to the lives of its citizens. In my mind, Value-Add Community Development goes beyond just counting jobs. It’s about what makes for a good job that moves families toward a living wage, that enables a community to be economically and ecologically sustainable, and that helps to improve not just the businesses, but the community as a whole.

Many of these changes probably don’t involve turning the ship around (although I do think it’s time for a total reworking of the workforce development system).

It likely means making a course adjustment to keep us going in the right direction, but being more deliberate in linking our goals with our actions.

In several postings in the next weeks, I will take a look at what elected officials, policy makers and economic developers can do and are doing to help close this economic gap.

  • What does community value add mean to you? What are the metrics that show the health of our communities?
  • Do you agree that economic developers are missing the mark and not concentrating on the basics?
  • What “community value add” activities do you see in your community that have a focused effort to support strategies to assist all of our citizens

Notes:

(1) Report issued January 9, covering preliminary employment data through December, 2014.

(2) Al Gore

(3) While I don’t agree with a lot of their agenda, I do give a lot of credit to the work of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit group that focuses on promoting accountability in incentives.

(4) Even the Wall Street Journal has weighed in on this topic, highlighting among their posting “5 Reasons for the Slow Recovery in the Long Term Unemployed” from December, 2014.

(5) US Census Bureau

(6) Hunger in America Report, 2014

(7) Joe Scarborough in Politico points out that “but the .02 percent drop in unemployment was driven more by workers leaving the labor force than by new jobs.”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

markMark Barbash has 30+ years of experience in community and economic development, in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He is Executive Vice President of Finance Fund, a non-profit Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in Columbus, Ohio. Check out Mark’s LinkedIn Profile.

 

Vacancies, Population Decline, and Household Size: now you know!

We here at the Wise Economy Workshop have known for a long time how great Jason Segedy is — his writings

profile picture
The Fabulous Jason, aka @thestile1972. People who wear Joy Division t -shirts can’t _not_ be trusted, right?

here and here and here and here and elsewhere have been some of the best, and often most lyrical, content that we’ve run in the last few years (plus he added a deeply philosophical chapter to Why This Work Matters).   And, finally, word of that is starting to get out even farther.

Here’s what the online magazine Planetizen  just published:

 

Jason Segedy has published a long, brutally frank look at blight and vacant properties, especially at the underappreciated culprit for the woes of so many shrinking cities around the Rust Belt: household decline.

Segedy begins the long article (originally published on Notes from the Underground and later picked up by Rustwire) by asking the question of  “why is widespread vacancy and a glut of abandoned property a relatively recent phenomenon, while population loss is not?”

The proliferation of vacancies and blight during the 21st century is the result of demographic trends taking place over 50 years independently from the planning decisions of many cities. In fact, Segedy suggests we “[forget], for a minute, the usual suspects in urban decline, such as “white flight”, larger suburban houses and yards, highway construction, increasing automobile usage, crime, declining schools, etc.” and focus on demographic trends like rising divorce rates, rising age of first marriage, rising life expectancy, and declining birth rates, which occurred all at the same time.

Here’s how Segedy then sums up the impact of shrinking household: “The role of shrinking household size in urban population loss may be the most under-reported story about urban decline of the entire 20th century.”

And it follows: “Urban population decline in the 20th Century, was, in many ways, an unavoidable demographic reality that could only have been mitigated by rezoning and building at even higher densities – a housing trend that would have been running exactly counter to the prevailing market wisdom at the time.”

 

Full Story: What’s in a Number? Confronting Urban Population Decline

 

Questions and Answers about Online Public Engagement (Part 2: Chat-a-palooza)

Last week I had a great time teaching a webinar with Susan Stuart Clark of Common Ground for the National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD).  We were talking about online strategies for getting people involved in local government planning and decision-making, and we had close to 100 people participation.

During the presentations there was a great chat stream going on the webinar platform where participants were asking questions and even answering each others’ questions — even when I ask the presenter couldn’t do the talk and keep up with them at the same time.   We only had an hour for the session so there were a lot of questions that probably got lost in the wash of participation.  So I went back through them after the webinar and made sure that I had at least given some kind of response to each one.  I initially did this so that NCDD could share it with the participants, but I figured many of you would find it interesting as well.

As most of you know, using online methods to improve how people participate in the life of their community is a major interest of mine.  It’s led me to edit EngagingCities, and it also led to the creation of a web site called the Online Public Engagement Emporium. If you’re interested in using online platforms but don’t know where to start, I might humbly recommend you start there… because I made it to fill the information gap and start to address the confusion and chaos that comes with a whole new field of practice that’s being populated by tech start-ups.  It’s a recipe for energy, and innovation, and a good deal of confusion, and a modest helping of chaos

I’m currently working on a new book about doing better public engagement, both on- and off-line, and I’m also talking with a publisher about doing a book about online public engagement methods specifically.  So if you have burning questions, or issues that you wish someone would address, or other general bright ideas, please let me know.

____

The participants’ chat lines are preceded by >.  Sometimes there’s more than one.  Names are removed to protect the innocent.  My responses are in bold italic type.

 

>I would be curious to know how many individuals on the call actually work with local govt officials. And if they are using online….we are main center in Illinois and there is little that is done electronically.

> It seems like a lot of communities are using online material, including twitter accounts to bring residents into the discussion

>We are not seeing that they are utilizing in decision making.

I’ve seen surveys regarding incidence of use of online tech platforms by local governments, but I can’t think of a methodologically robust survey of local governments asking about barriers – why they’re not.  A lot of us have our own working theories, but I don’t think anyone has been asking that.  Does anyone know of one – or know of an organization that might be talked into it?

 

>Won’t most jurisdictions want to purchase one tool and use it for all purposes?

>I think that in most cases that strategy would be ill-advised. there is no one-size-fits-all tool. some consolidation is natural, so maybe aim for a few select tools to cover your bases (think few-sizes-fit-most).

>I agree… I just know what happens in government

One question I have been asking myself has been whether we need a more sophisticated/robust system for fitting various platforms together.  Right now Granicus has an “app store” that offers a few things like Textizen, and some one-off combinations have been occurring, but it’s not systematic.  Very catch as catch can. 

 

>How do laws regulalting public meetings, such as the requirement of providing advance notice, affect online engagement, especially if it’s live (synchronous)?

I’m not a lawyer or a legal expert, but I am not aware of anyone trying to apply public meeting rules to an asynchronous online engagement.  My suspicion is that those situations are not legally differentiated from a survey.  If it’s live – and I don’t know of many significant live online engagements other than perhaps a tweet-up – I would assume that public meeting notices would apply unless some legal wizard tells you otherwise. At least, that’s the direction I would go for a truly live event. From a practical standpoint, however, I haven’t seen a live platform that I would expect to work very well with a diverse group.  A chat group like this one, dominated by professionals, is chaotic enough. 

 

>Would love to hear some suggestions/strategies on how to connect people, populations and places that are historically disconnected from technology.

>For any particular audience, first check their level of access. technology unevenly distributed, yes, but sometimes in surprising ways. homeless/poor/minority might still be on cell phones, so use of texting could be a good option. starts with research.

Exactly. I didn’t get very deep into this, but SMS (texting) is emerging as probably the most important strategy for reaching deeply disadvantaged populations.  This is a central component of the technology leapfrog that I mentioned that we have seen in Africa (we’ve covered some of that at EngagingCities).  As far as I can tell, many platforms have built platforms that work reasonably well on a mobile device (I think that’s a core need today), but Textizen is the only one I know of that has put significant effort into meaningfully including people who use non-smart phones. SMS is becoming kind of the universal language, in a sense. 

 

>Not to mention, public meetings can be scary!

Amen, sister.  J   We who deal with them all the time forget that.  I always remind myself of how my mother, who would have been 81 this year, would have felt about public meetings.  Scary is the right word for it.

 

>Also, something that I come up against is determining when in-person engagement is best and where digital engagement is the best strategy or more complementary.

This isn’t the definitive word on the topic, but for what it’s worth here’s my rules of thumb:  (1) Online options need to be available as much as possible for the sake of people who can’t do in person meetings, like the homebound or people who cannot speak in public.  (2) Deliberation – rich discussion, idea-sharing, collaborative decision-making—seems at this point to still work best in an in-person setting.  That doesn’t necessarily mean a large group or a town hall – I’m a big fan of cooperative small group activities myself, even with big crowds.  (3)  Online tools are great for sorting, prioritizing, voting – methods that rely on aggregation of individual results.    

 

>We have also had good success with libraries as venue to have small conversations that then let people enter their online input at the library’s computer.  This is why the community partners are essential conduits to help reach people where they are and help make the link to the online input mechanism.

>Don’t forget that almost ALL public libraries offer public access computers.

>But librarians need to be asked about how many people come into the library for the purpose of using the technology…

> Partner with public libraries to reach people who aren’t online

>We’ve had good luck engaging people using kiosks at libraries. We’ve also convinced the library to make the engagement tool the home screen of library computers and in that case we engaged about 13,000 people.

Yes – the only thing I would caution against is using the public library as the default method for reaching a non-computer-owning population. Again, the relative inexpensiveness of smart phones and tablets, and their ease of use, might cut into the need for reliance on a library computer, depending on the task.  And do remember that there is sometimes a time limit on using library computers. 

Like he said, the most important part is partnering – not just with the library, but with the population that you might _assume_ would be likely to use the resources at the library – to make sure your assumptions are actually borne out by reality

 

> Mulitlingual engagement?

>If you don’t have multi-language capcity in-house, consider partnering with other organizations and ask them to host your engagement process on their digital turf.

 

To be honest I haven’t seen many local governments handle this well.  I’m not sure how clearly this part came out in the presentation– there’s been a tendency to rely on Google Translate, but as I’ve learned at EngagingCities, about half the time you end up with total garble. There is no replacement I know of for actual human translation.  Interestingly, your local or regional economic development people might be a good source for translation guidance, as more and more of those sites are working on this.

 

>Conference calls using ordinary phone lines are another “virtual” way to engage, especially if they make use of some of the better call-management technologies out there.

Has anyone seen a local government use a conference call for general public engagement?  I haven’t.

 

>Seconding … that many “hard to reach” communities are online but their technology or platform of choice may not be one that municipalities are familliar with. At City of Toronto, we had good success connecting with graffitti community by building relationships with them on their own message boards. Unlikely they would have participated on a City-built platform

Excellent!  I was really glad to read this!  Marketing people always say that you have to put the message where the audience you want will see it.  Great example of that.

 

>Good ideas/points, folks…thanks. Generally, using multiple engagement methods is how I approach this…what works with who, and how. We’re after a balanced, representative data set…sometimes it takes a LOT of energy and resources to get thatr kind of data so the decision around what to engage the public on is a critical, early decision point. Has anyone experienced public engagement events using a large tech setup using clickers, which would get around the access issue for some.

The clickers have been around for probably 15 years. The problems I see with the clicker technologies are (1) you have to be there in person, which gets back to a lot of the core participation barriers, (2) they are only useful for basically real-time surveying, not for getting any richer feedback or ideation, (3)They can actually backfire on efforts to look “inclusive” because peoples’ only option is the multiple choices given in the survey.  I’ve seen them irritate an audience on occasion, rather than engage them.  Again, it depends on the context, including the level of public interest in the topic and the range of other opportunities to engage more deeply.   

 

>Shouldn’t government demand of its online engagement suppliers to make their technologies talk to each other better? I don’t see so many platforms integrations yet (UK perspective) but maybe this is the sustainable future for the industry and will make the customer choice easier and safer?

I think this is a very interesting point.  There is some early thinking in the online engagement supplier community around this, but frankly a lot are still trying to find their footing.

 

>Our regional transportation entity has been asking the public for their vision for transportation. However, an individual (IP address) is only permitted to respond once, so I couldn’t add second thoughts. Is this a good idea?

>Tracking/restricting participation via IP address is probably not the most elegant way to do this. however, the alternative is proper user registration, which may pose a sligthly higher barrier to entry. trade-offs, trade-offs… 😉 

I agree with Tim on this one – and an IP address restriction would be particularly more problematic because I would suspect that it would eliminate more than one person responding from a public computer, like in the library, or even in a household, where multiple people may use the same laptop.  So I’d definitely push back against anyone who proposed that.  Most of the commercial platforms I am aware of have some sort of login – a username, at the minimum. Obviously if someone really wanted to game the results, they could create multiple usernames, but they could use multiple IP addresses, too. 

 

>Is there a matrix of the different tools and what objectives they help with, such as geography?

I’m trying to work on one.  The Online Public Engagement Emporium was a first step toward getting all that information together.

 

>Oh, significant problem if people are participating/commenting and don’t see that their comments are being read/used…

>Like many things in digital engagement, this may not primarily be a technology issue. it’s first and foremost a planning/design and, ultimately, a culture issue. if you value letting your participants know how their input was used, you will find a way to do so. does not have to be tightly integrated with the same tool you’re using for collecting that input.

Absolutely!  A couple of the platforms actually have that built into them – they basically establish a way for a moderator to identify things like “we’re working on that” “we don’t have that power, but X does,” etc. 

The problem that I have encountered comes back to that capacity issue: responding like that requires that staff take the time to create those responses – and since the staffer responsible for that probably doesn’t have all those answers in his/her head, there’s a research and coordination requirement, which can be very time consuming.  Plus they’re afraid of giving out the wrong information.  I know that MindMixer, for example, pushes hard in its training to encourage administrators to do that, but I know that when I have managed projects I’ve also gotten significant resistance from the local government staff not wanting to. 

>In the evolving landscape of social media, what is ethical? Two attorneys look at the law as it stands and compare it with the AICP Code of Ethics. Explore the ethical considerations for both planners and planning commissioners  at: https://www.planning.org/store/product/?ProductCode=STR_TSME

I have not done this webinar myself, although I have taught AICP Ethics a bunch of times.  Here’s the short version that I always tell my clients: anything said on social media is basically the same as talking to a person who is recording you on video while you are talking.  A choice that would be ethical in that context is probably going to be ethical on social media.  Be transparent, admit what you know and don’t know, disclose any conflicts of interest ASAP.  My guess is that would cover the majority of situations.

 

 The most crucial piece I think is to make sure that people have both online and offlne options. One approach I’d like to see tried more often is to target in -person participation to higher level deliberation and use the online tools to gather the ideation .

 

>Can you say anything about the value of gaming in online civic engagement? I got the idea from World Without Oil…or encourage creative responses

We talked in the webinar about gaming as an incentive to get people to participate on an ongoing basis through points, leaderboards, rewards for participation.  MindMixer has done a particularly good job of that, although I don’t know that anyone has _proven_ that these tactics increased public involvement in the platform or changed the quality/frequency/type of participation.  I think that would be a very interesting study. 

The other piece of gamification that came up briefly are more scenario-navigating “games” that are designed to walk people through information and options in a more accessible manner than giving them a big document to read.  Any of the scenario-evaluating tools, including the budget simulators that a lot of platforms offer, can be considered “games” in this manner. We’ve covered some pretty interesting models in Brazil and eastern Europe that are using gaming strategies.

If people are particularly interested in this topic, I’d recommend two sources to explore.  One is the Emerson Game Lab at Emerson College — http://engagementgamelab.org/.  The other is the United Nations Development Programme, which has been doing interesting work using gaming tools on a whole range of issues.  I’d search http://www.undp.org/ for the term “game,” which will get you a variety of projects if you look through the results.   

 

>ULI uses Legos for urban planning

Just as an FYI, I’ve found that old-fashioned wooden blocks work better than Legos.  People get to the essence of what they’re trying to get across faster and they don’t get as bogged down in whether they need an eight-bump piece or a ten-bumper to finish their masterpiece.  J

 


 

Come see us! Why This Work Matters hits the road

Sorry for the double post, but in case you didn’t see this on the blog for the Why This Work Matters book — wanted to make sure you knew that we’re developing what I think will be an interesting and rewarding way for people to explore their own frustrations about their work in communities — and reconnect with their passion for doing it.  If you’d be interested in doing this in your own community or at your own conference, let me know.

___

I’m thrilled to say that you have two upcoming opportunities to join in the discussion of Why wtwm cover ebookYour Work Matters with your colleagues and some of the authors this fall!

On October 3, I will be moderating a panel at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Planning Conference with Jason Segedy, Mike Hammes and Bill Lutz.  We’ll be talking about the experiences that they shared in the book and their experience managing the demands of working to make communities better on their time and their energy.  Knowing these guys, this will be a no-holds-barred, brutally honest discussion.  To learn more about attending, check out www.oki2014.com

On October 17, Kimberly Miller and I will be leading a discussion at the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association’s Annual Conference.  We’ll be sharing our own insights and selections from the book, but more importantly, we’ll be able to have a discussion of frustration, burn out and determination among all the participants.  I think this will be an amazing experience, and I’m intensely looking forward to aving a deep, free-flowing conversation!   For more information, check out www.txplanning.org/

I’ll also be preparing audio, and maybe video, of the sessions, so if you can’t get to these, stay tuned.

I’m slow but I get there: new presentations and stuff now on Slideshare

Even a tech hound like me gets overloaded with “platforms” sometimes.  I’ve been resisting posting to SlideShare because… I don’t know, because I post a hell of a lot of stuff all over. And I could never get the login right.  And whatever.

 

So, I finally dragged my butt into the new millenium and uploaded several recent presentations to SlideShare.  As you know if you’ve seen me speak, my presentations tend to run to lots of pictures and few words.  So while I think the uploaded presentations will give you a sense of what the session was about, in a lot of cases that by itself isn’t going to lead you to a high level of enlightenment.  The good news is that for a lot of my talks, you can

  • view video,
  • listen to an audio recording,
  • read a summary of the thing that I had previously written on that topic, and (soon)
  • pick up a Wisdom Single that gives a brief but more detailed write-up on that topic.

I’ll try to do a better job of keeping the SlideShare updated.  Really and for true.  In the meantime, if you want to check out a few of my recent presentations, you’ll find a few embeds below.

Have fun!

[slideshare id=38456237&doc=ridingthewaveaug2014-140828102456-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38458043&doc=leadersorfeedersrucker072314-140828111159-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38456083&doc=publicpartic20ncdd082614-140828102108-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38456707&doc=strategicplanningannotatedoedamar2014-140828103631-phpapp01&type=d]

[slideshare id=38456504&doc=economicdevelopmentsjunkfoodignite-140828103118-phpapp01]

Instigatin’: An Informal Agenda for the Next Wave of Economic Development

A few weeks ago, I was invited to throw my hat in the ring  to be considered by the Board of Directors Nominating Committee of the  International Economic Development Council, an organization that I’ve been active in for several years.  I tend to balk at board invitations more than I used to these days, but given my interest in the evolution and future of economic development, I figured it was worth a shot.

But, given everything that I’ve written about my concerns with how we practice economic development over the past few years, I determined that I needed to go into this as transparently as possible — laying my concerns and interests on the table as directly as I could.  The application asked for two essays in response to questions, and I tried to write my responses so that…well, so that they know what they’re getting into with me, I suppose.  🙂  All in favor of truth in advertising.

 

Below are the two essays I submitted.  I’m sharing these with you because (1) I think I ended up with a pretty decent short summary of my take on the issues facing this organization and  the economic development profession, (2) I do seriously think it’s important to be clear about my agenda as long as there’s a chance I will end up on this board, (3) if I’m all wet, I’d like someone to let me know.  Thanks.

_____

  1. What is your interest in serving as a director and your anticipated commitment to the Council?

 

My interest in serving as a director stems from my observations of IEDC’s membership and organization leadership over the past several years.   Between collaborations with committee peers, close coordination with staff and general involvement in the economic development industry through consulting and published writing over the last few years, I have come to a few basic conclusions that led me to decide to take on this obligation:

 

  • The economic development profession, similar to other professions that have responsibility for the future of communities, appears to be facing a significant sea change.  Due to fundamental shifts in macro and local economic factors, an increasing understanding of the interconnection of factors like education, urban design and effective governance, budget pressures and the transformative effects of new communication technologies, the economic development profession as a whole must figure out how to provide meaningful benefits to communities, given these new factors.
  • IEDC is the most visible, most comprehensive and most well-managed organization relating to economic development as a whole. As a result, the needed growth and continued evolution of the economic development profession will need to be led by IEDC.
  • Figuring out how to pivot is hard for any organization, particularly one that has a successful history and members and staff who care about their mission.  As a result, addressing these challenges will require thoughtful and well-considered evaluation of options.

I think that my best benefits to my fellow Directors would be as follows

 

  • Through my work and writing, I have the opportunity to pay very close attention to emerging issues in entrepreneurship, small business, technology, local government management and urban planning.  I maintain close relationships with a very wide range of organizations, from the American Planning Association to emerging tactical economy and Buy Local interests.  I am in a unique position to be able to help Directors and staff identify emerging challenges and opportunities and build partnerships with others who may be addressing the same.
  •  Because of this range of experience, I have learned to think critically about the effectiveness and impact of conventional and new approaches, and have worked with communities in many states to sort through and select appropriate responses to economic issues. This sorting and analyzing skill should be of value to the Directors as they face future decisions.
  • Because I have written so much about my perceptions of economic development issues over the past few years, I am aware of a heightened responsibility to make sure that my statements and actions in real life are consistent with the assertions I have made in public.  For this reason, the Directors can be confident that I will participate actively, probe issues in a direct but sensitive manner, and play an active role in helping the Directors make sound decisions.  I do not have a reputation for being a passive participant.

 

  1. What do you believe are the most important challenges/opportunities facing IEDC today and how do you plan to assist IEDC to address the challenges and/or capitalize on the opportunities?

 

As I noted above, it has been my experience and my conviction that the economic development profession, like most of the other professions that have responsibility for managing the future of communities, is currently facing a strong suit of factors that will require significant change in the approaches and methods that professionals use.  Not making these changes appears from my perspective to risk losing relevance to other professions and approaches that are attempting to address the same fundamental issues that economic development is intended to address.  In many cases, these approaches have had their genesis in frustration over perceived lack of impact resulting from conventional economic development approaches.  As a result, it appears to me that IEDC faces the following opportunities:

  •  Building improved relationships with other community profession organizations, including the APA, Main Street, local goods and services interests and others, will help strengthen IEDC’s ability to access new effective ideas and broaden its organizational reach.  There have been several collaborations of this type that I am aware of, but the opportunity exists for much more effective collaboration.  I can use my broad national and international relationships to help enable that.
  •  I think that the organization is going to need to increase its visibility in the broader universe of community professions.  The relative lack of awareness of IEDC that I have encountered among people doing work that intersects economic development nationwide has been a surprise to me, and it appears that there is a perception that IEDC only addresses a very narrow range of economic development practices that may be increasingly out of step with what other types of community professionals are doing on the ground to impact economic issues.  Again, my relationships with these professionals should help understand and build awareness of IEDC’ potential connections.
  • Because of the above, it appears to me that the IEDC training manuals and the CEcD certification process are due for close evaluation and rebooting.  Between materials that are frequently acknowledged to be out of date and inconsistent training quality (due in part to the disconnect between the materials and practice), significant improvements appear to be necessary to maintain the organization’s relevance, particularly in the face of other organizations that are providing certifications.  Additionally, the very low pass rates that typically follow exam adminstrations, and my own experience grading all parts of the exam, indicate to me that the content and structure of the examinations need to be evaluated.  As an ex-teacher, I’m very aware that a flawed test results in an inaccurate measure of whether a person has learned the necessary content, and my understanding anecdotally has been that frustrating experiences with the CEcD exam may be pushing some potential members away from both the CEcD and IEDC in favor or other professional organizations.  From my perspective, this would appear to be an issue that the organization may need to evaluate to protect its own relevancy, if nothing else.

 

 

Join me and NCDD to talk about the state of online public engagement (free!) August 26

The good folks at the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation are kindly hosting Susan Stuart Clark and I for a free webinar exploring how communities across the world are using online public participation tools to plan better, solve problems better and get people meaningfully engaged in the life of their community.  Here’s the description from NCDD:

An increasing number of local governments are adding different forms of online engagement to their public participation activities. There is a proliferation of tools being offered by different vendors, each trying to establish a unique positioning. Join Della Rucker and Susan Stuart Clark as they review examples of how local governments are using online engagement, the state of the industry, key factors to consider in planning and implementing online engagement – and how online engagement can be used to complement and enhance in-person dialogue.

The session has been designed to allow for plenty of time for Q&A and group discussion. We are especially interested in NCDD member experiences with online engagement and local government. Click here to register.

Want to do some reading ahead of time?

By the way, you do not have to be a dues-paying member of NCDD to participate in our FREE Tech Tuesday learning events — though we greatly appreciate the support! You can join NCDD here or upgrade to a supporting membership here.

 

It’s a fascinating topic and Susan is a dynamo and a half, so this should be just about the most exciting webinar you’ve every encountered (I know, consider the competition…).  Like it says, you don’t have to be an NCDD member, but it’s cheap to join and they do good stuff.  Check them out at ncdd.org.

Hope you’ll join us!

Fall 2014 Speaking/Running Around Update

Just realized that I’m overdue to give you an update on upcoming speaking / tapdancing gigs.  There’s a few that are still floating around, so expect to see some updates in the next few weeks.  Here we go!

 

  • From September 12 to 14, I’ll be hanging with the cool kids at the Strong Towns National Gathering in Minneapolis, helping Strong Towns supporters figure out where they want to go and how they can best make a difference.  I’m pretty excited about the way Strong Towns is growing and evolving, and it will be a blast to get back to Minneapolis proper for the first time in a few years.

 

  • On September 17th, I’ll be teaching two sessions at the Great Placemaker’s Lab event in Columbus. Ohio.  The first one, “Managing the Axe-Grinders,” is an exploration of methods for facilitating more effectiveand fair public meetings (spoiler alert: we do role playing!  You get to be the meeting’s wing nut for a change!).  The second one, “Hack Your City,” focuses on techniques for enabling grassroots civic tech to help communities make better-informed decisions and share the burden.

 

  • On September 21 and 22, I’ll be at the Heritage Ohio Annual conference in Kent, Ohio.  Any speaking I do there will be to help uncover information to guide a client’s project, so I’ll send more targeted information on that when I know more.

 

  • On October 1-3, I’ll be at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional American Planning Association Conference in Lexington, Ohio.  As a result of, I suppose, karma coming back to bite me for something I don’t remember doing, I’ll be givng my best Phil Donohue impression for two sessions.  One in the veeery first time slot, and one in the veeery last.    The first one is with Martin Kim, Jason Segedy and Steve Strains in a tough heart-to-heart about the real-world struggles and victories that come with trying to create a regional land use plan.  This will be the first time Martin and I have had a chance to talk about the Going Places process since it wrapped up in May, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to set that complex and often emotional process within a larger framework.  And all three of those guys rock.

At the end of the conference, I’ll be leading a discussion with three of the contributors to Why This Work Matters, talking honestly about frustration, short-staffing, burnout, and remembering why we do what we do.  This will be the first time we’ve done this kind of a discussion, and it won’t be the last.

 

  • On Friday, October 17, I will be doing a second conversation based on Why This Work Matters with Kimberly Miller at the Texas APA conference in Plano.  That one’s scheduled for late afternoon — more when I know more.

 

If you’re going to be at any of these events, please let me know!  And if you’re looking for a speaker to give your peeps a push on economic development, entrepreneurship, tech or public engagement, just say the word.  Beats heck out of sitting in the office…

 

 

Make your Own Dance and Learn from The Rest of Us: Recommendations for the Congress for the New Urbanism members

“Planning was lost to design for so, so many years.  CNU exists because people who cared about design and loved design realized that they needed to take planning back from the non-designers.”

–Jeff Speck, opening comments at Congress for the New Urbanism annual awards presentation in Buffalo, New York, June 2014.

 

I’m disturbed.  I have been for months.

 

Ever since my first in-person exposure to the Congress for the New Urbanism a couple of months ago.  I heard a lot of things there that worried me.  And that’s very uncomfortable, because a lot of people I like and admire wholeheartedly endorse CNU.   And I’ve been reading CNU stuff for years.  And I agree with all the principles – restore existing urban centers, diverse neighborhoods, multi transit modes, universally accessible spaces, etc. etc.  Sold.  I am a planner and a historic preservation advocate, after all.

But I saw and heard (or didn’t see and hear) a good deal that worried me.  And I would say that this was perhaps none of my business – I’m not a member, after all – except for a few little facts:

 

  1. The important principles embedded in CNU can get lost in the backwash of these other issues,
  2. The ability to actually make the kind of impact everyone in CNU wants appears to be hamstrung by these kinds of issues, and
  3. There’s really good people doing good work who are drawing on CNU for ideas and energy, but in some cases these issues are creating damaging blind spots.

 

There’s been other things written about CNU in the wake of the June event a couple of months ago, and they’ve touched on some of my concerns.  But as we all gear back up for fall, and as organizations that I admire like Strong Towns start to think about how they can make a more meaningful impact, I think it’s time to share these concerns.  And I’ve already taken planners and economic developers to task more than once in my life, so I might as well be an equal opportunity pisser-offer, no?

 

Here’s what I heard (or didn’t hear) that worried me.  To try to capture more clearly how things struck me at the time, I’m going to somewhat randomly insert direct quotes from my own notes that I took during the Congress.  Those are in italics.

 

1. We can solve urban problems through design. 

Yes, I know CNU traces its roots to architects.  Yes, I know architects design stuff.  Yes, I know CNU isn’t the only place where you can find architects who think the answer to all social ills is to design stuff.  And yes, I know that the Charter part of CNU says “We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems.”

 

But if you only allow yourself to use a couple of the tools in the Great Improving Places Toolbox, then every problem looks like the hammer and screwdriver that happen to be the ones you picked up.

 

Which is fine if your goal is to Make Really Cool Stuff With a Hammer and A Screwdriver.

 

But if you’re serious about trying to address the complex issues that urban places face, you have to learn to use more of the tool box.  You have to learn how to use the hammer in combination with the needle nose pliers and the tin snips.

 

From where I sit, this looks like a big part of why CNU supporters and other New Urbanists so often get accused of being elitists – As an example, obsessing over things like bike lanes and overlooking the real life barriers that make bike travel options an arguably minor issue for a large proportion of people who live in a community.

 

To grossly mix metaphors, it’s a tone deafness brought on by a certain tunnel vision.

 

To be fair, urban planners are certainly capable of this, too, and I’ve chewed out economic developers for taking a ridiculously simplistic view of how a local economy works before, as well.

 

Tweet from someone: “go to the best Main Streets. Measure them and feel them. They were built before the automobile.
#NextUrbanism #CNU22”

 

BUT… “The best Main Streets” often don’t look much at all like they did before the automobile.  They’ve all been changed. 

 

The world does not work the way it did when they were built.  There were problems with urban places. There was a reason our grandparents’ generation left when they had the chance.  Have we fully understood and addressed those?  “Bad highways” over simplifies it.

 

What does an architect’s education include?  I don’t think architects and landscape architects (and a lot of physical planners, for that matter) are taught social/cultural history.  Or cultural geography – how places came to be the way they are and how they reflect the history of the people who shaped them.  If you don’t have that kind of long term view, it’s easy to glom on to simplistic assumptions about what people want, mostly based on people who look and sound like you, and try to take that to the bank. 

 

 

2. Hero worship.

 

This is probably as much a factor of the history of the architecture profession as anything else.  There’s a whole different level of gooing and gawing over some Grand Wizard Founder dude (mostly dudes) in the CNU world than in any other professional group I’ve ever encountered.  Yes, I know, I didn’t go to architecture school.

 

Apparently at the time, the whole thing reminded me of the Emperor’s New Clothes fable:

 

The Emperors’ clothes are perhaps not missing, but much more tattered than they and acolytes want to admit.  I have known too many designers whose spent years fixing the Grand Designer’s oversights and errors.

 

I know that the Founders did good stuff.  Like I said, I buy the principles of the Charter.

But hero worship is at odds with critical thinking.  It’s works against any efforts to seriously explore new ideas, to address the question of how to make a meaningful impact on how people live, especially if (as the Charter says) Design is not the Only Answer.  And it creates hubris and blocks collaboration (more on that in a minute).

 

Hunter S. Thompson said one time that he thought America was raising a “generation of dancers” – meaning, a generation of people who couldn’t think for themselves and could only follow a pattern of steps that someone else had laid out for them.  Which is a good way to look graceful, but useless for trying to change anything.

 

There is a growing group of (mostly younger) folks within CNU who are trying to expand the model, address the broader range of issues that block community success more successfully, doing exciting things around building a better understanding of the impact of places on economies and people’s real lives.  But at this moment, it seems like they are barely sticking their toes out of the outlines of the footsteps of the dance. Making a truly meaningful impact on the issues that this contingent says that they want to address requires the willingness to improvise on the dance.  But if you’ve convinced yourself that the dance leader is Fred Astaire, you will have a hard time growing the bravery to do that.

 

Some huge egos floating around here… Lots of quoting each other in familiar tone

 

 

3. Hubris. 

Yes, this kind of goes with the hero worship.  Or maybe it’s an outgrowth of the belief that Design Will Solve All.  Or it’s an architect thing.  Don’t know.  What I do know is that there seems to be a lack of ability to admit that you might be wrong.  You might, possibly, be way wrong.  You never really know.

 

To my ears, CNU has a tendency to a disturbingly close variation on the blind devotion to the Big Plan that led to the damages and excesses of urban renewal.  If you’re a whole lot younger than me, you might have only read about that as a glancing reference in some glossed over college textbook.  If you’re older than me, you may have seen those destructive impacts first hand.

 

What we sometimes forget, and what the allure of the Big Plan cakes over, is that the people who proposed Urban Renewal used the same grand language, the same sweeping gestures, the same gross oversimplification of cause and effect in real human places that paints much of the rhetoric of the New Urbanism today.  In the 1950s, we probably didn’t know that communities were so complicated, so perhaps our predecessors can be forgiven.  But we don’t have that excuse today.

 

 

“The next #CharterAward is seriously long on guts. Notre Dame architecture’s new plan of Chicago
#CNU22” 

Dear God…Looks like that “plan” takes out half the buildings in the Loop!!!  F’ in shit…..

 

They aren’t giving an award for a regional plan this year.  They don’t think any of the proposals were grand or visionary enough.  Really?  Really?? Have you ever _tried_ to make a plan for a region? It’s a lot more complicated than drawing a nice picture….

 

 

4. Us versus Them

 

Maybe this is the biggest problem, or the root of the rest.  I know CNU grew out of a sense of being the outcasts from “conventional” planning, that these were the revolutionaries, the radicals, the New.  But we all know how relevant an aging revolutionary is after a few decades.

 

A lot of people are working on the question of how to make cities better.  They come to the question from all sorts of perspectives – social, economic, cultural, technology, you name it.  They’re working on improving employment opportunities, increasing people’s connection to their neighbors, gathering and making sense of data that might help us better understand how cities actually do work…all things that either find a comfortable home in the Charter or closely resonate to something in it.

Except that CNU doesn’t seem to be working with any of them.

 

At the organizational, thought leader level, does CNU ever ask other people, other perspectives, to join them in defining what these terms mean in _their_ context?  Do they ever try to build bridges between their interests and the other types of people and organizations working on these issues?  

Where is the interface with ICIC?  Brookings? Next City?  With organizations that are trying to address problems of urban disinvestment?

 

If you care so damn much about urban places, why aren’t you taking to them?

 

That us v. them mentality has the ancient benefit of building a “tribe” where believers can feel safe, but we all know that this means closing off outside ideas as well.

 

Why did I just apologize for being a mom and living in a suburb?  Am I implicitly supporting a groupthink?

 

“Surface parking lot villain??”

 

 

I have spent most of my career and most of my written words over the past few years arguing for fundamental changes in how we make decisions that affect the future of communities.  I fight regularly for better information and decision-making methods, more meaningful and broader engagement of the whole range of people who can help find solutions (including plain old residents), and ways to build the connections and resilience of a community by growing a robust and relevant local economy.  I find bits of all of these in the Charter, and in the good work of many people who proudly claim a CNU affiliation.

But there’s a whole lot of work to be done, and sometimes in life our own history and assumptions get in the way of what we deeply want to achieve.  So here’s my challenge to CNU members:

  • Create space for critical re-evaluation.  Improvise on the dance.  Decide for yourselves what’s important and what’s getting in the way.  Don’t accept something just because a Big Name told you so.  That’s how we got the last few sets of Big Mistakes.

 

  • Build relationships with others who are working to make communities better.  Not just design and design-near types. But people who can’t draw a stick figure and are focused on issues like finding jobs for people.  I don’t know what exactly will happen, but I’ll bet you it will make your work, and your community, better.

 

  • Admit what you don’t know.  Actively seek new ideas.  Bring the folks who are exploring small scale, experimental approaches, like Tactical Urbanism, out of the fringes.  Use those as not just Cool Things that We Can Actually Do On Budgets That Don’t Look Like They Did in 2006, but use them as ways to test and learn.  That will require admitting that sometimes an idea that looked great on paper didn’t quite work out in real life.  Because, you know, human communities are messy and we’re still trying to figure out how they work.

 

In a sense, what CNU is facing is all part of the big sea change that all of the community professions and interest groups are going through.  Economic developers are asking themselves why big business recruitment hasn’t worked, historic preservation people are trying to figure out where they fit in a world where hundreds of thousands of old buildings stand vacant, community development people are trying to find ways to help communities do something other than affordable housing, philanthropies are trying to figure out how to make a real difference on the very tough problems that simply giving money to haven’t solved.

We’re in a time of enormous change and upheaval, and upheavals don’t favor the insular, the self-important or the simplistic.

So come on along with the rest of us.  We promise we’ll find plenty of common ground.  The Charter shows us that.  We just all need to live up to it.

The Entrepreneurs and the Local Government People should be friends

I wrote the following recently as a result of an invitation to do a guest post for Krista Whitley’s blog, KeepinUpWithKrista.com.  Krista is the CMO of a firm called Negrico and one of the mavens of the Downtown Project community in Las Vegas, which I wrote about here and here (with more in the hopper).  Krista’s audience is mostly entrepreneurs and small business owners, and ironically, the day I planned to start writing something was the same day I was doing a webinar on how local governments can more effectively support small businesses.  So one thing led to another, and it was pretty interesting to try to turn the explanation of how local government and small business thinking differs inside out from what I was doing later that day.  A little finessing later and I think I have something that makes a reasonable amount of sense.
So I thought you might be interested in seeing how one might explain the framework that community professionals live in to small business people — and if the small business people you encounter seem kind of foreign to you, perhaps this will help you make sense of them to.  And if you think my advice to them should have been different, please let me know!
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I don’t have a lot of entrepreneur peers in my everyday life.  Which is a little weird, because I’ve been either an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur for most of the last 20 years.

That’s also a little weird because I work with local governments and economic development people, and they all want entrepreneurs these days. Furiously.  I’m even teaching a class for local government people about how to better enable entrepreneurs and small businesses in their communities today, which is a topic no one was looking at five or seven years ago.  They’re finally starting to realize that the Magic Giant Employer with a Million Jobs is probably not going to land in their laps any time soon, and they are starting to come around to the idea that their best bets for a healthy local economy come down to you guys, the entrepreneurs and small business and startup types.

And that’s damn hard for a lot of them.  It’s not only a big shift in skill set, but frankly, y’all are… hard to deal with. Hard.To.Deal.With.
Sorry.
Here’s why:
Entrepreneurs and small businesses need a few key things to thrive (well, a ton of things, but here’s a few that are almost universal):
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Speed
  • Focus
  • Efficiency.
Sounds good.  But here’s the way I had to explain the world that you all live in to the local government people, who often wonder why their local small businesses are so hard to deal with:
  • Independence
  • Over Capacity
  • Impatience
  • Myopia
Before you get pissed at me, hear me out.  These are all the other side of the coin from the four items I listed before.
Independence/Self Sufficiency: We all know that an entrepreneur needs to be pretty tough to handle the rejections, the frustrations, the setbacks, etc.  But sometimes we over-estimate our self-sufficiency.  Don’t tell me what to do, I shouldn’t have to live by your rules.  We think we’re cowboys, masters of all we survey, rugged individualists who don’t need nothin’ from no one.  Until, at some point, we do.
Over Capacity:  Entrepreneurs almost always bite off more than they can chew.  Sometimes by choice, sometimes because they’re just like that.  Add things like families or day jobs or houses to maintain or other responsibilities, and you’re dealing with people whose time is massively overloaded.  And that means that we’re not often real patient with “unnecessary” things that get in our way.
Impatience:  What’s our mantra, at least our internal mantra?  Usually, NOWNOWNOWNOW.  Nuff said.
Myopia:  I’m not sure if that’s a normal word for most people.  It is for me because I’ve always been one, not just metaphorically, but in reality.  I’m badly nearsighted (as in don’t look through my glasses, you’ll get a headache type of nearsighted).  But I’m also nearsighted when it comes to my business.  You know where you’re focus has to be if you’re going to make this business thing work.  Things that aren’t impacting my core business…they’re distractions.  They get in the way.  They frustrate me.
All of that is well and good as long as all I have to deal with is myself.  But every once in a while you have to deal with your local permit-giving people, or you want the city to change one of their regulations, or you get contacted by the economic development people who want to help you, but you have a nagging feeling that they have no idea how to actually help you.  What gives?
When you hit that, it might help to take a look through their glasses for a minute.  What does their world look like?  Here’s how I described it to them. And they pretty much agreed.
Responsibility: They have a lot of people to report to.  A lot. Not only bosses and department heads, but city managers, council members, board members, mayors, etc.  Political types.  And in a lot of communities, many of the “bosses” that have the most say over their futures may not have much understanding of the world in which they have to try to get things done.  We have this bad habit in the US of not always electing the most knowledgeable types.  And even when our local government friends do get to work in an environment of well-informed leadership, they also have a deep and serious responsibility to the Public.  Most local government people I know take that responsibility very seriously.  And it’s like having a few thousand kids or pets that you need to look out for.  I have trouble remembering whether I fed my dog sometimes.  Being responsible for the well being of a whole city… yow.
Protecting: A lot of the justification for many of the things local government people do, like zoning and permits, comes legally out of something called “police powers.”  Police powers are given when there’s a need to protect people from the bad choices of other people (like robbery, or attacks, or buildings that are built crappy and fall down on people.) Those local government people are given the responsibility for protecting everyone in town. You may not feel like you need protecting (and you might be right, or you might be myopic, it depends), but it’s still part of their job description, to protect.
Scrutiny: Want to feel like you like under a microscope?  Go to work for a city.  Between your dozens or hundreds of bosses, the conventional media and the fact that everyone they meet is a potential amateur investigative reporter, you’d be looking over your shoulder, too.
Caution: One common theme of all of the above traits is that they all push hard against the idea of taking risks, experimenting, little bets, fail forward… all that stuff that entrepreneurs swim in every day.  When you ask them to give you a waiver, to bend a rule for your really cool project, to support a new program that you heard worked really well three states over, what you’re really asking them to do is take a big risk in about the most risk-adverse environment you can imagine.  They might even know they need to change something, and the person or department you’re talking to might even be more willing to take risks because they know that the old way isn’t working.  But they have to do that within a world that hates risk with a fury.
None of that is to say that you can’t get that variance or build support for that change in the law. None of that is to say that they are stuck in the 1930s, that they’re just a brick wall, that they can’t change.  But it is to say that if you want to get it done, you have to understand how to work with what they have and where they are.
You study a prospective market’s needs and issues before you start trying to sell to them, and you tell them about your product in a way that makes the most sense to the people you’re trying to sell it to.  It’s the same thing here.  To get what you want/need, it makes sense to understand where they are coming from and help them use what you have to offer to change their system.
  • Try to be patient.  They have a specific process that they have to go through, and chances are they don’t have a whole lot of control over that approval process.  And the people that they need to get that approval from (planning commissions, city councils, boards of directors) are usually volunteers who do this in addition to their usual jobs and lives.  Depending on what you need and who volunteered for those boards or commissions or councils, they may be flying by the seat of their pants, too.  Whatever touches them isn’t going to happen instantaneously.  Plus, some of that delay (maybe not all, but at least some) is actually baked into the structure of the process.  There’s limits as to how often they’re allowed to meet and how many weeks of public notice about a meeting have to happen before the even so that it’s legal.  That’s so that the Protecting and Scrutiny and Caution needs can be addressed.   When you have to make a big decision, you might say that you’re going to sleep on it.  Whatever you’re asking is going to make a change that could impact a lot of people, either directly or by changing the rules that future people have to live by.  If you had that Responsibility, and the purpose of your job was to Protect the community from things that could have a negative impact down the road, you’d want to think it over, too.

 

  • Be a partner.  Their rules may prevent them from being overly buddy-buddy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build a professional partnership.  It’s in both of your best interests to succeed, although (like any good partnership), your exact needs may not be in total lockstep.  Make clear that you understand and honor their obligations and that you want to seek mutual benefit.  We sometimes treat government as a service provider, like a gas station or a Wal Mart, but that’s not what a partner does.

 

  • Give them facts.  It’s a lot more effective for a local government person to push their internal system to do something out of the ordinary if they have concrete data to back it up. Give them more data than the zoning process or petition or whatever asks for.  Don’t kill them with an inpenetrable file of factoids — put some of the thought into it that you use in communicating with your customers.  Make the information that they/you need as accessible and digestible as possible.

 

  • Listen.  You listen to customers, and you know that they don’t always immediately tell you their deepest concerns.  Put a couple of layers of responsibility and scrutiny on top of that, and you get the professional but inflexible stance that often makes entrepreneurs complain about “bureaucrats.”  So give your customer development skills a workout.  Listen, really listen — to the facts and the minutiae, and to the underlying issues and priorities to.  Try to understand what drives your local government person — the rules, yes, but also the organization priorities.  The strategic plan. The political realities.  If you can tie your project into their program’s goals, you’ve got a much better chance of getting some flexibility in the process details.
None of that is to say that local governments and economic development agencies and the like do everything right, or that they don’t need to change, and often change massively.  The strange thing about writing this post is that I’m usually the one telling those guys that they need to get it in gear, that they need to learn how to adapt and change more quickly and deal better with fast-moving issues like those that often face small businesses.  I don’t always make friends when I do that.
But like every relationship that matters, it’s a two-way street.  As our businesses get smaller and more flexible, and as our cities get more complex and more intertwined, we all have to realize sooner or later that we’re not cowboys — and that neither our cities nor our businesses can operate as islands.  Like it or not, we depend on each other.
I’ve had the great good fortune to get to know a lot of the folks involved in the Downtown Project in Las Vegas over the past few months (including Kristi!).  And one of the things that has fascinated me about the Downtown Project has been the Container Park.  When I’ve talked to both city staff and Downtown Project staff about that project, I’ve heard the joke that they used to call it “Variance Village.”  In the zoning and building code world, a variance is when the city waives or relaxes a regulatory requirement as a sort of special exception — usually because it would be impossible to meet that standard in this situation (lot’s too narrow, existing buildings etc.) and because it wouldn’t put anyone or anything at risk of getting hurt if they waived that rule in this case.
It took several months longer than someone had planned to get all the approvals in place so that they could start building the Container Park.   I’ve heard a few Downtown Vegas business people (not the people who were directly involved with the project, but sort of the regular residents of the area) attribute that to the stupidity or sluggishness of “government bureaucracy”
The Container Park is built of shipping containers.  The big metal boxes that roll around on the back of trucks and train cars.
Do you know how to build a three-story building out of shipping containers?  I sure don’t.  And given that no one else in the US has done this yet, I would bet there’s not a lot of folks out there who do.
Like pretty much any city in the country, Las Vegas had no experience with building out of shipping containers.  And the rules that had been set us to protect people from having a building collapse on their heads, or getting food poisoning from a restaurant, or any of the other things that we take for granted that other people won’t be able to do to us…. those rules were written for a completely different kind of place.
So what do you do if you want a good thing to happen, but your rules don’t fit and its your job to make sure that the public is Protected?  You work it out.  You figure it out.  Which is what the Downtown Project and the City did.  But of course, that takes time.
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Like it or not, we’re depending on each other.  You’re a huge piece of the economic and the general future of your community.  But you need them and they need you.
And if they give you a hard time, let me know.  I can make some hair curl if I have to.

 

Transforming Our Grey Towns

My friend Jason Segedy once again wrote something on his blog that everyone should read.  Where else will you find urban regional policy, Better Block and C.S. Lewis all in one place?  I didn’t think so.   Both he and I would love to hear your feedback.

Here’s Jason – check our his blog at thestile1972.tumblr.com

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There is a widespread belief that Americans hate cities. I think it is probable that Americans hate city failure, but, from the evidence, we certainly do not hate successful and vital city areas. 

-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

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An abandoned house on York Street, up the street from where my grandparents (both the children of Sicilian immigrants) lived in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. The neighborhood is suffering from increasing blight and abandonment – although hope remains, as a brand-new wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America is slowly breathing new life into portions of it.

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A vacant lot on Vesper Street, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, where my wife’s great-grandparents lived after moving here from West Virginia. Her grandparents lived just down the street.  Both of the houses where they used to live recently became meth labs and had to be torn down.

The Grey Town

In C.S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, an allegorical meditation upon the afterlife, many of the dead are denizens of a shadowy city called the Grey Town, which is either purgatory or hell (depending on how long one chooses to stay there).  The people of the Grey Town are free to leave it any time that they wish, but most, in their state of near-total narcissism, choose to stay.

The Grey Town is a place where (unlike Earth) anyone can get any material possession that they wish (although not of very good quality) simply by imagining it.  Unable to cooperate (or even to coexist) with others, each person finds their neighbors so intolerable that they simply wish themselves a new house, and continually move further and further outward from the town’s center, leaving nothing but abandoned buildings behind.

As each person continues to act in (what they mistakenly think is) their own self-interest, all semblance of community, civic life, social cohesion, and basic human kindness is lost; as the town continues to grow exponentially, ultimately consuming millions and millions of square miles, with an astronomically large central area of abandonment surrounded by a thinly-settled, ever-expanding urban fringe, populated by inhabitants that are increasingly estranged from one another.

What they end up creating is, quite literally, hell – a lonely and hopeless place extending out into infinity, in which each person freely chooses to remain utterly and completely self-centered.  It is a place of self-imprisonment, where the metaphorical door is locked from the inside:

“It seems the deuce of a town,” I volunteered, “and that’s what I can’t understand. The parts of it that I saw were so empty. Was there once a much larger population?”

 ”Not at all,” said my neighbour. “The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbours – and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing.”

“Leaving more and more empty streets?”

“That’s right. And time’s sort of odd here. That place where we caught the bus is thousands of miles from the Civic Centre where all the newcomers arrive from earth. All the people you’ve met were living near the bus stop: but they’d taken centuries – of our time – to get there, by gradual removals.”

“And what about the earlier arrivals? I mean – there must be people who came from earth to your town even longer ago.”

“That’s right. There are. They’ve been moving on and on. Getting further apart. They’re so far off by now that they could never think of coming to the bus stop at all. Astronomical distances. There’s a bit of rising ground near where I live and a chap has a telescope. You can see the lights of the inhabited houses, where those old ones live, millions of miles away. Millions of miles from us and from one another. Every now and then they move further still. That’s one of the disappointments. I thought you’d meet interesting historical characters. But you don’t: they’re too far away.”

“Would they get to the bus stop in time, if they ever set out?”

“Well-theoretically. But it’d be a distance of light-years. And they wouldn’t want to by now…

“Wouldn’t want to?”

“That’s right…

“Then the town will go on spreading indefinitely?” I said.

“That’s right…” 

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

Lewis’s description is powerful, regardless of whether you are the least bit religious, spiritual, or believe in an afterlife – for its power comes from what it says about human nature in the here and now.

His description is sobering:  a town full of people who are so completely self-deluded and estranged from one another, that they think they are acting in their own self-interest, when in fact, they are actually destroying the place that they live, and along with it, any chance that they will ever have for real happiness.

For those of us that live in shrinking cities in the Rust Belt, in regions with negative net-population growth and continued outward expansion that are simultaneously suffering from widespread abandonment, Lewis’s allegory is more than a little bit disturbing in its familiarity.

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A dilapidated house on Carpenter Street, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood

Increasing Abandonment in Northeast Ohio

Brent Larkin of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote two pieces recently, discussing the many problems associated with the ever-increasing spread of blight, vacancy, and abandonment in Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs.

Larkin makes the case that this problem and its antecedents are not limited to the ones that are commonly perceived as only affecting city residents – crime, poverty, hopelessness, inequality, and paying more in taxes for less in services.  He reminds us that the holistic, interconnected nature of our modern world means that everyone in our region is ultimately affected by the abandonment of our urban core areas, in one way or another.

I addressed this same issue recently in a blog post discussing population loss in our region:

What goes on within a given city’s actual municipal boundaries has incredibly important ramifications for its tax base; its employment base; the performance of its schools; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and restaurants; the delivery of public services; and less tangible, but equally important things like its sense of place and its sense of itself.  As cities are abandoned, decline, and become hollowed out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population:  the jobs disappear, the doctor’s offices disappear, the grocery stores disappear – relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible locale.  To pretend as though the economic and social well being of city residents is not directly impacted by population decline is to turn a blind eye to reality itself.

But it is not just city residents that are affected by decline.  The health of the entire region suffers as a result.  The shrinking tax and resource base of City “A”, is not simply counteracted by economic growth in nearby cities “B” and “C”.  In a region anchored by a declining central city surrounded by dozens of separate municipalities, the redundant duplication and proliferation of local government services (education, public safety, public utilities, transportation infrastructure, social services) ends up costing all taxpayers more. 

The worst-case scenario is a shrinking central city and a shrinking region with an overall population decline, coupled with continued central city abandonment and continued outward expansion.  In a region like this, there is not only more costly “stuff” (redundant public services and physical infrastructure) than there needs to be, but there is more “stuff” with ever fewer taxpayers to pay for it.

It’s an issue that is hauntingly familiar to every resident of a shrinking Rust Belt city.  The statistics on abandonment in places like Akron, Toledo, Dayton, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cleveland, Flint, Gary, Youngstown, and Detroit range from the sobering to the horrifying.

As I’ve written before, there are explicable, rational reasons for why these cities are experiencing such high levels of abandonment – although no one seems to be able to agree on precisely what they are.

But I’m not so sure that agreeing on why the abandonment of our core city neighborhoods is occurring is all that important.  Yes, there is a logic (that I cannot argue with) behind the notion that understanding the root causes of the problem is important if we are going to address it.

On the other hand, I would argue that even if we perfectly understood why the problem is occurring (and for the sake of argument, let’s assume that we couldadequately understand such a complex socioeconomic phenomenon), I’m not sure that we would be any further along the path toward actually doing something to change it.

In my experience, the discussion of why our cities are being abandoned is largely a useless distraction, and I continue to believe that those who are the most dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how these problems came about in the first place, also happen to be those that are the least interested in actually doing something to solve the problems.

So what should we do about the decline of our cities and the abandonment of our neighborhoods?

The first step is for people to be aware of the magnitude of our vacant and abandoned property problem in Northeast Ohio.

The term “awareness” is itself, multifaceted.  It entails: a) knowledge of the facts; b) acknowledgement that these facts translate into an actual problem that we should be concerned with; and c) a sense of felt, shared responsibility for doing something to address the problem.

I would argue that (a) is somewhat widespread; (b) is debated by some, with many more people in our region simply living in denial; and c) is still virtually non-existent.

When I say that people lack a sense of felt, shared responsibility for doing something about the problem, I don’t mean that we simply need to throw lots of public money at the problem, or create a bunch of new, intrusive government rules and regulations, or transfer wealth from some communities to other communities.

I mean that citizens from all sectors, and all walks of life, from all over the region need to recognize their shared destiny as one civic community, and work together in myriad ways great and small (most of them yet-to-be-determined, because we don’t feel the collective sense of urgency yet) to solve an incredibly complicated, mutual problem that manifests itself in different ways, in many different places.

A common reaction to the abandonment of our city neighborhoods is the belief that it will somehow correct itself, and goes something like this: “Well, eventually the free-market will assert itself, and people working in the private sector will be able to buy these properties so cheaply that they will swoop in and rebuild the neighborhoods.”

This has happened here and there, to be sure, but it is very much the exception, rather than the rule.  For every gentrifying neighborhood like Ohio City, Tremont, or Highland Square, we have a dozen neighborhoods that are disintegrating before our very eyes.

There are a couple of problems with the theory that the free market will save the day.  For one, the market value of many of these properties is already at (or near) $0, and they can’t get any cheaper.  So it’s not just a matter of dollars and cents.

For another, the abandonment of our cities is largely a consequence of the free-market doing what it does, as it has always done it.

But, it is equally a consequence of short-sighted public policy decisions regarding infrastructure, education, housing, and other social services.

And, of course, we can’t leave out the untold billions of individual choices, great and small, which are incrementally making our cities places that are either becoming better to live in, or becoming worse.

If the free market were solely the answer (and I do believe, incidentally, that it is part of the answer), then the problem would already be solving itself.

But it isn’t.

Clearly, something needs to alter the behavior of the free market.  Just as clearly, our current public policy regimen is not working either, and needs to be altered as well. Ditto for our societal priorities and many of our present-day cultural norms regarding the individual, society, and place.

But how?  And, just as importantly, altered to do what?

Well, that’s a great question.  Because what do we want to see happen in our cities?  What is our vision for what they should look like in the future.

I’m not sure that we have one.

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An abandoned warehouse on Cuyahoga Street in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood

Today’s Reality in Akron

Here in Akron, where I live, the problems of vacant and abandoned property, disinvestment, and depopulation get a little bit worse every day.

It’s an issue that has perhaps been more difficult for those of us living here to see as clearly as those living in other shrinking cities do – for a couple of reasons.

Compared to our neighbors in Cleveland and Youngstown, we have been relatively untouched by the scourge of abandonment and massive disinvestment in our neighborhoods.  Yes, we’ve seen our share of abandoned properties (there are roughly 2,300 right now) and population loss – we’ve lost 31% of our peak population, declining from 290,000 residents in 1960, to 199,000 residents today.

But most of the population decline has been very gradual, and has been relatively dispersed throughout the city.  Even our most distressed neighborhoods are nowhere close to experiencing the scope and scale of the abandonment that is seen across large swaths of Cleveland or Youngstown.

While I personally believe that a lot of this is due to a strong civic leadership culture and a solid history of successful public and private collaborations, some of it is also due to “dumb luck” – historical factors largely beyond our control.

Akron is a newer city than Cleveland and Youngstown.  By the time that Akron began to grow in earnest (around 1910, when the rubber and tire industry exploded), Cleveland was already a very large, established city; and Youngstown was well on its way to becoming one.

Akron was also able to annex many neighborhoods that were developed between 1920 and 1960, while many similar neighborhoods in Greater Cleveland and Youngstown ended up in outlying communities.

In addition to containing a newer stock of housing, Akron had the advantage of being home to not just tens of thousands of blue collar industrial workers, but to the white collar industrial workforce, which numbered in the thousands.

Unlike Youngstown, which contained numerous steel mills that were headquartered elsewhere, Akron was home to the production facilities and headquarters of four Fortune 500 rubber and tire manufacturers (Goodyear, Firestone, B.F. Goodrich, and General Tire).

This fact was incredibly significant for the city’s neighborhoods and for the quality of its housing stock, because the numerous executives, managers, engineers, scientists, and other highly-paid workers all built extremely nice houses within the city limits, especially in the neighborhoods located throughout the northwestern quadrant of the city (not coincidentally, uphill and upwind from the noxious air pollution generated by the rubber and tire plants).

To this day, roughly one-quarter of the City of Akron (primarily in the northwest) is still composed of neighborhoods that meet or exceed the levels of education and wealth found in all but the most affluent suburban communities.

So we’ve had a lot of advantages, and we have managed to weather the abandoned housing storm storm pretty well.

But our time is coming, and the chinks in our armor are appearing. They are easy to spot, especially if you know where to look.

Akron has enjoyed strong, visionary leadership from Mayor Plusquellic for close to 30 years now, and it has paid-off, especially in terms of the city’s economic prospects relative to its Rust Belt peers.  Job retention and economic development have been fairly robust compared to other cities in the region (the retention of the Goodyear corporate headquarters and the Bridgestone/Firestone Technical Center, serving as two recent examples).

The city has also done an admirable job of keeping up with the increasingly vexing problem of vacancy and abandonment, and has been quite proactive when it comes to tearing down abandoned properties.

While all of this is extremely important, I would argue that tearing down abandoned properties is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for creating a strong, healthy, and vibrant community that people want to call home.

So, we’ve done pretty well with job retention and economic development, and we’ve done pretty well at tearing down houses.

But what about keeping people here?  Cities are first-and-foremost a place for people to live – and our population continues to decline.

The 2000s were a wake-up call in that respect.  After losing a fairly modest 6,000 residents in the 1990s, we lost nearly 18,000 residents in the 2000s.

Why?  I think a lot of it has to do with housing supply and demand. There is an over-supply of housing that people do not want, and an under-supply of housing that people do want.

Akron was the fastest growing city in the United States between 1910 and 1920, exploding from a population of 69,000 to 208,000 in that one decade.  This means that a very large proportion of the city’s housing stock, which was built during those boom years, turns 100 years old this decade.

Lots of that old housing is blighted, vacant, or abandoned, and much of it is being torn down right now – and at a much faster rate than new housing is being built.

So, we will continue to lose population unless we figure out how to do more than simply tear houses down – we need to figure out how to rebuild our neighborhoods from the ground up.  It’s simple math: less occupied housing units + less people per household = less people.

No matter how great of a city this is to live in (and it most certainly is), no matter how much we do right (and we do a lot that is) we will inexorably continue to lose population if we don’t learn how to build lots of marketable new housing.

Yes, a city can succeed if it is smaller.  Yes, things like urban gardening, and open space have their place.  But I would argue that for a city our size, with the types of everyday neighborhood amenities that we have come to enjoy and are currently in the process of losing (grocery stores, neighborhood retail, restaurants, doctor’s offices, churches, synagogues, schools, etc.) it is paramount that we figure out how to grow our population again:

Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.

Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape. Detroit is rotting from the inside out. The inside, the old city center, the part closest to the river, is destined to be the urban site of highest value in the future. Although it may never resemble the Detroit of 1960, we have the skills and knowledge to rebuild something of appropriate urban quality there again….

But the USA doesn’t need more architectural fashion statements, moral status posturing, or art stunts. It needs places to live that are worth caring about and compatible with the capital and material resources that we can expect to retain going forward, which are liable to be scarcer than what we’re accustomed to.

I don’t think there’s any question that we have to return to traditional ways of occupying the landscape: walkable cities, towns, and villages, located on waterways and, if we are fortunate, connected by rail lines. These urban places will exist on a much smaller scale than what is familiar to us now, built on a much finer grain. They will have to be connected to farming and food-growing places. A return to human scale will surely lead to a restored regard for artistry in building, since the streetscape will be experienced at walking speed.

-James Howard Kunstler

Our only possible means for growing our population are: 1) increase average household size; 2) rehabilitate/renovate existing housing; and/or 3) build new housing.

Long-term demographic trends tell us that option #1 isn’t going to be happening anywhere in the United States.  As for option #2, however you feel about historic preservation (and that’s a topic for a separate blog post), it is clear that it’s an option that becomes more difficult (and impractical on a large scale) every year, as more structures succumb to the wrecking ball.

That leaves us with option #3.  We need to develop a replicable, scalable model for learning how to rebuild entire neighborhoods (both housing and commercial structures).  I think that Akron has the human capital, and the innovative and collaborative culture to pioneer something that we could transfer to other shrinking cities in the Rust Belt.

But we have to get intentional about it.  It’s not going to happen on its own.  On the ground, here in Akron, I don’t see much awareness of this fact yet.  I think that we still think that things are going to somehow take care of themselves.  We have not yet recognized that the greatest challenge of the 21st Century in this town is going to be to learn how to embark upon an ambitious, comprehensive, coordinated, collaborative effort to rebuild large parts of our city.

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The abandoned corner of Cuyahoga Street and Mustill Street, just up the street from where my Sicilian immigrant great-grandparents lived in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.

Thinking Big, But Doing Small

But when I say “ambitious”, I’m talking about something that is the polar opposite of urban renewal.  It’s not a top-down, big government, command-and-control, out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new approach.

I’m talking about something that is human-scaled, context sensitive, and collaborative – something that requires public, philanthropic, non-profit, and private sector leadership, in partnership with everyday people working together, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time, to rebuild and transform their community.

I’m not sure exactly what that looks like yet.  But I’m starting to get a general idea…

Several weeks ago, I had the distinct privilege to meet Jason Roberts of The Better Block.  The entire premise of Jason’s work is to take one block at a time, start small, and actually do something.  It could be some temporary new bike lanes; it could be some temporary street art, or street furniture; it could be a makeshift coffee shop, or art gallery, or beer garden.  The important thing is to do something new in a neighborhood, let people see it, let people experience it, and, most importantly – let them participate in actually creating it.  People build, borrow, or (as a last resort) buy the materials that they need to transform their block.  The process of working together to build something is even more important than what is physically built, because what is really built are relationships and a sense of community.

At a recent event in Akron, Jason talked about the need (especially in the community-development professions – planning, engineering, economic development, public administration) to learn how to think small, and to implement modest, low-cost improvements that can lead to transformative changes later on.

Instead of simply talking about intangible future plans that will never be realized due to fiscal considerations or bureaucracy, people work together to accomplish small things that they can actually see and touch; and learn to savor that first taste of success, which leads to building the kind of trust and inspiring the type of hope that it takes to transform an entire city.

It’s a simple, but incredibly powerful and profound concept – get people working together on small, but significant and visible projects in their own community, and watch the trust build, see the relationships develop and grow, and watch the hope begin to infect other people throughout the community.

The Better Block concept isn’t a panacea.  But that’s kind of the point – there is no panacea.  We need to start somewhere.  The work of rebuilding our cities begins one person at a time, one block at a time, one street at a time, one neighborhood at a time.  When a grassroots effort like The Better Block is coupled with visionary and innovative leadership from the public sector, the private sector, non-profits, and the philanthropic community, the results can be truly transformative.

I am looking forward to being a part of it here in Akron – and I’ll be sure to keep you posted as it moves forward.

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A potential Better Block location on Jefferson Avenue in Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood.

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A potential Better Block location on Kenmore Boulevard in Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood.

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A potential Better Block location on Aster Avenue in Akron’s Firestone Park neighborhood.

Small Business ecosystems: why, what and how (annotated slides)

When I was looking through my presentations to find the annotated slide deck on online public participation tools that I posted earlier this week, I also found this one on why we need to build small business ecosystems and what those look like (short version: we don’t have a choice, they probably won’t do it by themselves, and we need them to.)

Small business ecosystem annotated

The ecosystem idea and some of the small business issues may sound familiar from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.   And interestingly, I get to expand on this topic even more later this month!

On July 23, I will be teaching a webinar for Lorman Education Services titled:

Leaders or Feeders: What Governments Can Do To Help Grow Small Businesses.  

And since I brought it up (ahem), here’s the description:

Government officials and elected leaders are facing intense pressure to demonstrate job growth, but conventional big business recruitment efforts involve large budget and staff time commitments – and seldom pay off. Governments are increasingly seeing a need to focus economic development efforts on small business growth, but they soon discover that the same methods cannot be applied – that small businesses have very different needs and expectations. This live webinar will help you get inside the mind of a small business owner and understand their assumptions and challenges. We will then examine methods being used by large and small communities across the country to help support small business growth by providing relatively low-cost types of assistance. These “feeder” types of assistance focus on cultivating a robust, highly interconnected small business environment that can catalyze growth faster than conventional methods. We will also examine effective roles that governments can play in actively changing a community’s small business environment through targeted efforts that make the best use of governments’ strengths and capacities.

Sound good? It actually does get better:

If you or any of your colleagues, friends, acquaintances or random strangers sign up for this webinar, you can get it for 50% off the usual price! 

Just use this code at checkout: T8587836

I hope you’ll join me!

Missives from the Front Lines of Community Revitalization: the Las Vegas Downtown Project, Part 1

A few months ago I tried to quietly post some field notes from some time I had spent studying one of the most interesting new models of downtown and community revitalization that I’d encountered anywhere. I figured no one other than a few diehards would see them.

I was wrong about that – but the feedback I received from people in the Downtown Las Vegas community and elsewhere indicated to me that I had at least mostly gotten it right. Which was a relief, because it’s a much more complex, and much more relevant, story than much of the coverage that has run in main stream press has indicated.

The Las Vegas Downtown Project’s story, as it has been told by a small assortment of journalists to date, has been a pretty standard blend of the Rich Guy Throws A Lot Of Money At It story, with a bit of a techno-whiz kid, Next Silicon Something spin on it. You know, to keep it interesting. And of course you also get the classic newcomers-oldtimers squabbles, hipster kids mocked for drinking PBR, etc. etc.

Whoopie.  Unless you want to spend your time on another version of this old chestnut, nothing useful for people who are trying to revitalize their communities.
Of course, I’m not a journalist, despite my impressive cred of having been a stringer for the Bedford Times Register back in the day. Most of my life revolves around trying to figure out how people can help make their communities work better in a changing economy and changing technologies. I write about these issues from that background, because I don’t want to just tell a story, I want to help people find new solutions for their most wicked community problems.
I first started hearing about the Downtown Project probably two years ago. My knowledge of it started as a couple of interesting Twitter feeds and slowly turned into a minor obsession – to the extent that I was probably the only tourist in May 2013 taking photos of the dusty lot surrounded by chain link fence that was slated to become the Container Park. It’s on my Instagram feed, if you don’t believe me.
What I learned, through Twitter and e-newsletters, and later through phone calls and a visit tacked on to a delayed anniversary trip, was that the ground-breaking, transformative and potentially disruptive elements of what the Downtown Project was doing stemmed from something much deeper than a construction project or a pile of money.

In ways that I probably still don’t fully understand, the Downtown Project has been applying the lessons of the new technology-based economy to the social and physical work of revitalizing a community. In a certain sense, it’s the Hacker Ethic making an early foray into the world of special improvement districts and downtown festivals. And into figuring out how to find new economic opportunities for old business districts.

Thus begins an occasional series that represents me trying to make sense of what I have seen and heard in Downtown Las Vegas within the context of the other communities that I have worked with nationwide. Despite the national media’s focus on money and tech wizards, I think there is much here that we can take home to our communities.   And way more useful than those oversized cups on Fremont Street.

Part 1: The Holacracy Hive Hybridization

One of the first things you notice when you start paying close attention to the Downtown Project is that the centralized authority story that the big investments would seem to imply…break down pretty quickly in real life. While there are some centralized functions that are clearly run by a central organization, much of what happens on the ground is simply people doing the things that they think the community as a whole needs.  And doing so with a level of “go get ’em” from the organization’s leadership that implies an unusually high level of trust in relatively random volunteers.

Let me explain through a story that was told to me.

A few months ago, someone had the idea of establishing a dog park on the edge of the area of downtown that’s been experiencing some reinvestment. There’s a lot of vacant lots in this area – Vegas is an auto-era town, and the combination of vacant lots and demolished buildings means that open space, in general, unaesthetically-desirable terms, isn’t lacking.
In most towns, when someone thinks there should be a dog park, they start pushing their local government or downtown organization or some other Institution to do it. They agitate, they cajole, they might persuade.

After much debate, the Institution decides whether or this initiative has Merit, and if the Institution concludes that it does, the Institution puts the Park Projet on its Work Plan or its Capital Improvement Plan. Then Plans are Drawn, Designs are Vetted and Approved, Funds are Formally Allocated and, eventually, the Park gets Built.

Except, of course, when it gets stalled out or delayed or tangled up in complications over the course of all the time it takes to get through all those steps.

Perhaps more uncomfortably, the person who had the idea in the first place has to give up control of their vision, or even the ability to have any direct influence over it, in order to get it done.  Oh, they might get some credit at the ribbon cutting, or they might get invited to sit on the Institution’s board. But chances are, they become a footnote. But they have no real control over how it turns out, or whether it actually addresses the need that they perceived as a result of their life in the community.  They have to hand over complete responsibility for the park to the Institution, and… hope for the best. In most cases, for most people with good ideas and without deep pockets, that’s the only option.

What happened with the Downtown Project Dog Park put a very different twist on the model. From what I understand, the person who first came up with that idea had the responsibility within the local culture to run with the Dog Park concept as far as she could go on her own. She presented her idea to the Downtown Project leadership, but instead of saying,
“Thank you for your input. We will take your idea under consideration and decide what to do with it.”

they said,

“If you think the community needs this, great, go for it. Get as far with it as you can. If you reach a point where you need our help, just let us know.”

Do you see the difference there?

The Institution, in this case, was doing something that some of the more cynical among us might interpret from a distance as a subtle type of brush off. But that’s not it. The reason why the Downtown Project said
great idea, go do it, let us know if we can help,  wasn’t because it was a way to get out of responsibility for dog parks, or because they didn’t have the stomach to say no to her face.

There’s something very different going on here.

The Institution, in this case, assumed that the individual represented not just a squeaky wheel, but a member of the community who had insights into community needs and challenges and friction points that other members of the community, including the leadership, might not be in a position to see. The organization regarded the individual proposing the idea as a sensor, an indicator, a data portal indicating a need for the community that she was, for whatever reason, in a unique place to be able to sense and articulate.

Of course, we all know that individuals can sense wrong. So the response both gave her the power to move her perception of what the community needed forward, and it gave her and the organization the opportunity to further test whether her sensing was correct.  By pursuing her idea, perhaps raising some seed funds, finding a lot, seeing if a property owner would sell or lease for a dog park, identifying what furniture and features this dog park should have, both she and, by extension, the Downtown Project had an opportunity to test out whether this proposal actually did meet an achievable need before getting deeply embedded in designs, real estate negotiations, permits.

And because she knew that her ability to win the support she might ultimately need for the dog park depended on being able to show that the community needed and wanted it, she had an inbuilt motivation to reach out and include the community, After all, it was her own personal reputation, not only with the organization itself, but with the broader community surrounding it, that was in play. The power of reputation within a community – we’ll come back to that again in the future.

Eventually, the person who had sensed the need for the dog park reached a point where she needed funding and organizational support to get the project done. When she went back to the Downtown Project, she did so with the ability to demonstrate community support and with a plan of action.

Note: up until that point, all the organization “gave” her was, essentially, a little reinforcement.  A charge to go and do what she felt was right for the community.  A reassurance that if her idea did turn out to have the support of the community, that the community would support her in making it happen.

Not costly, difficult or dangerous stuff.

Zappos, which is the company where Tony Hseih made the millions that are helping to fund the Downtown Project, got a lot of ink in the national business and technology press a few months ago when they announced that Zappos would move to a holacracy model of management. As might be expected, reporters latched on to the obvious and foreign-sounding parts of the announcement – “No Titles!” “No Job Descriptions!”

Which of course then led to “They’re nuts!” And as usual, that missed the most important parts of the story.

I’m no holacracy expert myself, but when I was trying to understand the seemingly thousands of moving parts and these hive-like relationships associated with the Downtown Project, people I was talking to kept pointing me back to the principles of holocracy. We’re not actually doing a holacracy within Downtown Vegas, they told me. But it will help you understand.

So I read, and even sat through a webinar put on by the consulting firm that sort of formalized the holacracy idea into an actionable process. And while I can’t say that I’m ready to go consult on it myself, I think I get the principle:

In a holacracy, everyone has a role to play in terms of advancing the mission of the organization. You know specifically what your role includes, and what your role does not. Within your area of responsibilities, you are entrusted with the power to go and do what you understand to be needed for the success of the mission, without having to ask permission or play politics or jockey for resources, because you are trusted to be a sensor of where friction or pain points are arising that are impeding the organization’s ability to meet its objectives.  When addressing the issue that you have sensed extends beyond your area of responsibility, you are charged to reach out and engage those of your colleagues who have the other responsibilities that need to be brought to bear to address the issues that were sensed.  You do all of that because you know exactly what your responsibilities to the larger organization include, and your ability to build the collaborations that you need in the future depend on the degree to which you have demonstrated that others can trust you to fulfill your role with integrity.

That’s necessarily oversimplified – the holacracy system itself includes a whole elaborate trusswork of rules and spelled-out procedures and specific processes for resolving conflicts, and people who are embedded in holacracies apparently spend a great deal of time refining the rules of the process.

But the result, at least ideally, is an elimination of many of the reasons why we end up having to defer to authorities and organizations to get things done: lack of trust, uncertainty about responsibilities, and perhaps most importantly, lack of a clear and relatively frictionless way to engage the resources that we need beyond those that we directly control in order to meet the larger mission.

There’s a significant challenge in applying a system based on clear roles and clear missions to a community-driven organization, where even the best-crafted missions probably mean something a little different to everyone (just try getting everyone to exactly agree on what “community” means.  Be my guest.)   Not to mention the fact that we all know that community volunteers don’t always want to play exactly by the established rules.

But I learned about dozens of initiatives similar to the dog park story – situations where regular members of the community sensed a need and felt empowered to go pursue it as far as they could, knowing that if they could get some community traction, the Institution would help them carry it to completion. It’s a partnership, a surprisingly respectful and trusting partnership.

 

In a sense, this essay is attempting to understand the Downtown Project by looking at just one slice of it, which means it’s almost guaranteed to be inaccuate, since there are so many elements that seem to play into its unique perspective and its success to date. So do realize that this is an incomplete picture. I’ll try to unpack additional elements in coming posts.

But I’d be interested to see whether this makes sense to you – and how (or if) you think this model might work in your community.

 

 

 

Economic Development as Junk Food?

A couple of weeks ago, I did an Ignite-style presentation for the International Economic Development Council’s conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was riffing on a theme that Bill Lutz wrote about here about a year ago, and that showed up in the Local Economy Revolution book as well.  The premise I was working from:

Most of us know in our guts what we need to do.  We need to diversify our tool kits for helping our communities, we need to stop acting like our three favorite projects can solve everything, we need to learn from the full range of others who are trying to make communities better and start designing more sophisticated, more flexible, more collaborative strategies for addressing our communities’ real issues.  Just throwing incentives at new businesses that promise a bunch of minimum-wage jobs, or sinking money into a fancy streetscape on the assumption that it will magically fill the storefronts… come on, we know that’s not they way to really make a difference.

We all know that.  But we keep doing it.  Why?

It’s kind of like why we keep eating junk food.  It tastes good!  It makes us happy! Yeah, it probably makes us fat, and maybe lazy, and it doesn’t help anything important, like our community’s health, get better.  But….

I kind of like doing Ignites, because they force me to be concise and push me out of my comfort zone a little bit.  And they don’t require a full lunch hour to watch, like most speeches.

So enjoy. And additional thanks to Cecelia Harry for womaning the video camera for me.

Special offer: Webinar on Local Governments and Small Business

I have the great priviledge of teaching a webinar for Lorman Education Services next month on one of my favorite topics. It’s titled,

Leaders or Feeders: What Governments Can Do To Help Grow Small Businesses

I’ll be teaching this live webinar on July 23, 1:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time. And the good folks at Lorman are offering it to you friends of the Wise Economy Workshop at a special (ridiculous, even) 50% discount. So you don’t wanna miss this.

You can read the description and register with that massive discount at

http://www.lorman.com/392921?discount_code=T8587836&p=13389

And here’s the description:

Government officials and elected leaders are facing intense pressure to demonstrate job growth, but conventional big business recruitment efforts involve large budget and staff time commitments – and seldom pay off. Governments are increasingly seeing a need to focus economic development efforts on small business growth, but they soon discover that the same methods cannot be applied – that small businesses have very different needs and expectations. This live webinar will help you get inside the mind of a small business owner and understand their assumptions and challenges. We will then examine methods being used by large and small communities across the country to help support small business growth by providing relatively low-cost types of assistance. These “feeder” types of assistance focus on cultivating a robust, highly interconnected small business environment that can catalyze growth faster than conventional methods. We will also examine effective roles that governments can play in actively changing a community’s small business environment through targeted efforts that make the best use of governments’ strengths and capacities.

Learning Objectives

– You will be able to identify the different worlds of small businesses and governments.

– You will be able to explain care and feeding of small business growth.

– You will be able to discuss communicating and streamlining.

– You will be able to explain using small business incentives wisely.

 

Feel free to share this to your friends, colleagues, random strangers, whoever. Helping local government people work successfully with their community’s small business gets more important – and more difficult – all the time, and I think this webinar will help them make a bigger and more powerful impact on their communities.

Thanks!

CNU22 and IEDC: A Tale of Two Conferences

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I spent last week at two conferences – the International Economic Developers Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism – where I figured I was the only soul who would schlep from one to the other.  They’re not exactly sides of the aisle that are known for being all buddy – buddy with each other. While I’m a regular at IEDC stuff, this was my first CNU – as I explained yesterday, I was there because a consulting team on which I had served was slated to receive an award.  Good reason to drag yourself from Minneapolis to Buffalo, I figured.  I was wrong about being the only one doing that, though.

Emily J. Brown is a planner and writer who plays a big role in IEDC’s research arm.  She’s also a CNU chapter board member.  So I thought that was she wrote after the two conferences was particularly illuminating — and important for a wider range of people to read.  Even though there’s a big silo in this photograph, I think it’s clear that we all have to get past our silos and start engaging in a meaningful fashion across community disciplines.  If we ever had problems that could be solved by just one of our types working along, we don’t anymore.

The interesting question to me is that I think I am starting to see a few small-scale cross-pollinations between community professions, but mostly we still say “yeah, we need to be working together” while housed safely within out organizations.  If we mean it, how do we start connecting across the disciplines?  Is that something that professional organizations can lead, or does that have to come from somewhere else?  What do you think?

Emily’s post was brief, so I’ll paste it in below.  I’d recommend you follow her at http://www.emilybrowndowntown.com/ or on Twitter at @ebrowndowntown.

Here’s Emily:

In the past week, I have been lucky enough to attend conferences of two of the most influential groups in the planning realm—the International Economic Development Council’s Spring Conference in Minneapolis, MN and the 22nd Congress for New Urbanism in Buffalo, NY. Though two conferences in one week can take a toll, I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to cutting edge thinking on building high-functioning communities from two very different angles.

In planning, there’s always been some tension between the policy folks and the design crowd. Those on the policy side pooh-pooh design, while advocating “real solutions.” In the economic development side these

Presentation at CNU
From Emily Brown

solutions ideally lead to jobs. Designers answer that the policy folks are not thinking holistically and advocate for elegantly framed places that organically attract people, investment, and yes, eventually, more jobs.

As a board member of my local CNU chapter and an employee of IEDC, I’ve got one foot in both worlds, and from where I stand, I see them growing closer together. In Minneapolis, economic developers were talking about the importance of new transit options in attracting and retaining a quality workforce, while in Buffalo, there were multiple sessions discussing the financial aspects of denser development. Often, I feel like the two groups discuss the same problems with different language. Such as when economic developers talk about fostering an “entrepreneurial culture” and new urbanists expound on the virtues of “lean urbanism.”

The last week has proved to me that the overlap in the Venn diagram between new urbanists and the economic developers is large and growing. Of course there are areas that don’t fit in—new urbanists don’t really have much to add to the conversation on engagement with Workforce Investment Boards, for example, and economic developers could care less about articulated windows, but the two groups could benefit from more interaction and conversation as both work towards finding solutions in a new economy.

Resources:

For interesting discussion on financially-solvent economies, economic developers should check out Chuck Marohn’s blog, Strong Towns. They presented at Spring Conference, too!

Also don’t miss Joe Minicozzi’s work on the financial case for mixed-use development: here http://vimeo.com/93081281 and here http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/tag/joe-minicozzi/

Urbanists should check out the work of economic development consultant Della Rucker, who was part of the team working on the Charter Award winning form-based code for Cincinnati:http://wiseeconomy.com/

Also consider following @iedctweets for information on our webinars, blog posts, and newly released papers.

 

 

The Talent challenge for Economic Development types

Steve Fritsch seems to me to understand how economic development organizations need to remake their functioning better than anyone else I know of.  I don’t know why, but he gets the organizational culture, communication, broad-reach problem-solving that looks to me to be starting to define the divide between economic development organizations that thrive and those that are falling apart — losing staff, losing purpose, losing relevance and losing budget.  There’s a lot of calling out this deep challenge in this blog and in the Local Economy Revolution Book, but a lot of that to date has been in the context of the incentives debate.  But what Steve does beautifully is illustrate how the deep foundations of effective organizations work — and by extension, how they hold out the promise of getting us past the used-car-salesman, stick-our-fingers-in-our-ears-and-insist-everything’s-just-fine mode.  I’m often good at pointing out what’s wrong.  Steve’s a good one to listen to for relevant insights into how to build economic development organizations that can do what’s right.

Here’s Steve

Success emerges from any effort by effectively aligning the goals of effort with the skills inventory of the team that will be exerting the effort.  The laws of economics tell me that change in one requires change in the other.

The approaches that an organization takes to goal definition and talent identification can be standalone challenges on their own merits.  An exponential multiplier of the challenge emerges when we try to align goals and skills within the influences and objectives found within the multi-organizational partnership environment.

Getting organizations to simply agree on goals can be a challenge.  That said, it’s much easier to define the goals than to actually set out to achieve them.  You see, that currency called talent is required for the latter.

A few years ago, Forbes published the provocative article “Top Ten Reasons Why Large Companies Fail To Keep Their Best Talent“, indicating that top talent desires passion & mission, bureaucracy & leadership, accountability with empowerment, creativity & innovation, along with an emphasis professional development and a desire to be surrounded by other top talent in their working environments.

From Living Cities, here are characteristics of those foundational traits that make up the “right” way to structure a cross-sector partnership to make collective impact. Contained within these traits are goal clarity, accountability, capability, influence, communications, recalibration and an overall opportunistic rather than obligatory approach to the solutions and behaviors necessary to achieve them.

Yep, there’s appears to be a not-so-hidden relationship between an organization’s ability to excel at its talent retention efforts as well as within its various partnerships with other organizations.

The relationship seems to particularly manifest itself within these areas:

  • Inclusive approaches across all of the organizations to defining goals, then assembling a team that has not only the passion, but also the talent necessary in order to achieve them
  • Cultures of accountability with empowerment and enablement that are driven by communications, sharing and transparency
  • Ongoing willingness to re-evaluate and recalibrate the goals, and continuously develop and refine the team, approaches and resources that will make them successful

(Isn’t it curious that these factors can also be found in numerous articles aboutentrepreneurial success and adaptive leadership techniques?)

So it would appear that talented people are seeking a working environment that aligns with those characteristics found in cross sector collaborations and those cross sector collaborations can only be successful if they find the talent that aligns with those traits necessary for the partnerships to be successful.

On that note, I would also suggest that if an environment is failing in one (talent or real partnership collaboration), then it most likely is failing in the other.

The direction of many non-profits (and the “partnerships” among the many non-profits) has been historically driven by the “usual suspects” list of business leaders of great influence and funders with great resources…names that rarely change, and not necessarily the first names that we think of when we hear “adaptive” or “entrepreneurial”.

Perhaps the great opportunity before the collaborative, non-profit systems of organization is to engage a greater volume of these entrepreneurial and adaptive leadership approaches to the goal definition, talent identification and overall systems design in cross sector collaborations.  Change requires change.   And change is work.

Thanks for sharing.

Shrinking Cities (Back to the Future)

My friend Jason Segedy posted this excellent piece of analysis at thestile1972.tumblr.com/, and I felt that this was probably the best quantitative sum-up of the challenge of post-industrial communities, such as those that make up the Rust Belt.  I don’t know how he found the time to do this, but he pulled together a set of data that is both humbling… and encouraging.  As we’ve said more than once, the challenges our communities are facing didn’t spring up overnight, and it’s ridiculous to think we can solve them overnight, either.  But if you’re taking a long-term view, then there’s a little comfort in the idea that we have time to keep plugging at it.

Here’s Jason:

I’ve seen a lot of lists drawing attention to America’s shrinking cities over the years.  These lists normally show population declines since 1950, or since the city’s year of peak population.

Both of these measures are interesting and useful.  1950 is a good year to look back to, since it represents the first census since the end of World War II.  The end of the war is often looked at as the beginning of the suburban boom:  the interstate highway system, shopping malls, separated commercial and residential land uses, and low-density housing that is not walkable or transit accessible.

Examining a city’s decline since its year of peak population is useful for benchmarking a city against itself, but is slightly less useful for making comparisons to other cities.  In the portions of the Rust Belt centered around the steel and automotive industries, the population decline generally begins around 1950, 1960, or even 1970.

In the portions of the Rust Belt located further east, the decline begins even earlier – generally around 1920 or 1930.

What I haven’t seen a lot of, though, are lists that actually go back this far – to 1920, for example.  1920 is an interesting year to look at, because you don’t find many large U.S. cities that reached their peak population earlier than 1920.  1920 also marks the tail end of the great wave of European immigration.  Most northern cities continued to grow long after 1920, due to high levels of domestic migration, largely from the rural south and from Appalachia.

So, looking back to 1920 cancels out a lot of the statistical “noise” associated with the Great Depression, World War II, and the post-war suburban boom, taking us back to the initial heyday of the industrial era in many Rust Belt cities.

1920 is also a significant date because all of the cities on this list were large enough by then to have developed a substantial urban core with tens or hundreds of thousands of housing units in it.  So, every city on this list has a significant stock of housing that is at least 100 years old.  This means that the cities which have not yet experienced much in the way of gentrification, redevelopment, or neighborhood revitalization (and this is most of them) will be facing increasingly difficult challenges in terms of vacancy, abandonment, and brownfield mitigation.

For many of these cities, it will be a race against time to see whether they can turn around their residential housing markets – either through rehabilitating older properties, or though constructing tens of thousands of marketable new housing units.  If they cannot learn how to do this, there is little reason to believe that their population decline will slow down.  In fact, it could get even worse before it gets better.

So, here is a list of U.S. cities that had at least 100,000 people at some point in their history that are smaller than they were in 1920.  They are ranked by their net change in population between 1920 and 2010.

1) St. Louis, MO – loss of 453,603; 772,897 in 1920; 319,294 in 2010

2) Cleveland, OH – loss of 400,026; 796,841 in 1920; 396,815 in 2010

3) Philadelphia, PA – loss of 297,773; 1,823,779 in 1920; 1,526,006 in 2010

4) Pittsburgh, PA – loss of 282,639; 588,343 in 1920; 305,704 in 2010

5) Detroit, MI – loss of 279,301; 993,078 in 1920; 713,777 in 2010

6) Buffalo, NY – loss of 245,465; 506,775 in 1920; 261,310 in 2010

7) Newark, NJ – loss of 137,384; 414,524 in 1920; 277,140 in 2010

8) Boston, MA – loss of 130,466; 748,060 in 1920; 617,594 in 2010

9) Baltimore, MD – loss of 112,865; 733,826 in 1920; 620,961 in 2010

10) Cincinnati, OH – loss of 104,302; 401,247 in 1920; 296,945 in 2010

11) Rochester, NY – loss of 85,185; 295,750 in 1920; 210,565 in 2010

12) Youngstown, OH – loss of 65,376; 132,358 in 1920; 66,982 in 2010

13) Scranton, PA – loss of 61,694; 137,783 in 1920; 76,089 in 2010

14) Providence, RI – loss of 59,553; 237,595 in 1920; 178,042 in 2010

15) Jersey City, NJ – loss of 50,506; 298,103 in 1920; 247,597 in 2010

16) New Orleans, LA – loss of 43,390; 387,219 in 1920; 343,829 in 2010

17) Wilmington, DE – loss of 39,317; 110,168 in 1920; 70,851 in 2010

18) Camden, NJ – loss of 38,965; 116,309 in 1920; 77,344 in 2010

19) Trenton, NJ – loss of 34,376; 119,289 in 1920; 84,913 in 2010

20) New Haven, CT – loss of 32,758; 162,537 in 1920; 129,779 in 2010

21) Utica, NY – loss of 31,921; 94,156 in 1920; 62,235 in 2010

22) Fall River, MA – loss of 31,628; 120,485 in 1920; 88,857 in 2010

23) Syracuse, NY – loss of 26,547; 171,717 in 1920; 145,170 in 2010

24) New Bedford, MA – loss of 26,145; 121,217 in 1920; 95,072 in 2010

25) Reading, PA – loss of 19,702; 107,784 in 1920; 88,082 in 2010

26) Somerville, MA – loss of 17,337; 93,091 in 1920; 75,754 in 2010

27) Albany, NY – loss of 15,488; 113,344 in 1920; 97,856 in 2010

28) Canton, OH – loss of 14,084; 87,091 in 1920; 73,007 in 2010

29) Hartford, CT – loss of 13,261; 138,036 in 1920; 124,775 in 2010

30) Duluth, MN – loss of 12,652; 98,917 in 1920; 86,265 in 2010

31) Dayton, OH – loss of 11,032; 152,559 in 1920; 141,527 in 2010

32) Akron, OH – loss of 9,325; 208,435 in 1920; 199,110 in 2010

33) Lynn, MA – loss of 8,819; 99,148 in 1920; 90,329 in 2010

34) Lowell, MA – loss of 6,240; 112,759 in 1920; 106,519 in 2010

35) Chicago, IL – loss of 6,107; 2,701,705 in 1920; 2,695,598 in 2010

36) Cambridge, MA – loss of 4,532; 109,694 in 1920; 105,162 in 2010

37) St. Joseph, MO – loss of 1,159; 77,939 in 1920; 76,780 in 2010

38) Niagara Falls, NY – loss of 567; 50,760 in 1920; 50,193 in 2010

There are some surprises on this list.  There are cities that are “shrinking cities” by any possible definition that I expected to see on here, which are not.  There are also cities listed here, which are not generally perceived to be “shrinking cities”.

Some of the cities that are smaller than they were in 1920, really have not lost much population since that time, nor since their peak.  These cities generally peaked-out around 1920 or 1930, and could be categorized as “East Coast Gentrifiers” and include places like Lynn, Lowell, and Cambridge – all located within the suburban orbit of Boston.

Other cities are at the opposite end of the spectrum, and their degree of decline, if anything, is understated by looking solely at this list.  Not only have they lost considerable population since 1920, but they have lost at least half of their population since their peak, which generally didn’t occur until 1950.  These cities could be categorized as “Rust Belt Poster Children” and include places like St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, and Youngstown.

There are other cities that could also be classified as “Rust Belt Poster Children” that do not show up on this list at all, due to the fact that their rapid growth occurred after 1920.  They grew in the immediate pre and post World War II years, and then rapidly declined shortly thereafter. Cities in this category include smaller places like Gary, Flint, and East St. Louis, as well as larger cities like Toledo and Milwaukee.

Several cities, some that show up on this list, and some that do not, have experienced numerically significant population loss, but have either slowed or reversed long-standing declines, and are currently in the process of “gentrifying” and redeveloping many of their historic core neighborhoods.  Cities in this category include places like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis.

As we move further into the 2010s, it will be interesting to see how redevelopment efforts in places like Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C. play out.  Is it a permanent sea change that will dramatically improve the economic prospects for all residents?  Is it something that redevelops much of the core, but ultimately leaves most residents in the dark, leading to more inequality, with poverty moving increasingly to the suburbs?  Or is it just a temporary blip on the radar?

For cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, and Youngstown, where the bottom has virtually fallen out; and for others like Akron, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, whose decline has been more manageable, but are still facing significant challenges, the answer to these questions could prove to be extremely important.

New Book: Why This Work Matters launched!

I am delighted to be able to share a very important and beautiful new book with you — important and beautiful because it comes from people like you. 

Why This Work Matters was envisioned as a way of encouraging people who do the hard work of running and improving our communities.  My goal with this book was to give you a portable, on-demand shot of that encouragement, sympathy, and reinforcement that you might try to get from your professional peers… if you have people around you who understand what you’re facing.  I know that not everyone who does your work has that.  And it’s also a way to start changing the too-common popular perception of government employees, and showcase the dedication and determination that doesn’t show up in the popular press.

In Why This Work Matters, I asked 11 community professionals to reflect on why they keep doing the hard work that they do — and what they think about or call upon when they get frustrated, when they want to give up.  These folks come from all over the United States, they work in everything from local nonprofits to federal agencies, and they do urban planning, community development, government administration, downtown revitalization and a lot of other things.

These reflections are written in some of the most personal, heartfelt voices you have probably ever encountered in writing about work, and the honesty, the power of what they wrote continues to amaze me.  As editor, I did my best to polish up their gems, but the beauty of the raw materials is the real power of this book.

You can learn more about it at WhyThisWorkMattersBook.com.  You can also buy the book for e-reader or print, and you can read selections from the book and link to the authors there as well.

I’m really proud of this book, and I’m really proud of these authors.  Some are experienced bloggers, but for others, this was their first experience in writing anything other than a zoning report.

I think you’ll find them unforgettable.  Kind of like you.

 

 

 

Buildings R Us, and that’s a problem: Incubators and Economic Development

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately in the entrepreneurship/incubator/accelerator space — in part because of some client projects and in part because of some things going on with my own business (more on that sometime soon). And I’m starting to think a bit about the challenges that face local governments and community nonprofits when it comes to trying to facilitate entrepreneurial growth in places that need help.

 

As I’ve watched communities start to venture into that space, it’s becoming clear to me that we need better guidance for communities that decide to take this on.  While entrepreneurial-focused approaches make a hell of a lot more sense for most of the communities I deal with than a heavy focus on recruitment, the path to Startup Nation isn’t an easy skip down a yellow brick road.  Growing entrepreneurship takes strategies that are profoundly different from what we have historically done, and we need to go into this with an acute awareness of being in a new type of environment.

series of chemistry flasks
Not a business incubator, but a yeast incubator. Sometimes we act like it’s the same thing. wikipedia.org

 

This essay actually started out as field notes – an exploration of the issues around a challenging initiative being undertaken by a particular  smallish city, one for which I have a hell of a lot of respect.  This is one of those places where an undersized, overworked, unbelievably determined staff is fighting to overcome decades of the kind of disinvestment and decay that old manufacturing towns know so well.  And while they have made amazing strides in a short time (the coffee shop that I’m writing this in qualifies as one of the small ones), there’s still a long, long road ahead.

 

As part of this little city staff’s determination to Make Things Happen, they recently took over management of a business incubator that has been operating out of an old office building for a couple of decades (The city owns the building, but the incubator is a separate nonprofit).  I’ve known at least one of the staffers for a long time, even mentored him a bit when he was in grad school.

 

And in my usual big sister sort of way, I walked away from a recent tour of the facility with a lot of worries about the future of this initiative, and about these people, who I want to see succeed.

 

Since they’re pushing so hard at such a tough job, I don’t want to say anything that might make the political aspects of their work any harder.  But at the same time, the issues I think they’re going to be facing need to be on their radar — and on the radar of all the hundreds of communities that are starting to turn to incubator/accelerator/entrepreneurship strategies to try to plug the holes in their economic development.  Chances are you know a few of those, as well.

 

Building-based in a virtual world

 

Traditional incubators were developed on the basis of a physical space assumption: small businesses, the logic went, need offices, receptionists, board rooms, kitchens, coffee makers, so on.  And new, small businesses can’t afford that stuff on their own.  So our incubator will hold those pieces in common, and the businesses in the little side offices will use them when they need them. Providing those central spaces is what we need to do to help them succeed.

 

That’s how the incubator that I toured was set up in the early 90s, and that’s how it, basically, continues to work.

 

A lot of other people have written about the shortcomings of this model of business incubation, so it doesn’t make sense for me to belabor that here.  If you’re not familiar with the unaddressed issues and unintended consequences of traditional business incubators, here’s the Cliff Notes version:

  • Maintaining the incubator building typically costs a whole lot more than the real estate expenses associated with the work.
  • The fact that the incubator has to carry a lot of overhead associated with the building means that there’s a lot of pressure on incubator management to keep occupancy rates as high as possible.
  • The pressure to keep occupancy rates high works against what is supposed to be the purpose of the incubator, which is to grow new businesses to the point where they can fledge into other spaces in the city, making room for the next new startup.  Incubators often end up with a lot of little businesses that enjoy the low rent, stay small and never leave.
  • The pressure to keep occupancy rates high also pushes many traditional incubators to accept pretty much any business that wants to go in.  That means that the incubator can end up subsidizing businesses that don’t add much to the economics of the community.

 

(Obligatory caveat: of course, a lot of great businesses have come out of traditional incubators, and lots of lovely businesses that do lots of nice things have ended up as long-term residents of incubators.  Don’t hate me.)

 

The incubator in this community has had a lot of these challenges.  There’s several businesses in it today that haven’t grown and haven’t changed over the years that they’ve been in that building, essentially having their operating expenses subsidized by the nonprofit and the City.  And since the former executive director was apparently evaluated based on the building’s occupancy, there was no reason to get picky about tenants – or set up anything to get them out.  Those tenant businesses have had had a pretty sweet deal.  Don’t blame ‘em for sticking around.

 

My friend, the interim executive director on loan from the City, is trying to change that – target recruitment, make occupancy time-limited and dependent on growth targets, etc.  But of course, that’s all easier said than done, especially when you have that kind of precedent (and a handful of lawyers among the old-line tenants.)

 

The bigger problem I worry about, though, is that the real estate part of the equation hasn’t gone away.  The City stepped in because they own the building… and they pay the utilities.  It’s logical under that arrangement that they will want to get the building’s (paying, even if cheap, still paying) occupancy as high as possible.  This ain’t a town that has money lying around.  They’re pounding on economic development because they need all the jobs and taxes they can get.

 

The problem is that the presence, the overhead, the cost of the building, hasn’t changed.  And the pressure to pay for the building may push the City back into the same situation that the incubator was in before.

 

The other building-related challenge stems from the building itself, and this is also pretty typical of community-based incubators: it’s in an old building that was built for a specific purpose.  In this case, the building was the old City Hall.  But it could just as well be a vacant department store, an old warehouse, and so on.  It’s something that someone was trying to repurpose.  Very common among incubators.

 

I have decent historic preservation cred, and I can say rather adamantly that I would not want this building torn down.  It’s a piece of Early Streamline style awesomeness that features terrazzo floors and murals and gleaming stair railings.

 

But that doesn’t mean that it’s right for an incubator.

 

What’s wrong with it?  The biggest problem that I can see is that the office spaces are just like you would imagine in an old city hall – small, separated, sometimes kind of dark.  The biggest problem is that this configuration isn’t very flexible.

 

I wrote a piece in the Local Economy Revolution book about the new, emerging types of businesses as being “ninja-like” in their flexibility.  Small businesses, start up or no, have a lot of disadvantages compared to big ones, but one of their assets is that they can shift their market, their perspective, their product, a whole lot faster than a big corporation with lots of approval layers.  And in an economy where change isn’t only fast, it’s accelerating, that turns out to be a big asset.

 

But flexibility in market strategy requires flexibility in operations as well.  We might need room for three employees today, 14 next month, five the month after that. We might need space for collaboration, for small private meetings, for private phone calls.  Are we fabricating our prototypes right here where we work, or do we (and can we) subcontract to someone else to make it? (Subcontracting costs money, and startups don’t tend to have a lot extra of that).   The space that a business occupies in the incubator needs to facilitate the work, not get in the way – small businesses like these operate so close to the bone that they can’t afford space inefficiency.

 

Old city hall offices aren’t exactly built for this kind of flex.  They have big heavy walls, thick doors, lots of the same size spaces.  Thinking about the startups I know working out of accelerators and co-working spaces across the country, I had a hard time picturing them operating out of these spaces.  The city has decided to target specific green industries in the space, and given the community’s unique assets, that appears to be the right match.  But for many small businesses, the spaces available in this building may fit pretty awkwardly with how and what they need to be doing.

 

The other problem with an old office building as a start-up space: old office buildings were designed for privacy, but start-ups need connection.  Brad Feld has talked about the need to build an entrepreneurship ecosystem; Tony Hsieh talks in terms of facilitating collisions.  Both are identifying the same fundamental need: startups that are trying to create something innovative desperately need to find fuel for that innovation outside of their own company.  Big businesses do this too – Fortune 500s do a lot of their innovating by buying smaller companies or licensing products invented by someone else – but a startup has to find new ideas, new products, new solutions, through its own network.  As I have noted in the writing that I have done about the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, the power of collisions is so important that the Downtown Project puts an enormous amount of thought and effort into creating ways for people to collide around new ideas. And I’ve written about places like Annapolis, Maryland, where the economic development agency holds a regular series of events designed to create opportunities for those kinds of collisions.

 

It’s hard to collide in a bunch of small offices separated by dim hallways.

 

None of this is to say that this city and this incubator cannot thrive and incubate great businesses that catalyze a new economy, like they are envisioning.  But it does mean that the limitations of the physical spaces will have to be addressed – both in terms of operations, and in terms of funding.

 

First, it’s going to be very important for this incubator to get picky.  They’ve started doing that with the decision to shift away from a host-anyone approach to a targeting based on a few industries where they already have community assets.  But they’re also going to have to spend some time with prospective businesses making sure that they understand how that business is going to operate – what their work processes will look like, how they will handle prototyping, etc.  And with true startups, they might have to help the businesses figure these things out themselves.  Not all startups are going to be able to succeed in this space – some may need much more of a workshop or an open plan or a micro-space (a lot of the newest accelerator spaces don’t provide much more than a work table).  It might make sense to figure out a Plan B for businesses that the city wants to support, but that can’t operate well in the confines of this particular building.
Second, the building won’t help collisions happen too readily, so they are going to have to put some thought into how to help generate opportunities for collisions. They’re planning on offering business classes in conjunction with the local Small Business Development Center, but this kind of basic training isn’t a collision-generator.  And collisions are not the same as the dreaded networking, either.

 

Enabling the kind of collisions that allow the tenants and potential tenants to see the value of being in this incubator will require a suite of events that get people thinking and talking around big, and new, ideas.  There’s a tendency to assume that technology-enabled businesses don’t need that face-to-face anymore, but connection and thought-fuelling events play a central role in every entrepreneurship ecosystem I know of (for a couple of good examples, check out the StartUp Grind and 1 Million Cups programs in cities nationwide).

 

Finally, the city and the nonprofit are going to have to come to terms with the fact that an incubator, even one with a full house, only addresses a tiny fraction of the entrepreneurship that a community like this one needs. It takes a lot of startups to make a change in a local economy – a lot will die or move, others won’t grow much.  An incubator alone isn’t going to move the needle – and since one of the driving motivations in starting a lot of incubators is to find a use for that big ol’ expensive building, it can become far too easy to focus on building operations and management.

 

To make a real difference, though, an incubator has to have an impact far beyond the businesses within its walls – it has to become the hub, the center of activity, for businesses across the city.  Every business that is trying to innovate, trying to grow, needs information, ideas, and those collisions.  An incubator that actually makes a difference has to reach well beyond its own walls and connect to the entire entrepreneur community.

 

I don’t know what is going to happen with the incubator that I’ve described here.  I hope that my colleagues there learn from their incubator’s history and address these challenges before they become a problem.  But we are, all of us as communities, at the very beginning of learning how to grow entrepreneurs.  We’ll all make lots more mistakes, but hopefully we can all learn together.

 

 

 

 

Who cares? Not Everyone: the wicked challenges and vicious necessity of fixing regional development

I have been meaning to share this essay from my friend Jason Segedy, in part because it’s so insightful and beautiful, and in part because…. you get Metric, Death Cab for Cutie and geospatial cultural analysis in the same essay.  You cannot ask for more than that.  You just can’t.

Jason explains, better than almost anyone I can think of, the deadly challenges and the very difficult social psychology that blocks the two sides of the “sprawl” debate, and has left us ineffective at actually addressing these issues from any ideological angle.  Jason’s role as head of a regional planning agency, and as a leader in development of an incredibly ambitious 12-county planning framework, means that he knows of which he writes.

And in between his erudite quotes, he gives us the facts behind eye-opening assertions such as this:

People know that our core cities are losing population, but not many people understand the sheer magnitude of the decline.  Collectively, since their peak, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Youngstown have lost more people than they have today.

It doesn’t take an expert in finance or public administration to imagine what collectively losing 750,000 people has done to these cities’ tax base, housing stock, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure.  We have a core city infrastructure built to support 1.5 million people that, today, serves less than half of that amount….

The problems of blight, vacancy, and abandonment have spread to the inner ring suburbs, as well.  In East Cleveland today, one in five houses sits abandoned….

Urban decline, as such, is not the historical anomaly to which I am referring.  Cities have grown and declined throughout human history, sometimes due to economic conditions, and sometimes due to things that are even more unpleasant:  natural disasters, disease, and war.  People died, were displaced, or moved away, and the city shrank accordingly.

What people haven’t historically done, though, is to rebuild a new version of the city right next door to the old one, expected both of them to carry on as they always had, as if nothing fundamental had changed, and had taxpayers at all levels of government foot the bill.  That’s the historical anomaly.

It is at this point that people typically seek to avoid this uncomfortable truth, and prefer to preempt the discussion of what to do about it, by instead dwelling on why they think that all of this has happened….

Both a racist and a civil rights advocate, for example, can explain what “went wrong with our cities” entirely in terms of race.  And the more that someone is uninterested in actually trying to address the problems of our cities, the more likely they are to be dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how the problems happened in the first place.  But this is irrelevant now…

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

-Elie Wiesel

 

This essay is about Northeast Ohio, but there’s lessons in it for every community and region that experienced urban flight.  Or lost businesses.  Or lost industries.  Or has residents who are so isolated from each other that they have no idea why Those People keep whining and don’t get with the program.

Or for those regions and communities that don’t think sprawl is a real risk to their fundamental economic survival.  Or who think the Rust Belt experience will never happen to them.

I think that covers pretty much all of us.

You can read more from Jason at thestile1972.tumblr.com.  And you should.

Here’s Jason.

_____


Where a gothic spire raked her nail across a concrete sky
Where onion domes from Slavic homes grew round a vale of fire
Where Irishmen from tenements kept the furnace burning white
Where the rod and staff that smote the fascists rolled off of the line

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

One day, several years ago, a friend and I were driving across the west side of Cleveland on a beautiful Sunday morning.

As we drove along I-90, somewhere between West Boulevard and W. 44th St, I was admiring the beautiful Gothic and Romanesque architecture of the numerous churches that you can see from the side of the road.  I thought about all of the generations of immigrants that had built, and then cherished, those places, finding in them solace and a sense of community.

I looked at the hundreds of modest wooden-frame houses with front porches, in varying states of repair, clustered tightly together around the churches.  This neighborhood had seen slightly better days, but, all-in-all, to my mind, the image formed an idyllic, and somewhat winsome, tableau.

I remember thinking to myself, “You know, with a little bit of tender-loving-care, these neighborhoods could really be something special.  All of the components of a great place are here, even if it needs to be polished up a bit.”

Suddenly, my friend turned to me and said, “What a shithole!  Who the hell would ever want to live here?  I wouldn’t live here if you paid me a million dollars.”

Que sera, sera.

The Gathering Storm

All the way from where we came
Built a mansion in a day
Distant lightning, thunder claps
Watched our neighbor’s house collapse
Looked the other way

-MetricSpeed the Collapse

Most of us have driven through a formerly thriving city neighborhood, and have seen the abandoned buildings, the vacant lots, the potholed streets, and the decrepit infrastructure.

Some of us have reflected a bit further upon this explicit physical decay, and have begun to grasp and wrestle with the implicit inequality that is, in part, both its cause and effect.

But the decline and fall of our urban neighborhoods is a devilishly vexing issue, even for the most passionate urban advocates among us.

For every person, like me (and like many of you) that loves our aging cities, and is profoundly concerned about their welfare, there is another person like my friend, that views our cities with indifference, at best; and outright hostility, at worst.

Issues of perception aside, we in Northeast Ohio are dealing with some hellishly difficult issues today.  Our 12-county region has lost seven percent of its population since 1970, falling from 4.1 million to 3.8 million people.

But instead of shrinking our footprint, we’ve done the exact opposite.  The region developed an additional 250 square miles of land (over three times the land area of the City of Cleveland) between 1979 and 2006 – a 21% expansion.

Meanwhile, our four core cities continue to deteriorate and hollow-out.

image

People know that our core cities are losing population, but not many people understand the sheer magnitude of the decline.  Collectively, since their peak, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Youngstown have lost more people than they have today.

These four cities, which, in 1950, all ranked among the 100 largest in America, are today, added together, smaller than Cleveland was in 1950.  Cleveland, the 7th largest American city in 1950, ranks 45th (and dropping) today.  Akron, Canton, and Youngstown have all dropped out of the top 100.

It doesn’t take an expert in finance or public administration to imagine what collectively losing 750,000 people has done to these cities’ tax base, housing stock, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure.  We have a core city infrastructure built to support 1.5 million people that, today, serves less than half of that amount.

This trend, by itself, would be bad enough.  But it’s not just a matter of bricks and mortar.  As ruinously as the built environment and urban landscape in these cities has fared, many of their remaining residents have fared even worse.  The poor are increasingly isolated from social and economic opportunities, as the region continues to sort itself geographically by race, class, and socioeconomic status.

image

The effect on the most vulnerable neighborhoods located within the core cities themselves has been nothing short of catastrophic.  Thousands of houses have been torn down, leaving gaping holes in the urban fabric, while tens of thousands more are sitting vacant and abandoned today.

Short of intentional action to do otherwise, the future of our core cities looks even worse.  According to the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), the region can expect to abandon an additional 175,000 houses between now and 2040.  That’s a staggering 18 houses per day, day-in and day-out, for the next 27 years.  If current trends continue, very few of them will be rebuilt in place.

The cost of removing all of those abandoned houses is estimated to be around $1.75 billion dollars.  Federal, state, regional, or private funding to address the problem is unlikely to materialize.

So, in a perverse vicious cycle, the cities themselves will likely be on the hook to dig deeper into their already decimated tax bases, and foot the bill to remove the houses.  It is a no-win situation:  ignore the problem, and watch the blight and disinvestment spread even farther, or spend money that you don’t have, raise taxes, and drive more residents and businesses away, in order to try to keep things from getting worse.

If you are skeptical about this future projection, the future is already here.  Today, over 15,000 houses in Cleveland sit abandoned.  In Akron, the number is around 2,300.  And in Youngstown, a city of 65,000, that used to have 170,000 residents, an estimated 5,000 abandoned houses and 20,000 vacant lots pose a problem almost too overwhelming to comprehend.

The problems of blight, vacancy, and abandonment have spread to the inner ring suburbs, as well.  In East Cleveland today, one in five houses sits abandoned.

It gets worse.  The 12-county region, which has about the exact same population that it did in 1960, has spread those people over a much larger footprint, replicating all of the housing, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure that was already there to support them.

So, taxpayers at the federal, state, and local level already paid once to build all of the infrastructure that was in place prior to 1960.  Now, they are in the process of paying a second time to build a largely redundant duplicate infrastructure in many of the areas that have been developed since 1960.

The end result, with the region’s population aging, and predicted to grow by less than 100,000 people over the next three decades, is a lot more infrastructure with the same amount of people to pay for it.  This means more public debt, higher taxes, and probably both.

In the coming decades, many of the areas developed since 1960 will face a similar dilemma to the one that the core cities are facing today: spend money that you don’t have to maintain infrastructure in an effort to stave off abandonment, or slowly watch previous hard-won investments in housing, economic development, and public infrastructure wither and die.

Death By A Thousand Cuts

Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole,
Just like a faucet that leaks and there is comfort in the sound.
But while you debate half-empty or half-full,
It slowly rises, your love is gonna drown.

-Death Cab for Cutie, Marching Bands of Manhattan

We are living through an abnormal, historic aberration, in terms of the way that we plan and arrange our communities.  In the long-run, it is socially, economically, and environmentally unsustainable.

In the short-run, it is an abnormal new normal.  Our pattern of abandoning thousands of houses, building new ones elsewhere, and building redundant infrastructure, all while (in the case of Northeast Ohio) continuing to lose population, is a social experiment.  It is one that is unlikely to end well, as Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, has pointed out.

In the long-run, there are simply not enough federal, state, or local tax dollars to simultaneously pay to maintain legacy infrastructure and deal with continued abandonment in our older communities, while paying to maintain (and build more) infrastructure in our newer communities.  We are caught between Scylla and Charybdis.

Urban decline, as such, is not the historical anomaly to which I am referring.  Cities have grown and declined throughout human history, sometimes due to economic conditions, and sometimes due to things that are even more unpleasant:  natural disasters, disease, and war.  People died, were displaced, or moved away, and the city shrank accordingly.

What people haven’t historically done, though, is to rebuild a new version of the city right next door to the old one, expected both of them to carry on as they always had, as if nothing fundamental had changed, and had taxpayers at all levels of government foot the bill.  That’s the historical anomaly.

To be clear, we are not just talking about people building newer, nicer, dwellings; wanting a little bit more land; or about the rich separating themselves from the poor.  These things have always happened.

But they have never happened on such a massive scale, by building what is essentially a duplicate publicly-funded infrastructure of modern utility and transportation networks, with capital, operating, and maintenance costs stretching into the billions of dollars; all (in the case of our region) to serve the exact same amount of people.

And then the storm was overhead
All the oceans boiled and rivers bled
We auctioned off our memories
In the absence of a breeze
Scatter what remains
Scatter what remains

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

The 21st Century will mark the first time the United States has ever had to replace a modern public infrastructure.  We’ve never had to comprehensively rebuild a modern water and sewer system, transportation network, or electrical grid.  The staggering expenditure associated with doing this is is going to be an unpleasant wake-up call for a notoriously short-sighted culture.

Did I mention that our country is $17 trillion in debt?  This wasn’t the case when we modernized our much less extravagant 19th century infrastructure in older cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

But it is not the maintenance and replacement costs that will be our ultimate undoing.  It is the fact that we are doubling, tripling, and quadrupling-down on this unfunded liability, by continuing to sprawl outward.  No one in human history has ever attempted to do what we are doing.  That is, to build a modern, urban infrastructure at what is, in-effect, a semi-rural scale.

This is uncharted territory. There is an inexorable, compelling, and inherently conservative economic logic that says it is better to serve more people with less infrastructure, rather than doing it the other way around.

The likely consequence of flouting such a reasonable course of action will entail our going broke, or having to abandon much of the modern transportation and utilities grid, or both – neither of which are appealing options.

Looked at from this perspective, it is hard to imagine something more short-sighted and fiscally unsound; a greater breach of the public trust; or a larger waste of human labor and natural resources.

It is at this point that people typically seek to avoid this uncomfortable truth, and prefer to preempt the discussion of what to do about it, by instead dwelling on why they think that all of this has happened.

Everyone has a different pet theory:  the automobile, government corruption and/or incompetence; corporate greed; personal irresponsibility; race and class-based social tensions, etc.  As Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, has astutely pointed out, people from one ideological perspective can find plausible narratives that run completely counter to plausible narratives put forth by people of the opposite ideological perspective.

Both a racist and a civil rights advocate, for example, can explain what “went wrong with our cities” entirely in terms of race.  And the more that someone is uninterested in actually trying to address the problems of our cities, the more likely they are to be dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how the problems happened in the first place.

But this is irrelevant right now.  What I want to do is to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem that we are facing, not assign blame for why it happened.

So what are we facing?  We are facing a situation that is a recipe for fiscal disaster and financial collapse.  And if that is not scary enough, I would argue that it is also a recipe for worsening social pathology, civil unrest, and civic decay, as people are further segregated by race, class, and socioeconomic status.

Pushed away I’m pulled toward
A comedown of revolving doors
Every warning we ignored
Drifting in from distant shores
The wind presents a change of course
A second reckoning of sorts
We were wasted waiting for
A comedown of revolving doors
Fate don’t fail me now

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

It’s a death by a thousand cuts.

Who Cares?

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

-Elie Wiesel

There are some that see any attempt to get a handle on runaway infrastructure costs by stemming the outward tide of development and the continued abandonment of our core cities, as a form of communism (at best); or totalitarianism (at worst); that will eliminate individual rights, private property, and destroy the principles that our nation was founded upon.

There are others, like me, that see this as the very essence of conservatism itself:  good stewardship of our tax dollars and our natural resources, a respect for community and tradition, a belief in the social and spiritual importance of place, and an acknowledgement of this inescapable reality of life – that we all need one another, and that, in the end, no one is an island.

The fiscal unsustainability of our current pattern of growth and development should naturally appeal to conservative sensibilities.  But the political right has largely drifted away from this type of conservatism (conservation of financial, human, and natural resources).

Meanwhile, the political left has either ignored the issue, or has gone about addressing it in typical tone-deaf fashion, failing to engage the imaginations, hopes, fears, and aspirations of everyday people.

Like so many other difficult issues, it represents a colossal failure for both political parties.

So where are we in Northeast Ohio today?

  • Our core cities have collectively lost 750,000 people since 1950.
  • Hundreds of thousands of residents currently lack access to social and economic opportunities that people like me (and likely, you) take for granted.
  • Tens of thousands of houses in our core cities and inner-ring suburbs currently sit vacant and abandoned.
  • An additional 175,000 houses (18 per day, for the next 27 years) are projected to be abandoned, and it would cost close to $2 billion to remove them.
  • Suburban areas are building more infrastructure than they will be able to afford to maintain, especially in the long-term.
  • Absent a will to change this unhealthy dynamic, we will repeat this cycle in community after community, until we are broke.

We need to have a spirited debate about how to deal with all of these complex and interrelated problems.  These are difficult issues that people of goodwill all over the ideological spectrum can and should disagree about how best to address.

The solutions are not immediately apparent and will not come solely from one person, group, or political party.  They will not come from a couple of urban planners sitting around a table, but will instead need to involve the private sector, public officials, and all of the citizens that they represent.

But first we have to acknowledge that there is a problem.  A problem that that we have a collective responsibility for.

This isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents.  It is ultimately about people.

So, our core cities continue to be abandoned, and we develop more land on the fringes of our region into what amounts to a parallel-society that is much wealthier and whiter than the region as a whole.

The poor, the working class, and many minorities are left behind in the places with shrinking tax and resource bases, while the wealthy continue to concentrate themselves in places that are increasingly homogeneous, with greater access to social and economic opportunities.

Who cares?

Not everyone.

The deep-seated inequalities and inequities that exist as both a cause and an effect of our current pattern of growth and development should be obvious, but often are not.  Most of us see what we want to see, and we see the world through our own two eyes.  We know what we know. But we don’t know what we don’t know.

Without a philosophy that allows us to transcend the self, it is there that we will stay – prisoners of our own experiences and expectations.

In the end, it all comes down to our views on people and place, and on this thing we call “society”.

What is society?

Well, for one, “society” really just means “other people”.  The term itself is a tacit acknowledgement of the truth that we are all connected to one another, whether we want to be or not.

It is actual individual human people with names and families (and not abstractions like “society”) that are important.  But actual human people are inextricably linked to one another in physical space, and through thought, word, and deed.  The word “society” reminds us of this reality.

And what is place?

Are the things that are associated with place (like tradition, identity, stability, and community) objective values that are intrinsically important? Or are they just subjective and arbitrary?  Are they really just subordinate means to (more important?) ends such as economic development and personal profit?

Are places really nothing more than engines for economic growth that, like machines, can be discarded as obsolete when they are no longer “useful” in the most reductive, narrowly-defined sense of that word?  Or do places have an emotional and spiritual significance that we ignore at our peril?

And what about people themselves?  Where do they fit into the equation?  Where do they stack up on the balance sheet, and in the benefit/cost calculations?  Who is measuring the true human cost of abandoning entire neighborhoods, entire communities, and entire ways of life?  Is it possible to truly understand the social, economic, and spiritual impact of our collective decisions on where and how to build our communities?

These questions are never considered in conversations about economic growth and development.  But they should be.

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

-Matthew 5:13

How do we see ourselves?  Are we stewards tasked with upholding the values of community and stability, acknowledging our interconnectedness, mutual dependence, and our responsibility to look out for one another’s well being?

I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

-Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Or do we see ourselves simply as consumers of resources, and maximizers of utility; confident in our own self-sufficiency; content to put our faith and trust in the invisible hand to separate the weak from the strong?

Are we just makers and takers? Or are we fellow human beings, created equal, with a mutual responsibility to look out for one another, and to care for the places in which we live?

It is a sad and sorry ideology that sees any type of virtue or courage in simply succumbing to the fatalistic logic of social darwinism; to glorify in being swept to where the tide was going to carry us anyway.

We should fight it tooth and nail until the day that we die.

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Robert Frost, Reluctance

It is a decision point for our region.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Mini-Audiobooks available at Local Economy Revolution

Just wanted to make sure that you knew that I’ve been recording mini-audiobooks of selections from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  There’s close to an hour’s worth of content so far, including selections from each of the sections of the book.  If you are thinking about checking the book out, this might be an easy way to give it a try.

Take a listen and let me know what you think.

http://localeconomyrevolutionbook.com/audio-excerpts/

I try to record a new selection weekly, so you might want to bookmark it or download the Soundcloud app for easy access to this (and a ton of other good stuff).   Eventually there may be a full audiobook available.

Field Notes: Downtown Project, Las Vegas

Note: for regular readers of the Wise Economy Workshop, the following is going to look like…

well, a rambling mess.  

The purpose of Field Notes is to be able to put out some early observations about a community or orgainzation that is doing something interesting and new in the world of community revitalization, but to do it at an early stage where you can be part of the conversation (and while I’m still at the point where I haven’t figured out what I’m saying yet…)

If your dedicated enough to find this and slog through it, you’re definitely someone whose opinion I want to hear.  I know you will probably have lots of unanswered questions, but…

  • what looks interesting or intriguing to you?
  • what sounds crazy?
  • what just plain ‘ole doesn’t make sense?
  • what else would you want to know?

These are always a little bit of an experiment, so who knows what will happen next.  But as you will be able to tell, I’ve been looking very closely at what the Downtown Project is doing, and there’s something — really, a lot of somethings — here that I think we could all learn some very valuable lessons from.  And I think they’re showing us a new way to do this work — one that probably makes more sense with the sea changes going on in the world than the way we have been approaching community revitailization.  But at this point, I am mostly checking my understanding and my early interpretations.

If you don’t know what I am talking about, you might start by browsing through http://downtownproject.com/

So, I’d love it if you’d leave your comments below.  If you want to say something to me that you don’t want to go all public, however, please feel free to send me an email at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.

Also, for truth in advertising, I made some revisions to this on March 21 – partly to make sure I caught some things from a conversation that I had neglected to include in the first version, and partly to include a few observations from a conversation I had after this was initially written…. well, perhaps I should say regurgitated.  And then I went back and tried to start organizing around some broad themes, which may have helped or may have made it more confusing to anyone not inside my head.  There’s still a pretty good mess going on here — I mean my writing, not the project.  

Per my usual habits, my commentary is in brackets [.]  Well, at least some of it, since this is partly notes on things people told me and partly my ruminations.  My old journalism professors would be unhappy.  But I dropped out of journalism school, so who cares…

Thanks.  You’re awesome.  Enjoy.

 

Field Notes From Downtown Project Las Vegas

 

Philosophy/Objectives

“we think of what we are doing here as increasing efficiency, productivity, happiness.”

There’s an emerging awareness: in larger companies, as you grow, how do you stay innovative?  One important way is to seek innovation from the outside. Emphasis on working with and integrating with a wide variety of people.  In a sense, vision is to apply that to a city.

[That certainly jives with the strategy I’ve seen Procter & Gamble and other big corps using.  But I think it’s critical not to forget how much that upends conventional bureaucracy and hierarchy — it’s been hard enough for companies to make that shift.  For community-based initiatives, with at least some who have interest in stability….interesting perspective to consider why this kind of collaboration becomes so hard]

Downtown Project is really a start up itself.  There was no way to really exactly know how to do this [that’s refreshing, given all the supposed experts who claim that they do!].  So the mandate was always Go, Go and Figure it Out — figure it out while you are doing it.  That implies an assumption of iteration, an expectation that some things will not work out as planned or outright fail.

 Goal of DP as articulated by city ED staff: try to get 10,000 additional people to live and work in downtown in the next 5 years. 

The concept of organizing around collisions takes what we have heard from people like Glaser and Jacobs to a new level. Instead of passively assuming that the power of a city is in some inherent, natural ability to foster connections, DTLV seems to be purposely designing the spaces and the experiences to generate interactions.  And I think it’s important that attention is being given to the physical spaces and to the events, like the Speaker’s Series.  A lot of downtown organizations do special events, but they’re usually designed to attract attention, not to build internal capacity/collisions.

Organization, strategy, culture

Observation of what’s unique about DP: “It’s not operating as a closed system.”

 

This basic decentralized model seems to drive the whole range of activities.  At least some of the space improvements have been driven by people—e.g., the dog park.  Process as described: someone says “we need X.”  Community, including Tech leadership, takes the fact that a person raised that idea as an indicator that it’s worth pursuing (a lot of trust in the people on the street!).  Person with idea is encouraged to go do it.  Person with idea gets as far as they can with it on their own resources, comes back to the DTLV organization when they have hit the limit of how far they can go and lays out what is needed to complete.  Then, only then, DTLV helps. As it was described to me: you get as far as you can with what you can muster and then get help to get over barriers… “I need a check for X in order for this thing that’s going to be good for the community to happen.”  People are expected, it seems to take the initiative to make the place better.  Italics are my emphasis.  People are expected to take the initiative!

 

Compare that to how communities usually do physical improvement projects….that’s a massive, revolutionary, almost inverted model compared to what we usually do.  It implies that the person on the street is just as likely to know the right answer as the leadership, and that’s a huge leap of faith. It implies that everyday people can and should take that initiative.  It implies that trying and risking failure is OK, and that a messy, maybe fumbling, maybe disorganized start as the people who want to do it try to figure it out, is OK.

 

Part of me thinks this should be applicable anywhere, but I also wonder a little bit what happens when you try a model like this in a more dense environment, where the experimenting and fumbling, at least with some activities, could have a much more direct impact on other people.  Part of what might make that a little easier here is that there is a lot of open space – vacant apartments to shoot the podcast in, vacant lots to figure out how to do a dog park without causing chaos for the house next door.

Tech funds select projects based on peer assessment of compatibility.  Firms being considered spend time with others who are already in the system so that its peers can determine whether the potential founder is “compatible.”  For the Tech Fund, that is putting a lot of faith in the feedback of people to whom your ties, at least conventionally, are relatively tenuous (of course they are getting funding from you…but a fund like this does not imply a long-term relationship.  It’s not like the conventional employee relationship).

There’s high emphasis on very intensive seeking of collisions. High emphasis on being engaged part of the community – for Tech Fund people, clearly being part of that community, but there seems to be an intent to at least blur those boundaries as much as possible.  I wonder how the social pressure to do that falls out – there’s clearly a strong internal set of norms around that.  How much do the people who are not funded by the Tech Fund or are not seeking funding buy into that?  The funding element definitely puts a different angle on it compared to the conventional community-building strategies.  It’s an intensification of the conventional culture building method.  Was that part of the intent?

Person from Tech Fund business said that funded businesses were not obligated to locate in DTLV, but that they did so from being convinced of the value of the environment and the network.  He described it as being a vision that was laid out to them that they decided that they wanted to be a part of.  It was an invitation, not a requirement.  If that’s true, that’s a powerful testimony.

At this point, about half of the companies in the ecosystem are not connected to the Tech Fund—they just came. Some are probably trying to get in position to get Tech Fund funding in the future, but some, like the woman working on the real estate thing, aren’t.  And I met at least a couple of guys who were sort of freelancers, who could live anywhere but chose to come here, even though they aren’t formally associated with one of the businesses.  That sounded like a very new development.  Is it just going where you think the jobs will be?  Is it some kind of cachet?  Or is it attracting the people who understand and want the environment that is being built?

Cultural difference implied by the hug vs the handshake…you never get hugged by a person you’ve just met back east.

Still amazing how strongly they cite the Speaker Series as this collision creator.  The new ideas cross fertilization.  Interesting that the low tech approach is so effective in this context.

Activities, Programs, Events

There is a lot going on here.  The sheer number of specific programs, initiatives, activities, going on far outstrips any other downtown I know of.  And if you look at it from the entry point of those activities, you see pretty quickly that they’re connected, aligned somehow, but they’re not coming from a central source.  Different things have different leaders and participants, not all of whom are formally obligated to be doing what they’re doing in the traditional sense (for example, the podcast).

“Companies” within the project [I’m not sure if they’re officially established as conventional separate corporations or if they’re sort of subsidiaries or departments]:

Gold Spike [former casino, gathering space and restaurant].

Bunk House [temporary visitor lodging; is this the upstairs of the Gold Spike?]

Mixed Use [I don’t know what this means in my notes]

Container Park

TechFund.

Also communication team — “People Ops” and construction management

Around this group — sort of the nucleus — are the companies that the TechFund etc. have invested in.   And there are an increasing number of new people coming in as well.

—-

Connecting to the rest of the city

There seems to be a priority on building that web of connections beyond the tech community.  Based on the information that goes out from the Ticker and the Downtownzen magazine, there’s a lot of performers and musicians and artists who seem to be pulling into this.

Note importance in approach of restaurants and coffee shops — building and engaging community.  Gives people a reason to come downtown.  Also note the fact that young families come downtown because of the Container Park — a “sea change” in how residents view Downtown!  [Note that this observation came from DTLV staff!]

Relationships with other parts of the Vegas community: Bridge-building with the arts community, which is about a mile away.  There was an initial sense of competition or overshadowing, but there’s been work on building bridges.  DTLV took over the First Friday event from the people operating it [not clear if that was a person or an organization] because they didn’t have capacity to keep it running.

It’s been easier for DTLV to connect to younger [assuming non-tech embedded] young people  “seems natural.”

As a whole, this is definitely a town that has come recently to a pretty sharp awareness of its own history.  There’s a marketing sensibility that perhaps people here might pick up on more intuitively, so perhaps it’s simply a matter of pragmatically realizing what they’ve got to work with.  But it seems like a very different sense of itself than during the era when things were imploded without concern.

Relationship with other organizations and government

Trying to convince the community that they are not taking over!  Hence shifting focus to connectedness and collisions, and away from “community.”  [They were hitting that old problem of everyone thinks they know what the “community” is and what the “community” needs, but they’re all actually looking at different communities within the space.]

Staff noted that people started coming to them “like we were government.” [Given pressures on the local government in recent years and the length of time where there’s been this lack of investment in the downtown area, that’s not surprising.  Happens a lot, even when it’s not widely know that an organization has money.] Staff noted that the City has been a great partner [not a funding partner, of course — no public funds in any of this.  Wonder how that changes the actual work and choices…].  City has been willing to learn and change.  When started the Container Park, zoning wasn’t anything near what was needed.  Worked through all the waivers and variances… joke was that is was “waiver world”  [The fact that a City was even willing to take this on, and didn’t just shut it down with no’s, says something very profound..]

City identifies its econ dev strategy as “young tech” firms — past the VC stage, in need of an environment where they can access talent [flexibly and efficiently]

City treats parking as an economic development service, not an a utility.  Effort to increase willing payers and decrease citations.  [interesting angle on it — not sure how /if it fits in with the rest, but interesting insight and a potential good idea for elsewhere.]

Emerging issues:

  • Lack of empty building inventory [especially building types that can be readily adapted to white collar tech].  Mostly not there, but City concerned with marking sure new development occurs at the right scale.
  • Current downtown-convenient housing = mostly “inner ring single family neighborhoods.” Conventional western city scale.  Much old [meaning, in that awkward age between not new and not old enough to be charming.  Also, since most of it is post-1930, my guess would be that quality of construction/materials may make revitalization harder.] Need for urban infill and rental at different price points.
  • Transit [discussed Cleveland BRT]
  • Higher education: UNLV not downtown, not dowtown higher education presence yet, UNLV “aspires” to be a Tier 1 research institution.

But what happens when the rest of the city catches on, when they want it to be “their” downtown too?  My guess would be right now that most City residents don’t go near downtown unless they work there.  Which is the case in lots of towns.  But is there a risk that this downtown approach makes downtown a district for one subset of the population — more like a district than the idealized downtown?  Certainly the Container Park sort of pushes against that with its inclusiveness of children, but what happens if you don’t look like the rest of the clientele?  Is a lower income African American family going to feel welcome going in there?

It’s not technically a public space.

But in a downtown that maybe hasn’t had that idealized “downtown” since before World War II, is that actually a loss?  Or is it a loss that anyone will care about?  Or is it just another piece of the mosaic, fitting one niche, like Eastern Avenue or Chinatown fit their niches?

There is a certain irony in the fact that the critical (and rather vacuous) general media coverage lately (the  Las Vegas Sun article and the  LA Times article) both cast everything in the same molds that I’ve heard in the Downtown PushMe-PullYou in I think every town I have ever encountered.  Everyone bemoans what poor shape downtown is in, New Guard comes in and starts making change, old-timers protest about being pushed out.  New Guard is the hero of one side and the demon of the other.  It’s Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine, Cleveland’s Euclid corridor, Pittsburgh’s south side, Chicago, Louisville, Boston, etc. etc. etc. over again.  In terms of the complaints in the articles, they could have been talking about 3CDC, or the Gateway, or any of a thousand other urban revitalization projects in a hundred cities.

The really strange thing here is that the coverage to date (at least those two articles) has been so intensively personality-driven – completely insisting on a Puppeteer somehow pulling every string.  Usually the spin is that there’s some cabal of somewhat shadowy figures who are supposedly pulling all the strings.  But it doesn’t take long, actually paying attention to what’s going on on the ground in DTLV, for that story line to come apart.  This is the most non-Big Money Guy Forcing Everyone To Do What He Wants revitalization in a city of this size that I have ever seen.  The level of decentralization – the acting out of, really, the basic principles of holocracy in a community environment – that I think is what actually sets this apart.  For DTLV, money buys speed of change,  but not all that much control.  Compare that to most places – most efforts spend the bulk of their money on controlling and molding the environment into what they want. Midtown Detroit is probably Exhibit A.  There is stunningly little master-planned activity, seemingly of any type, going on in DTLV.

What is going to mean to the regular (non Zappos) residents?  Does it remain just a little foreign thing that they’ve heard about?  Does it change the perception of career choices for kids?

As a whole, this is definitely a town that has come recently to a pretty sharp awareness of its own history.  There’s a marketing sensibility that perhaps people here might pick up on more intuitively, so perhaps it’s simply a matter of pragmatically realizing what they’ve got to work with.  But it seems like a very different sense of itself than during the era when things were imploded without concern.

The big question for Hsieh himself, I think, is what’s going to happen when he finds himself in Gilbert’s shoes.  There’s no one else in this town to do that — not the Wynns or any other old guard—there’s been a definite community leadership vacuum, and Hsieh is about to find himself thrust into that whether he’s ready or not.  Gilbert in Detroit took that on willingly – he was ready to step into the void, probably because he was tired of the downward spiral and had the conventional CEO type mind set of making it happen.  I think there’s a very different model between these two.  And Hsieh is clearly more at the beginning phases, and in some respects working in a less ossified, less clearly formed environment.  But there will be a cry out here for broader help – so much vacancy, so little educational attainment, etc.  It already appears to be happening around broader downtown things – the water fountain story being a key example.  At least that part of the community has moved to that phase pretty fast.    What happens when he gets dragged into a citywide initiative?

His little bet, light-touch, community-led and community-enabling strategy might work.  It will probably not look real glossy, but it might work.

Physical Spaces

The treatment of physical spaces is fascinating to me.  All kinds of space treatments, from the offices to the Container Park, generally treated very flexibly, temporary, inexpensively.  There is an implied expectation of flux.  Emphasis seems to be on use and repurposing of temporary spaces – intentional design and construction of Container Park, description of how space is allocated for the Tech Fund businesses, Use and relatively minimal changes to buildings with a different past.  The Gold Spike is fascinating on that point.  It’s cleaned up, but it hasn’t been massively reworked. They didn’t even take down the “Casino” part of the sign, even though there’s no casino activity anymore.  I don’t know if that’s coming from a preservation ethic – I think it’s a very pragmatic, tactical approach to using what’s available, what you can get your hands on and rework quickly.  Remnants of the past remain because there’s no compelling reason to remove them, I guess.

Part of the reason this is happening in Vegas is probably because you can do it so damn cheap.  And cheap, adapted, small, flexible…

Is it because it’s cheap, or because it can be done quickly?

Is the Ogden, Container Park, Gold Spike etc. more about the time value of showing progress, rather than making showplaces?  $350 Mil could build a pretty decent-looking building….

Is rough around the edges, adapted, temporary, small… about facilitating innovation, about not allowing things to get stuck in stone? About maintaining the ability to shift?

Temporary in this context doesn’t mean short-lived.  It means stepping stone.

Pragmatically, I think the provision of little spaces is more critical.  My guess is that the “small” spaces in Ogden are a lot bigger than the ArtBOX half a container.  But that tiny little space, allowing 31 (!) artists to make at least part of a living…that’s a huge impact.  And the fact that they had nowhere else to sell before indicates what a game-changer that is.

Perhaps this is the challenge to city planners: the space isn’t in itself the thing that matters.  The think that matters is how the space enables the people.  Dammit, I’m spouting PPS’s line again.  🙂

In both planning and ED, physical building becomes less and less important (and this at a time when we have so massively overbuilt…).  Flexibility becomes even more so.  And connecting people, enabling collisions, building intellectual capacity seems to become most.  Maybe that’s the real paradigm shift.

Relationship to Vegas reputation/cachet

The placement of this connection/collision-focused model in the context of a place whose reputation is built around the relatively anonymous good time…that’s an interesting contrast.  Impact of Gold Spike –even before I knew that it was actually owned by the Downtown Project, I noticed pretty quickly that it’s the only public space around without slot machines.  Note that D said that the reason isn’t anything against gambling, it’s a desire to preference conversation and interaction.  Which is interesting given that this is a generation for whom video gaming is a fact of life (and Dave thought Caesars reminded him more of Dave & Busters than anything else…or maybe I said that…).  But I’ve also noted with my kids that a large part of video gaming is an intensely social activity.    That’s a sea change, probably even from when we were kids, and it may explain the lack of interest in slot machines.

Do the tech people even play the in person games, or does the social structure frown on that?  Do you lose “Trust points” if someone sees you in a casino?  Keep in mind that a lot of these people are living on Tech Fund money, and that would be seen as frivolous and certainly wasteful or irresponsible. At what point do people start realizing how much potential energy, funding etc. the whole gaming entertainment thing siphons away.  Probably not because right now they are using this environment’s underused resources but drawing markets and talent from other places.

 

My Other Assorted Rambling Observations

Part of the challenge here is that the folks most closely associated with the Downtown Project are all newcomers.  That may be less of an issue overall in a western city, which has had so many newcomers over the past few years (in an eastern city it would have probably been hard to get this level of traction at all in the face of the often inherent distrust of outsiders).  But one of the other trends that I have been noticing in Vegas is that there is at least a subsection of the community (largely outside of DTLV) that is clearly thinking a lot more and a lot harder about the city’s history, its heritage, its meaning and their relationship to it, than probably would have been the case 30 years ago.  The guy I met at the Mormon Fort site who was telling about how they would come to that hill from the city as a kid… I bet there were few people who were at the age to reminisce like that and had been in the city long enough to have that length of memory 20 or 30 years ago.  Post-2008 Vegas seems to have a much different relationship to its past, more of a sense of self-identity based on its heritage.  So perhaps the city as a whole is starting to develop that characteristic of older cities that we see in lots of eastern revitalization efforts: people who have a long-time stake in the place, who do not relate to change easily because they have internalized something of the place that you’re proposing to change.  God knows that’s a tough challenge… and probably more so in a place where the very act of claiming that heritage, instead of acting sheepish about it or imploding it, has to still feel unfamiliar.

The conventional media is clearly still trying to fit this into the conventional Great Man/Big Money storyline.  And that’s really getting under my skin because there’s clearly so much more going on here.  The tech money is definitely a driver, but it’s a feeder, not leader. There is something profoundly different in how this is being organized, led (or not led), managed, than the kinds of downtown initiatives I have seen over and over again.  I found this insight from a Tech Fund entrepreneur pretty revelatory: the Tech funds select projects based on peer assessment of compatibility.  Firms being considered spend time with others who are already in the system so that its peers can determine whether the potential founder is “compatible.”  For the Tech Fund, that is putting a lot of faith in the feedback of people to whom your ties, at least conventionally, are relatively tenuous (of course they are getting funding from you…but a fund like this does not imply a long-term relationship.  It’s not like the conventional employee relationship).  What is the benefit to the tech fund members?  They clearly take this job seriously – it’s part of the value of the environment and the collisions, I guess.

 

What the hell are they trying to do here anyways? Build a tech-talent-attracting magnet?  Test out the business organization ideas on building a community?

 

It seems like there is some synergy developing between the creatives and the tech folks, and that’s probably not surprising.  Ticketcake would be most tied into that of the startups, but Life is Beautiful and etc. are probably part of that too.  LIB isn’t directly connected but clearly allied.  And both tech and artists are all kind of startups, so there is probably at least some sense of kindred spirits.

I think the story from the Tech Fund veteran contains an important kernel of wisdom: he referenced the need for a champion — someone who makes you feel like it’s possible, reinforces, encourages, promises to have your back as you go out and try something.  But then you realize that you didn’t really need that support, that you can do it yourself.  That’s potentially very powerful.  It’s almost an inversion of how we have conventionally handled city leadership and community revitalization.

Is there any connection between this and the educational systems yet?  What potential is there to start growing local talent — especially when so much of the talent that is there holds, in some sense, to the idea of being from a Place so lightly?  They are all from Somewhere Else, and they seem to take the ability to move easily from one town to another for granted.  Is the community they are building among themselves enough to keep them here if something falls down?

Important parts:

Building trust in members -holacracy model

Highly flexible strategy

Catalyst, rather than seed funding (or do-it-all funding)

Small flexible modular scalable spaces

Temporary as stepping stone

Collisions

Role of leader-encourage enabler.  A little wizard behind the curtain (Oz) in the good way.  You could do it all along

Conscious building of cultural norms

Culture of organization as a niche

Pragmatic approach to using what’s available-money and time.  Existing allows fast adaptation.  Avoid getting stuck.

 

 

Well, at least kind of shiny: Brilliant Economic Development panel at IEDC Leadership

About a month ago I sat on a panel with a collection of leading economic development people from all over the country as Anatalio Ubalde, CEO of GISPlanning, threw hard questions at us in front of an audience of our peers.  This little pressure cooker happened at the IEDC Leadership Conference in Irvine, California.  And it was one of those situations where you walk into it worrying about how you’re going to come off, but you walk out of it realizing how privileged you were to get to hear and talk to the amazing people sitting beside you.

IEDC’s publication, ED Now, did a brief write up on the session (and knowing GISPlanning and their fondness for videotaping, I’m sure footage will emerge eventually).  One of the neatest things about the conversation was that we were able to take on the reframing of economic development work — as a key contributor to a community’s resilience and strength, part of the mix with urban planning and housing and all of the other elements of community management that we have too long treated as Someone Else’s Job.  What I myself said on that topic apparently resonated, and not just inside my head, because that’s what Louise Story of IEDC picked up on in her article:

Building resiliency and community

Echoing a broader conversation currently taking place, the first audience question for the panel was about the growth in income inequality. Della Rucker, principal of the Wise Economy Workshop in Cincinnati, pointed to practical reasons why economic developers should focus on this issue.

“More and more, our viability as an economy depends on our viability as a community,” said Rucker. “Economic development cannot exist in a silo, planning cannot exist in a silo. It’s really all about making communities as functional, as vibrant, as resilient as possible. Addressing disparities of all types becomes an essential element of that, even if just from a self-interest standpoint.”

Thanks again to Anatalio for his ongoing kindness to me and the Wise Economy work, to GISPlanning and IEDC for being willing to push this conversation forward, and to the other amazing people who sat on the panel for enlightening and energizing me.

Selections From new Book: Why This Work Matters

I’m so, so delighted to be able to start sharing with you a few selections from the upcoming Wise Fool Press book, Why This Work Matters.  This book contains 11 essays from community professionals from all over the country, telling us in their own heartfelt words how they maintain the courage and the determination to do the work they do… and how they keep at it when things go badly.

This selection is from a consummate downtown professional, Jennifer Kime of Downtown Mansfield, Ohio.  I asked Jennifer to contribute because I knew she would write something amazing and beautiful.  And she did.

Why this Work Matters will be launching soon.  In the meantime, keep it tuned here for more updates on the book and a few more selections from some of the essays.

Thanks.  Here’s Jen:

If I made widgets, I could tell you exactly what my production has been in the last six months; including profit margins and every economic indicator you could ask for. But economic development and building community is a messy job.  The victories are slow, and most often don’t occur for years.  There are no grand award ceremonies for us, rewarding us for the best sense of community created.  The value of the work is in the giving, and the reward is creating community pride.

I was raised at the mall. Seriously. My mom would drop me off with my friends and we would hang out all day at Little Caesars, the record shop and the Limited.  Those stores were our gathering place.

I’d hear stories, though, of a community where my parents grew up. A place that was authentic and safe, where children would walk to school and stop at the shops on the way home.  The business owners were friends and family and even neighbors.

That didn’t make much sense to me.  No one knew who owned or even managed the Little Caesars, even though I spent an embarrassingly large portion of my time there.  We were friends with the breadstick boy, but that was just good sense.

It took a move to Chicago, where I managed a flower shop in the Printer’s Row neighborhood, to really understand community.  The business owners were friendly, the restaurant managers knew each other, and they all knew I was “from the neighborhood.”

If I’m being honest, it was kind of uncomfortable at first.  I wasn’t from Chicago and I didn’t even know these people.  But the owner of the deli knew that I loved the Italian sub, no onion, and we all knew that the coffee shop barrista was moving to London and we sent her flowers.

Mansfield’s downtown was well on its way to revitalization before I came around, but I plugged myself in — with overconfidence in my education and travels and self-assured problem solving skills.  I applied the equations and formulas that I had learned and observed.  Progress was made and I was feeling pretty good those first couple of years.  Our achievements were measurable and I kept a running tally to show exactly what had been accomplished.

That’s where it gets messy.….

How people feel about a place goes in cycles.  a community’s pride or self deprecation can be charted, I’m sure of it.  

Here’s how that cycle goes.  First, something changes and everyone feels good.  A unique new business opens and the community wraps around it and takes a little piece of it as their own source of pride.  But a month later, when an older business closes, the public begins the rhetoric: “

Someone needs to do Something about this town…”  

That continues for a while, until the next big event where thousands gather and the moms and kids chat endlessly about how fun it was to be downtown. Pride is temporarily restored….

When I got into this work, I didn’t know how messy it would be.  Especially coming from finance where there is a right, a wrong and an end to each column.

But I did come to the work with a vision that I continue to hold all these years later.  It’s not a particularly specific vision, it’s not complete and it’s not particularly pretty either. My vision of where we are going doesn’t look like a new outdoor mall, or the past, or even what I’ve seen in other communities.

My vision looks like a unique place where people who live in the community feel a bit of ownership.  That’s the difference that I see most strikingly between communities that are dying and communities that are fighting this great revitalization challenge.  The key element is developing ownership, and it’s best measured by listening to people talk about a place.

It’s the stark difference between, “they need to do something about that park” and “have you been to our new coffee shop?” And that’s my single most motivating factor in the work I do…..

Making a difference in a community is really about building ownership.  My most valuable work is not only in re-creating ownership where it has been lost, but also growing it in the younger generations.  When I see children wanting to be here, I get a sense of relief:

Someday they won’t have to worry about “someone to fix things” because they will be fixing them themselves.  Then, perhaps, I can go back to finance, or maybe I’ll finally make some widgets…

 

 

What the Berlin Wall Taught Me

My dear and admired friend, Jason Segedy, ran a lovely post on his blog, thestile1972.tumblr.com the other day.  It does a beautiful job of tracing out how our assumptions about the future can so readily turn out wrong — and why the fact that they so often turn out wrong means that we never have an real excuse to say that thing we often say:

It is what it is.  It (our politics, our leadership, our lack of money, fill in the blank) will never change.  

After all, we all thought the Soviet Union was invincible.  Until 1991.  As Jason says, Who knew?

So who knows whether your  tough challenge will last or change?

Maybe you do, after all.

Here’s Jason:

___

Meine Reise nach Berlin

In 1987, when I was 14 years old, I went to Germany.  It was the first time that I had ever been outside of North America.  And it was the first (and only) time that I had been behind the Iron Curtain.

 

Twenty-seven years ago, this March, I crossed the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie and visited Soviet-occupied East Berlin.  Twenty-six years before that, in 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed.  The wall separated the totalitarian east from the democratic west.  It separated friends and colleagues from one another, divided families, and served as a major flashpoint in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

 

It was easy to see what the West Berliners thought of the wall – every square inch was covered with (mostly political) graffiti.  The side that faced East Berlin, however, was virgin concrete, unsullied by graffiti.  It bore mute testimony to the voiceless East Berliners that had been silenced by their own government, the German “Democratic” Republic (a.k.a. East Germany).

Berlin wall
West Germany side of the Berlin Wall (there were actually two walls a few hundred feet apart). From thestile1972.tumblr.com

 

When we crossed into East Berlin, it was like crossing from a color world into a black and white one.  West Berlin was like New York, with a little bit of Las Vegas thrown in for good measure.

Crossing over into East Berlin, you could actually feel the oppression.  Some areas of East Berlin were still bombed out from World War II, and piles of rotting lumber sat unused at vacant construction sites, where it looked like nothing had happened for decades.  There were far fewer people on the streets, and far fewer shops and stores.  It was a city full of drab blocks of apartments, with a few communist monuments thrown in for good measure.

 

In the west, people smiled, and would make eye contact with you.  The place was lousy with advertisements, neon signs, and street level kiosks selling cigarettes, snacks, newspapers, and lots of pornography.  Late-model Volkswagens, BMWs, and Mercedes-Benzes filled the streets, and edgy electronic music emanated from the ubiquitous discotheques, seemingly located on every block.  In the east, no one really made eye contact.  The streets were largely silent, and looked empty by comparison. The cars that we saw were these little two-cylinder numbers that looked like you could kick them apart.  It looked depressed, and felt depressing.  It was a place without hope.

 

I wish that I could go back and do that trip over again.  Although I was pretty mature and well-behaved (for a 14 year old), there are so many more things that I would have noticed and appreciated as an adult. On the other hand, seeing the Cold War up-close-and-personal, as a 14 year old, offers a valuable perspective, too.

 

Growing up, I honestly believed that there was a decent chance that I would be vaporized by a Soviet ICBM.  Like a lot of other kids in the 1980s, I put my odds at surviving until adulthood at around 50/50.

 

Here in the present-day, it is all-too-easy to forget that we went to bed every night knowing that a global thermonuclear war was a horrifyingly real possibility.  Millions of people in Berlin were forcibly separated by a wall that served as a constant reminder of the atomic sword of Damocles that hung over the heads of an additional billion people, like myself, living throughout North America, Europe, and the U.S.S.R.

 

I became an adult in 1990.  The Cold War ended the very next year.  Who knew?

 

Twenty-seven years after my visit, it is starting to hit home that my trip to Berlin actually is a “historical” event, just like World War II was when I visited.  Time is a funny thing.

 

The Scourge of Fatalism

 

So what did the Berlin Wall teach me?

It goes back to that “Who knew?”

No one did, of course.  Not, for sure, anyway.

We never know.

So why is it that we so often pretend like we do?  Why do we default to a fatalistic, you’ll-never-change-it, assumption about what the future holds?

Fatalism is to the 2010s what irony was to the 1990s – a defense mechanism that we employ to avoid confronting the crushing reality of free human choice.

Fatalism might be the single biggest thing that holds us back as a culture.  We forget that what we do here, in the present, controls what happens in the future.

It is the collective sum of the untold billions of human choices, great and small, that each of us make each and every day, which (excepting what is truly beyond our control – accident, natural disaster, disease, and death) are directly responsible for every ounce of misery and suffering on this planet.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

 

On the other hand, we collectively have the power and the capacity to make our world into a virtual paradise.

 

But what can we really do?  We are just individuals.  What can any of us, even the most virtuous or noble among us, really change in the end?  We are, each one of us, simply one of a billion of grains of sand on a desolate beach.  How can we be expected to make a difference?

 

So, instead, we resort to fatalism.  We assert, and assume, that we can’t.  It makes the conundrum of free human choice a lot easier to deal with, and it assuages the feeling of helplessness that come with the recognition of our individuality and our dependence upon others.  It’s a cold comfort, that some may argue is better than nothing.

 

But, the thing is, taking the cold comfort doesn’t help us.   In fact, it makes our situation even worse.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

See, if we know that the future is going to be such-and-such, there’s really no point in trying to change it.

 

Sound familiar?

 

How about these:

 

We know that people of different races are just never going to get along.  People are people.

 

We know that there is no way that we are going to be able to produce the energy that we need, and protect the environment at the same time.  We’re powerless to change it.

 

We know that, no matter what we do, we are never going to be able to provide enough health care, food, or shelter for those that need it.  So why bother trying?

 

We know that Americans love their cars and their big houses, and there is no point trying to promote alternatives to driving, or to urban sprawl.  That’s just the way it is.

 

But, see, the thing is, we don’t really know any of these things.  Take a look at history.  Most of our prophecies about the future have been wrong.  And most of the prophecies that were not, were of the self-fulfilling variety.

 

Some of the people in Warsaw, in May 1942, were undoubtedly just as sure as the Nazis were, that the German Reich would last for a thousand years.

 

By May 1945, the Reich was gone.

 

Some of the people in Berlin, in March 1987, were sure that the Cold War would never end, and that the Wall would never come down.

 

By November 1989, the Wall was gone.

 

Some of the people in Northeast Ohio, in 2014, are sure that we are destined to remain the “Rust Belt” from here to eternity.

 

We’re not.

My trip to Berlin in 1987 was a reminder to never give up hope, even when things seem dark.

History is neither a long, slow march toward utopia, nor toward oblivion.  It is whatever we choose to make it.

 

There will be new Berlin Walls in the future, and there will also be new people to tear them down.

 

Fatalism.

 

Don’t believe it for a second.  Reject it, and choose your future.  What you choose to do today matters.

 

Live it out.

Leverage Your Community: Interview on public engagement & economic development on Regional Business Talk

Regional Business Talk just posted an interview that I did with Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America a few weeks ago — you can read the summary and listen to or download the interview here.

As the wunderkinds behind the site wrote,

Ed and Della also discuss the importance of creating meaningful public engagement to support economic development strategies.  Della is not a fan of traditional public meetings and offers her thoughts on a more effective and efficient way to engage your community.

This interview provides you with a practical understanding of how to leverage the thinking and support of your community to achieve sustainable economic prosperity.

Interestingly, this was the second interview I’ve done focusing on the why and how of doing better, more meaningful  — and less destructive — public engagement around economic development(the first one was with my friends at Podcatalyst).  It’s a topic that I haven’t heard many people  in the economic development  world talk about, but people are clearly starting to realize how important that is.

I’m currently in the early stages of an upcoming Wise Fool Press publication that will give some specific tools for doing that, and I’m doing my second and third runs on a training about that topic this spring.  More as we get it done!

 

The importance of ‘City Building”

I’m delighted to be able to share a new voice with you — from one of the most impressive young community professionals and writers I have met in recent years.

In his earlier days, Patrick Whalen shadowed me, interned for me, and co-wrote a white paper on planning public engagement tools with me… and apparently that didn’t damage him to badly, because he is now gainfully employed helping urban neighborhoods in Cincinnati find the best new economic opportunities for their buildings and places.  He’s an independent and articulate thinker, and I’m so glad to be able to help him find and share his voice.

I particularly liked this piece because I thought it laid out an important premise for both planners and economic development types: the potential difference in economic impact generated by investing public funds in a place, versus investing them in a specific building or business.  It’s an early step in an idea that I think we all need to explore more, and I hope Patrick and others who know their real estate stuff better than I do…will.

I’ll be sure to share your feedback, so make sure you give comments below.  And I’ll look forward to Patrick’s next installation.

______

It’s no secret that it’s harder to get urban development done in America than suburban or greenfield development.  Land costs are usually higher, environmental contamination often plagues sites, parking presents greater challenges (with costly solutions), and lenders have been hesitant to invest in urban areas.

 

As a result of these challenges, city governments have had to take efforts to sidestep market deficiencies, to ensure that development happens.  Too often, these efforts focus on providing incentives or gap financing for specific development projects.  Usually promising to be “transformative” or the first seed in the spread of additional development, these projects represent visible, tangible signs of progress —  thus very appealing to city officials.

 

But throwing money at individual developments, no matter how great the design or supposed lasting benefits, generally does little to change the underlying economic situation that creates the “need” for government subsidy.

 

The general claim from developers in “risky” markets, i.e. unproven, under-developed areas, is that they need a variety of incentives and city money to justify their investment, and to make a profit.  Even in residential market segments that have demonstrated high demand and low supply, (like most downtown rental environments across the US), developers still ask for money.  They have become accustomed to receiving subsidies, so from their perspective, why shouldn’t they  ask?But in an age of diminishing city budgets, this project-based method of pursuing economic development is inherently unsustainable.

The primary goal of municipal economic development should be to leverage public investment to spur additional private investment.  The justification for subsidizing individual projects is usually framed in this way, and indeed in these situations the public investment does yield private investment.  Municipal economic development directors can claim they turned a $5 million investment into a $50 million condo tower.  Sounds like an easy decision, right?

 

But this is a poor method for spurring development.  A developer has to know that the basic market conditions are already in place before they will take on an urban development risk, even if that risk has some padding on it thanks to the City.  The developer and lenders have to be fairly certain that the building will be occupied, and that they can charge the desired amount of money for it. It has to make at least basic economic sense.  The subsidy that closes the gap between what the developer can charge and what the developer has to spend will not turn a project that cannot make money into one that can.  It can’t fix the local real estate market  if that market doesn’t offer anything that people want.

A better tactic for increasing private investment in our cities is to invest in things that shift the economic reality of the city – to invest in city buildingCity building can take the form of a park, transit, streetscape enhancement project, or really anything that creates an increase in the value of proximate land.  City building changes the economics of more than just one project.  It changes the economics of  everything around it.

 

A familiar but  excellent example of city building in action is the High Line in New York City.  Using an abandoned elevated rail line in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the High Line has transformed a former source of

New York High Line
from wikimedia.org

blight into a roughly three-mile elevated park.  In space-starved Manhattan, open space is highly desired, and the creative reuse of the line has been received extremely well.  The park is constantly slammed with locals and tourists alike, and it is currently undergoing its second expansion since opening in 2009.

 

But what is most noteworthy about the High Line from an economic development perspective is the massive construction boom happening around the park.  New high rises are under varying stages of development all along the park, with many of them directly advertising their High Line adjacent location.  In an area that was relatively under developed (for Manhattan standards), the High Line has infused value and provided an amenity that people want to be near.

 

Had the city chosen to invest in an apartment tower, there would be a single node, just one spot with new activity in the area.  Instead, because of  investing in a park, the entire length of the High Line has become a source of liveliness and activity  — one that developers are clamoring to build around.  The park increases demand for living, shopping, and working in the area, and as a result, developers can charge higher rents for their spaces, which allows the pro-forma to be more easily balanced without (perhaps as much) city assistance.

 

Another form of city building investment is transit.  Fixed rail transit has been shown to increase property and land values where it is built.  The positive influence of rail transit on areas within a half or quarter mile of a station has been recorded time and time again:

 

  • Portland, OR: 10.6% increase in property values for homes within ¼ of a mile from a light rail station.
  • Chicago, IL: Proximity to CTA ‘El’ and Metra commuter rail stations increased property values of single family homes by 20%.
  • Dallas, TX: In a study from 1997-2001, median values for residential property increased 32.1% near light rail stations, compared to just 19.5% in control study areas.

 

As a relatively clean and quiet form of transit, rail provides an amenity for mobility and access.  As the studies above indicate, rail transit access can translate into residential premiums, but its effect is similarly felt for commercial and office uses as well:

  • Dallas, TX: The same study as noted previously also showed an increase in property values for office buildings near transit.  Land values increased 24.7% near rail stations, compared to only 11.5% for control study areas.
  • New York, NY: “On average, commercial property values increased by $2.7 per square foot for every meter closer to a transit station.”

 

Because of the varying tax structures of municipalities, having a healthy balance of residential, industrial, and commercial space is critically important.  City building projects such as rail transit help to strengthen each of these sectors, and in doing so, helps to strengthen the overall health of the city.  Transit focuses development around stations and works to create a dense nodes of critical mass along routes.  This approach creates a center for which redevelopment can spring forth.

 

Underwriting an individual project can almost never make such a claim.

 

It’s time for our cities to get smarter about economic development.  We have to build our cities up so that urban development doesn’t have to function in spite of the market, but happens because of it.  Funding individual projects is akin to putting band-aids over the wounds of market failure; city building helps to stitch up the wounds, so the market can function as it is supposed to.  Obviously a combination of the two interventions is necessary, but for the long term health of our cities,  the priorities are clear:

  • Equip our cities with the tools that enable them to be competitive.
  • Differentiate urban neighborhoods from their suburban counterparts.
  • Focus on the assets that are inherent (or theoretically should be inherent) in the urban landscape, and find ways to capitalize on them.

 

These are the most effective ways to re-create the market and stimulate competition in our urban areas.

New Learning from Las Vegas: Fight, Survive and Thrive

I’m not supposed to like Las Vegas.

I have a planning degree, after all, and Las Vegas is typically described in planning talk as the anti-planned, environmentally unsustainable train wreck waiting to happen.  It’s the story that smart growth planners pull out when they want to describe everything that was done wrong in the 20th century, and how it’s all going to come home to roost in just a matter of time.

I’m also a historic preservation type, and of course Vegas is the place that blows up what little history it has for show- the show of the explosion and the show of the even more ostentatious something that replaces the garish past.

Hell, I don’t even like to gamble.

And yet I am falling in love with Las Vegas.

Las Vegas might be the place that teaches the rest of us how to thrive in a decentralized, messy, entrepreneur, do-it-yourself-with-what-you’ve-got-to-work-with economy.  I’m visiting with some of the folks who are working on Downtown Las Vegas later this week and next, and I’m hoping to learn a lot – to begin with, what the heck is actually going on, since it’s a whole lot more complicated than the tech-hero-saves-the-day story that most of the mainstream media has been telling.  The real story is clearly much more robust, and a lot more tangled.

And for those very reasons, potentially more relevant to the rest of us who give a damn about our communities than any Tech Hero Spending Money would be.

—-

 

“Of course, a vacation city must be defiant of death, a desert city like Las Vegas doubly so, for it is a city built upon a desolate landscape….

The theme of Elvis’s show that night was the theme of Las Vegas (the gambler’s prayer) – resurrection.

–Richard Rodriguez, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography

 

From a distance, Las Vegas gives me a sense of a place that continues to fight for relevance, for survival, even when the experts, and sometime logic, seem to say it should not.

I know all the reasons why Las Vegas should not be.  You don’t have to look hard to catch the water issues, the lawns and golf courses in a place with almost no rain, the receding water levels in Lake Mead.

Lake Mead
Lake Mead at Hoover Dam. White ring indicates declining water level. Wikipedia.org

My colleagues with urban design cred sneer at the derivative fantasies, the impossible geegaws , the sequined buildings, the cheese.  My dear friends who fight for the survival of towns in the Rust Belt stick pins in secret voodoo dolls of the parallelogram sign, muttering quiet encouragement to themselves that one day, one day, the water out there will run out and all those people will come rushing back to us, begging our forgiveness for running away years ago.  Just a matter of time…you’ll see.

The overlooked high school geek hangs on to the hope that the gorgeous cheerleader turns out to be a horrible person, just like in the movies.

Richard Florida, writing in the wake of the Great Recession, when Vegas was first coming to grips with what happens when your own version of the steel mills go out, described Las Vegas with less sympathy, and with less sense of a potential for redemption, that any of the other places he examined.  Detroit, New Orleans  –hard times places all– gave Florida reason for hope.  He could see, could infer, a profitable future, a unique national economic role, a raison d’etre, for each one.

But for Vegas, poster child of the Sun Belt mortgage collapse, Florida seemed to struggle to find hope.  The best he managed was to identify an opportunity to expand the city’s role in the meeting and convention industry.  Despite the fact that convention attendance nationally has been dropping for a decade.  Hardly a transformative opportunity.

But put all that against the determination, the entrepreneurship, the multi-faceted, incremental efforts unfolding downtown and all over Las Vegas today.  As a distant observer, I can’t help but grow aware of a conscious

Container park shop.  From Local Motors, www.localmotors.com
Container park shop. From Local Motors, www.localmotors.com

choice on the part of some people – who, I don’t exactly know other than a few names – who choose to love the place in spite of, in the face of, maybe because of (?) its flaws.

There’s an undercurrent of struggle in Las Vegas that underlies the glamor, and that gives the place an integrity of sorts that you don’t imagine if your don’t look past the usual tourist spots.  A trip off the Strip leads you to neighborhoods that look like any other place you have been.  The huge roads, the franchise signs, the driveways, the street lights…Not too surprising.

But look closer, and you notice how the desert takes over the vacant lots, gives them an austerity that you don’t see back east.  The business signs in dozens of languages, offering services familiar (auto repair, fried chicken) and not so familiar but clearly pedestrian here (security, costumes, slot machine repair).  And the neighborhoods of modest houses, and the churches.  Churches in some places as dense and variegated as the most tangled clump of ethnic neighborhoods in any old steel-making town.  It’s just that the architecture isn’t the same.

If I weren’t from a rusty place, a beat-up place myself, I might find it hard to understand how people can choose to call such a place their home.  But hundreds of thousands do.

And because I have loved places that crumble and break and fight against the urge to give up in the face of their own crumbling and breaking, maybe I start to understand why this place matters.

When you come to a place like Las Vegas from the towns where the dust of the last economy still hangs in the air, from places that are used to being disappointed by promised magic solutions that failed to deliver, and you look past the Las Vegas flash, what do you see?

What I think I see, maybe under the Liberace costume, maybe when I look to the side of it, is my own town’s younger brother  —  the place, like mine, that fights and continues to fight for its piece of relevancy, its market niche, its old-fashioned place in the sun.  Its relevance, and its survival.

A survival that isn’t assured.  But a survival for which it is deeply rooted in our nature to seek.

I won’t root for Las Vegas’ s demise.  I want Las Vegas to succeed.  I want those new tech wizards and small business owners in the Container Park and the Stitch Factory, and the hospitality-wage families and revue dancers and waitresses and old-line casino owners, to make the place theirs–uniquely theirs, maybe cheesily theirs, maybe goofily theirs, but theirs.

interior sewing factory
The Stitch Factory. From www.localmotors.com

Theirs in a way that will be unlike my place, because that is what they have become, in all its complexity and all its deep challenge.

So, to my friends in Las Vegas: please do sell your tickets to your neon sign graveyard and the Mob Museum.  Memorialize places where Sammy Davis played and give people a chance to get married by an Elvis impersonator.

But more importantly, perhaps: build your Container Park and hold your downtown cornhole nights and by all means bring your Huntridge Theater back to life.

Do it, all of it, in the way that is authentic to you, that matters to you and who you are.  If the intellectuals sneer and the architecture critics deride, who cares?

You are who you are.  That’s as valuable, as unique, and by now as real, as any steel mill city’s grit or New England village’s town square.  It’s you – in all complexity and contradiction and shortcomings, it’s you.

So don’t give up.  Don’t hide your face at what you have meant, good or ill, to generations.  By all means grow, diversify, build, reach, change.

The rest of us need to know that you are out there in the desert, in an environment the rest of us can’t understand, somehow making it work.

 

From Cincinnati’s own Soapbox: Launching the Resilience Revolution

After years and years of reading Soapbox, the excellent online magazine from Issue Media Group, I was delighted to be invited to write a feature article about how the lessons of The Local Economy Revolution can be applied to Cincinnati.  The timing couldn’t be better, either — Cincinnati is on the verge of hiring a new city manager and a new economic development director.  And at the same time, a string of great urban revitalization successes means that enthusiasm around Cincinnati’s assets and potential has never been higher.

My charge in this essay was to outline a high-level directive for where the city’s economic development should focus, and I built most of the piece around the concept of resilience — and the role that Cincinnati’s dozens of neighborhood “downtowns” and hundreds of small businesses can play in building the city’s ability to bounce back.  It’s a strategy that emphasizes the city’s incredible existing assets assets and the power of massively broad-spread mini-revolutions.  But as I noted at the end, it takes the willpower of a city’s leaders and its residents to allow a sea change like this to happen.

Take a look, and check out other Soapbox and Issue Media work while you’re at it.  They do good stuff.

garden with city in background

http://www.soapboxmedia.com/features/011414-why-resilience-should-be-cincinnatis-new-mantra.aspx

Landing the Whale: Why a rational debate on incentives isn’t happening.

It’s been just over a year since the New York Times ran its series on economic development incentives — the one that shone a truthful but uncomfortable light on the lack of transparency, analysis and evaluation that has plagued many incentive programs.  Since then, there has been much hand-wringing, some debate, a few cases of increasingly targeted state and local scrutiny, and some localized progress toward improved information and accountability. But its been, at best, a mixed bag.

One of the best-informed observers of this issue, Ellen Harpel of Smart Incentives, noted recently that she saw three trends in 2013:

  • The total number of new facilities and expansions nationally is a fraction of what is was just a few years ago, but the average amount of money involved in the deals that do attract incentives has skyrocketed.
  • State subsidies overall have become more transparent, but that’s not the case with most local governments.
  • Fewer incentive programs are targeting incentives according to policy priorities, such as improving needy areas or improving energy efficiency.

One guardedly optimistic item, one squirm-worthy, and one that even the most diehard incentive supporter would have to admit presents big cause for concern.

Even more disturbing to me, though, is that we who deal in economic development — and who understand better than anyone else the impact that a well-designed incentive can have on facilitating economic change — appear to be continuing to lose our relevance to, our role in, the incentives debate.  Just a couple of weeks ago, one of the largest economic development service providers ran a blog entry recapping their sense of the year’s trends – including the fact that, after an initial flurry of attention, “this story did not seem to grow legs, and the issue went away.”

Hate to break the news, guys:

The issue didn’t go away. A lot of us have gotten an earful, including people who have spent a lot of time in legislative hearings and program re-evaluations and squirming uneasily under sharp questions from reporters and citizens at public meetings.  And more importantly, others have been talking about it.  Ask your city manager.

What hasn’t happened?  We haven’t fixed it.  Except in some corners of the profession, we haven’t even had a cogent conversation about it.

 

I have been wondering in the back of my mind just what is making us so damn stubborn, so obstinately resistent to face this issue before it turns around and takes a large bite out of us.  And part of the answer came to me from a bit of a surprising source — my old friend and frequent Wise Economy contributor Pete Mallow, who turned the tables on the former English major and helped me understand the deep psychology at work in the incentives non-debate…through 19th century American literature.  Go figure.

 

Read what Pete wrote, and let’s figure out how we get over the whale hunt mentality before it wrecks our flimsy boat.

Landing the Whale: Why a rational debate on incentives isn’t happening

 

The ongoing debate regarding incentives has been an intriguing one for me.  Living in the Midwest, it seems the vast majority of incentives are used to keep a company from leaving a neighboring town or to induce a company from the neighboring town move.

Moby Dick illustration
Um, yeah. That happened.

 

Who can blame the companies for accepting the handouts? It is a competitive advantage to the business and the cost of doing business to the community. One egregious example that comes to mind is a retail store that accepted millions of dollars in direct subsidies to buy inventory in exchange for staying in the central business district.  They recently announced that they will be moving to the suburbs, though.

 

I want us to think about why our debates regarding economic development incentives continue, yet there is little discernible change in our actions and our debates over the past couple of decades.

 

That reason lies deep in us, but it can be found in many different stories over time — perhaps none better than a great piece of American literature.

 

“Call me Ishmael.”

 

The opening line of Moby-Dick begins a story not unlike the quest to land a large company in one’s community.  Once the whiff of a landing a massive company reaches our noses, everyone lines up speaking of the good fortunes that will come. The obsession to land/retain the company quickly becomes a single-minded pursuit to land the Whale. There will be doubters, people offering there words of wisdom from past pursuits, and others saying stick the plan. Yet, these voices are quickly drowned out. How can anyone expect a rational debate about the value of incentives when you are trying to land the Whale?

 

If you are reading this, you probably have found yourself caught up in that pursuit.  Maybe many times. It could be an automobile plant, a casino, a large “lifestyle” mixed-use center, or a business with hundreds of office jobs. It all boils down to obsession, which is the chase of the whale.

 

We, the economic development community, justify landing the whale as the one thing we need to put our community on firm ground and allow us to focus on more sustainable strategies or home grown strategies afterwards. You know, these strategies, everything we talk about in our conferences, to grow smart, buy local, and invest in the gazelle company.

 

Yet, the next whale is just off in the distance. Waiting…

 

The next whale is always visible in the distance.  It offers a panacea to all the problems facing the community. The whale will increase employment, increase all sorts of taxes, bring prestige to the community, and reelection to any number of political leaders.

These reasons fuel the obsession to grant large incentives to the whale.  Whether it be infrastructure improvements (new roads, sewer, water, etc.) or Tax Increment Financing, Industrial Revenue Bonds, payroll tax credits or abatements local communities will put forth their most competitive package and lobby their state elected officials to put forth additional incentives.

 

Can a politician go to his/her constituents and say, I let the company go that was going to bring/keep hundreds of jobs our community?  Can we say to our elected leaders that we let the whale get away?

 

Absolutely not!  When the pursuit of the whale, major employer, begins it is all consuming. The various incentives we have to offer become our harpoons to be hurled at the whale. Rational thoughts, logic, best-laid economic plans, and long-term thinking can’t compete for this most basic human emotion.

 

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”—Moby Dick

 

As I tell my kids about every day, understanding someone’s behavior does not mean accepting it.  If we are acting like Ahab, blinded to everything except the elusive promise and the thrill of the chase, then we are going to put everything else at jeopardy.  And like Ahab, we won’t realize the mistakes we have made, and the danger that we have put ourselves and our communities in, until it’s far too late.

We’ve got tighter budgets, less money to work with.  The screws tighten every day, we face a constant demand to squeeze more services from less and less  resources, and…

We’re going to give mega-incentives?

How long, realistically, do we think we can get away with this?

How soon before the people we say we’re trying to help — the ones we say we’re “creating jobs” for — conclude that we’re nuts?

How long before Moby Dick turns into Mutiny on the Bounty

How long before that crew that we thought were following us to the bright economic future we were promising…dump us off the ship and sail home without us?

For God’s sake, let us get over this already.  Use the damn things right.  And stop wasting what little we have chasing long-shot, unproven whales.

 

We’re not all white males: we need more voices in planning and economic development

Last week a colleague of mine publicly took a popular professional publication to task for not having any women (and few non-white males) among their regular contributors. As the editor pointed out, they do have several who have contributed in the past, but they’ve gone quiet. Probably too busy.This morning, then, I run across an essay from one of my favorite writers, Richard Longstreth of the Midwesterner, who introduced me to insurance agent, essayist and former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Nebraska. Haunting and beautiful Midwestern -based stories, powerful in their simile and metaphor. What I am always looking for in a writer who deals in the character of a place and its people.

Except for one thing.

He’s a guy.

They’re all guys.

Let me run down the list of some of the current writers/bloggers i follow whose professional interests intersect with mine. I guess you’d call these kind of folks “thought leaders.” I’m not sure what exactly that term means–when someone calls me by that term, I’m never sure how to react. But here’s my go-to list:

Aaron Renn
Richard Longstreth
Chuck Marohn
Otis White
Richard Florida
Nicholas Talib
Philip Auerswald
Umair Hacque.

Note the first names (and for those who are unfamiliar with it, “Umair” is a common male first name in the Urdu language).

Jane Jacobs.  From Wikipedia
Jane Jacobs. From Wikipedia

We hold up Jane Jacobs as this patron saint of urbanism, as this person who re-defined what makes a place work, what makes a place matter, what makes a place worth caring about. But the reason why she did that, why she had the ability to do that, is because she came to the question of what makes a community work from a profoundly different perspective than her male contemporaries.

And a big piece of that difference, although certainly not all, was her gender. She saw, she understood, the community around her in a different and illuminating way, not just because she wasn’t trained as a planner, but-

Because she was a woman.

Claiming that the genetic fact of being female gives you some kind of inherently valuable perspective is admittedly thin ice for skating. On the one hand we assert our intrinsic equality, and on the other hand we end up claiming that we’re different. Even my two sons, raised with a mom who is about as similar to June Cleaver as a Martian, challenge me on that. But they understand, they perceived early on, that something is definitely different over on this side of the chromosome divide.

What part of that difference is genetic? Cultural? Psychological? I sure don’t know. But look at the studies of gender differences in leadership styles, communication methods, collaboration patterns, urban bicycling, perceptions of how safe an urban space is. Mentally chart the divides.

At the end of the day, though, I don’t care what the reason is or why women and other non-white male voices aren’t showing up in planning and economic development and urban thought leadership. I’m not looking for some kind of forced equity for the sake of equity.

What worries me is this: we have to figure out how to make communities work better in this generation. We have to figure out how to untangle this welter of wicked problems that we have inherited, that are robbing the communities that we care about is their life and vitality and resilience and health.

If we only have one set of voices, we’re only going to find one set of solutions. And those could turn out to be just as wrong as the urban renewal damage that Jacobs fought against.

So where are today’s Jane Jacobs’s? Who is going to join the thought leader brigade and give us more perspectives, more information, more ideas on how to make this all work?

Where are they? Are they too busy, too overwhelmed with making a living, too overextended?

Too frightened?
Too intimidated?
Too unconvinced of the value of their own voice?

I don’t know. But I know we need them. Lots more of them.

And frankly, it’s getting lonely out here.

I don’t like to complain, and I generally suck at playing the victim. So I want to ask you for two pieces of help:

1. If you know of any women or non-white males who are writing thoughtfully and insightfully about any of the issues involved with helping communities do better, please leave names, links etc in the comment box below. As much as I love all of the guys I named in that list, I think I need some new reading material.

2. I’d be very interested in your thoughts about what we can do to bring more voice into the community building discussion. You can leave them below or email to me directly, whichever your prefer.

Thank you!

Notes from the floor: using a Triple Bottom Line sustainability perspective in economic development.

Back in October, I moderated a session for the International Economic Development Council’s annual meeting that focused on a subject that is so new to economic development that… we needed five people to talk about it.  I joked that I was going to need to bring my whip and hob-nailed boots to keep them all in line, but they all behaved well. ‘ Course, it was 7:30 AM when we started, so maybe they were just still sleepy…

The session focused on the challenges and opportunities facing communities that decide to pursue a sustainable approach to economic development.  For this session, we actually defined “sustainable” more broadly than just using green energy, or recyclable materials or anything like that.  Each of the panelists was using a full-blown Triple Bottom Line approach to drive their economic development work.  For those of you for whom this is a new topic, a Triple Bottom Line approach means that they are trying to balance economic, environmental and community concerns — for example, designing programs that are at the same time profitable, environmentally sensitive and beneficial to the residents of a community, especially those who have tended to be cut out in the past.    Sounds like an impossible quest, I know.  But as each of these panelists so well articulated, it’s a matter of maintaining consciousness of the interplay of these issues, and doing the best you can in a given situation, rather than giving up if you can’t do it all perfectly.

You can hear a full audio of the session at the bottom of this page or at soundcloud.com/wiseeconomy.  Since it’s a conference session, it runs well over an hour, but I think it’s definitely worth a listen.  Insightful and illuminating stuff.  But if you don’t have time to listen, I wrote out a summary version that I’ll paste in below.

I’m hoping to continue this conversation at future economic development events, with both these speakers and with the dozens of others who could have also been on that stage.  There’s good stuff out there — I think the main challenge right now is raising our understanding of what really is possible.  Enjoy!

___

 

As I told the audience at the beginning of the session, the question of how to do economic development sustainably is a new one for this profession, at least for this organization.  Although many of us have dealt with LEED building criteria or been charged with improving urban employment or had to find answers to site selectors’ questions about the sources of water or electricity provided to a site, the economic development profession as a whole has only begun to deeply grapple with what it means to do economic development sustainably.

 

And as the panel’s participants noted, “sustainable” does not mean just energy efficient or constructed out of renewables. Around the world, “sustainable” development has been understood in terms of its impact on three major elements–the economy, the environment, and the communities of people impacted (often referred to as the “Triple Bottom Line“).  Honored sometimes more in the breach than the doing, a truly sustainable effort asks for the best possible balance between these three, sometimes opposing, forces.  So this was the challenge facing both our panelists and our audience.

 

Here’s some highlights of the discussion:

  • Several of the speakers talked about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line as a lens or filter–a shift in perspective that allowed viewers to identify new ways of doing conventional tasks, changing the approach or the strategy just enough to generate a more sustainable result.

 

  • Andre Pettigrew, CEO of Clean Economy Solutions and former director Office of Economic Development,City and County of Denver, emphasized that sustainable growth isn’t just about “minimizing the footprint,” but about finding new opportunities through the new markets that the worldwide shift to sustainability creates– opportunities for economic growth and for new employment..

 

  • Cathy Polasky, Director of Director of Economic Policy and Development for the City of Minneapolis, described the evolution in her own thinking and how her department and others have changed how they work as a result of a need to address sustainability. Starting out as “mortal enemies” fighting for a slice of the budget, Cathy’ s department learned to get their sustainability mandates inserted into other departments’ work.  But as budgets shrank, it became increasingly evident that all of the City’s departments needed to work in concert if they were going to hit all of their targets, leveraging all their projects and initiatives to hit the full range of sustainability-related goals.  As a result, all of the City’s investments became informed by Triple Bottom Line priorities, creating what Cathy called “a pragmatic coalition” that incorporated a sustainability perspective.

 

  • Janet Hammer, Program Director of The Initiative on Triple Bottom Line Development at Portland State University, noted that economic development does not necessarily have to mean economic growth, and that the more important question has to do with creating jobs and prosperity that support individual and community well-being.  She noted the importance of looking for interconnections and ways to seek collaboration.  Janet also cited a survey of economic development professionals, in which a high proportion of respondents identified sustainability issues as highly important to their community. But the survey respondents also noted that they didn’t have any training on that topic, that they weren’t rewarded based on their impact on sustainability issues, and that, in many communities, sustainability didn’t seem to be anyone’s particular job.

 

  • Mark Newberg, Managing Director of Impact Investment Strategies at 5 Stone Green Capital, described his company’s “layered impact strategy” for evaluating opportunities to fold sustainability priorities into an investment.  As he noted, “this stuff had to make sense from an economic perspective,” but he went on to demonstrate that a shift in perspective, in time frame, or in understanding of the purpose of a project can open up new approaches that can enable more sustainable building, programming and financing.  He concluded that the key challenge was to set sustainability-relevant goals for a project and then find others with similar goals, underpinned by sound economics.

 

  • Karl Seidman, Senior Lecturer at MIT and director of MIT CoLab’s Green Economic Development Initiative, noted that recent research on sustainable economic development identified a three-point framework for shifting an economic development organization to more sustainable approaches.  According to Karl, the first step lies within the organization itself, with bringing a sustainable perspective into its mission and priorities, since these will drive what the organization is enabled to do.  The second step requires incorporating sustainability properties into existing work, adjusting day to day operations (for example, strengthening the sustainability impact of new business recruitment by proactively sharing information about sustainable building methods and suppliers).  The third step, then, is to look beyond the economic development organization and identify broader policy and system changes needed to meet sustainability priorities more effectively–an important but particularly hard challenge for economic development organizations because they are so used to working on transactions.

I started the discussion part of the session with two basic questions.  In the first, I noted the less-than-enthusiastic reaction that one economic development professional had given me the previous night when he noted the speaker ribbon on my name tag and asked what I was going to be talking about.  How, I asked the panelists, do you get past the first reactions to the word “sustainability,” which can either mean nothing in particular, or get attached to a simplistic political agenda?

 

  • Mark noted that businesses often seek goals that are consistent with “sustainability,” but for reasons that have to do with their own operations, rather than an abstract environmental benefit.  Mark told the story of the development of concentrated laundry detergent: the driver for this evolution was large retailers’ desire to get more sales units out of the same unit of transportation.  By lessening the amount of water being shipped, each shipment generated more profit per truckload — and as a side effect, the manufacture of the detergent was redesigned to consume less water.

 

  • Cathy explained that they typically talk not in terms of sustaintability, but in terms of resilience – the ability of a business or a community to be able to withstand shocks.  Lessening energy usage in a building, she noted, makes the business less at risk of falling into financial trouble if energy prices increase.  Andre reinforced this concept by noting that discussions of sustainability get stymied when people think that they must include a particular energy source, such as solar, or else they cannot to anything to be “sustainable.”  In reality, the more important question that efforts to improve sustainability address revolve around lessening risk of negative impacts and strengthening odds for survival.

 

  • Janet noted that sustainable approaches are arguably more conservative, in that they tend to have the side effect of lessening risk and increasing efficiency

 

  • Karl also noted the potential for sustainable development to increase a business or community’s economic resilence – by lessening the amount of money that has to be spent to purchase energy, one can actually increase resilience and competitiveness by making more of the business’s funds available for other uses.

 

The second question I asked had to do with economic development’s tendency to emphasize the big projects. I asked the panel how a sustainability perspective influenced or impacted mega-projects.  Mark gave a straightforward piece of advice: “Look at the supply chain.”  He asserted that an asset management approach to evaluating a project often helped uncover opportunities for savings that might be overlooked otherwise.  He noted recurring line item costs, such as supplies or maintenance as a particular potential.  He noted that one can seldom attain optimal sustainability on everything, but that evaluating supply chain and recurring costs can indicate some otherwise overlooked opportunities.

 

The first audience question addressed one community’s struggles to address the human element of the triple bottom line ideal.  He noted that in his community, discussions about equity frequently devolved into an assumption that it was all about race, although he noted that the social aspect of sustainability actually extends to the whole community.  Andre noted the importance of resilence again — that communities need to be able to effectively leverage their whole resource set, which includes the full range of its people.

 

Another audience member asked about metrics, and the challenge of demonstrating the value of economic development efforts to elected officials and other stakeholders.  Mark said that different investors or supporters will need different metrics, and that it was important to work within the metrics that they were looking for and find ways to demonstrate additional benefits through the use of more sustainable choices.  From his perspective, the appropriate approach was to work within the existing expectations to show meaningful improvement.  Andre added that public discussions about sustainability have an unfortuate tendency to fall into a “jobs trap.”  Like other types of new industries and advanced manufacturing, sustainability initiatives in themselves are unlikely to generate massive numbers of new jobs in themselves, and sustainability policies that were sold as a one-shot solution to job creation were  likely to result in a failure.  Andre noted that “we need to modulate what we’re going to expect” and that equal parts of the challenge are to grow the supply of sustainable resources and to grow the demand for these products and services.

 

A particularly interesting question for me came from an audience member who asked where the panelists thought the IEDC’s new Sustainability Committee should  place its priorities (two of the panelists and myself sit on that committee).  Janet said that the greatest need was to forge partnerships – to connect the economic development profession more strongly to the full range of others who are trying to address sustainability issues.  Karl noted that the Urban Sustainability Directors Network was currently working on a database of sustainable economic development tools, and expressed some concern that this initiative and that one may not be connected deeply enough.

The final question that I could take during the time we had available had to do with drawing attention to sustainability initiatives.  Cathy noted that her city and others have had some success with competitions that provided a small award for energy efficiency, and Mark said that a region’s property assessment organization may be able to help quantify the benefits.  Mark also noted that a common low hanging fruit in sustainability was to use energy usage disclosure and benchmarking to encourage property managers to seek efficiency improvements.

 

In wrapping up the session, I noted that this session was the beginning of what I hope will be an ongoing conversation within economic development.  I also expressed my opinion that the economic development community may have a unique ability to serve as a convener around this topic, helping to bridge the gaps between the full range of partners we will need to draw on to enable sustainable economic development.

 

 

We Need Better Public Engagement in Economic Development, here’s why and how (Podcatalyst)

The good folks at Podcatalyst asked me back recently to do a second interview with them.  This time, host Clay Banks wanted to focus on one element that gets a fair amount of attention in The Local Economy Revolution: why making our local economies work better requires real, meaningful, and broad public participation, and how to do that.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, people who are trying to improve a local economy often tend to rely too much on a small group of insiders — whether staff or business leaders of some stripe.  But in an economy that is changing so quickly, what worked in the past probably has little in common with what we need for the future.  We’ve found over and over again that “Crowdsourcing Solutions,” as I call it in the book, is probably the best single strategy we have available to develop a real understanding of our challenges — and our resources.  That doesn’t mean, though, that we should just throw open the doors and let anyone say anything (that would be Crowdsourcing A Mess, not Crowdsourcing Solutions).

At any rate, you can listen here to the conversation on “Crowd Sourcing Wisdom From People Outside Your Box”  And don’t miss the great resources that Clay listed at the bottom of the page.

But I don’t want another yard: the potential unintended consequences of vacant property

If you’re interested in a new perspective on how to help communities, check out www.localeconomyrevolutionbook.comYou’ll be glad you did (man, I hope…)

 

But while the city [Youngstown, Ohio] had planned on a stable population of 80,000, more than 1,000 people move away every year, leaving behind 130 additional empty homes in addition to the city’s 22,000 vacant properties and structures. Four thousand of those homes are in dangerous condition, according to the city, but each demolition costs $9,000 and the city has yet to decide whether to close nearly abandoned neighborhoods to try to save money.

“It’s almost anti-American to say our city is shrinking,” said Heather McMahon, the executive director of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, a Youngstown community group.

“But if we’re going to survive as a city and not go bankrupt like Detroit,” she said, “we’re going to have to figure something out.”

Blighted Cities Prefer Razing to Rebuilding”New York Times, December 12

 

Figure something out…

 

I have had a high level of personal uneasiness toward mass demolition programs for decades.  Since I cut my professional teeth in historic preservation, and in the aftermath of an ambitious urban renewal program to boot, that’s probably not surprising.  But there’s a risk in preservation of trying to preserve everything for the sake of preserving everything – sometimes it’s extremely hard to make the kind of judgment calls that preserving some places, but not all, requires.  It’s a internal struggle I still face every time I deal with a older building or community.

 

Because I know that conflict in myself, I’ve tried to give the mass demolition programs developing in many of the cities of the northeastern US the benefit of a doubt, depite the opposition shown by many of my longtime preservation colleagues.  After all, I do understand the macro-economics — the oversupply of buildings, the spatial shift in where economic activity happens, the up-against-the-wall situation facing so many of these communities.  And the fact that arson and crime and potentially deadly spaces can’t be tolerated.   And the fact that not everything old is “historic.”

I’ve worried in the back of my mind about the consequences, but I haven’t been able to articulate what was worrying me.  Or tell for sure if it isn’t just an old reflex of mine reacting to a stimulus.

Youngstown was one of the first to make city downsizing its official policy, and one data point does not make a trend.  But I’m concerned that what we’re seeing in Youngstown might be a first indicator that mass-scale vacant building demolition, and the way that we are often handling the vacant land that results, might do more long-term harm than good.

 

In downtown revitalization, we often find that districts that have too much vacant land, such as too many parking lots, struggle to achieve a healthy economy.  The root reason is amazingly simple, but somehow gets overlooked: if there are fewer buildings, people have that many fewer reasons to go there – each parking lot represents a space that can’t hold a business or a restaurant or another reason for people to come downtown.  Most downtowns need to accommodate some cars, but successfully revitalizing downtowns have come to figure out that plentiful parking doesn’t attract customers if those lots mean that there are less reasons to come to the downtown district.  Unfortunately, a lot of them figured that out after they have lost a lot of buildings to mostly-empty parking lots, but in the world of downtown revitalization professionals, that’s pretty well understood now.  That’s why you see more building of new buildings on parking lots in downtowns, as a national trend than you see the kind of demolition for parking that dominated the 1970s.

 

Does similar logic hold for urban neighborhoods?  Do we create a worsening spiral of disinvestment by simply trying to get rid of the bad stuff?   Can massive demolition have the same kind of backfiring effect that surface parking lots have in a downtown?

 

Are there fewer reasons to live there if there’s fewer houses around?

 

 

We get into trouble sometimes because we think of people, and the places where people live, as these straightforward, uniform creatures.  Of course, we know that’s not really the case – we know that we fight with our spouse and we certainly don’t have the same tastes as our fuddy – duddy parents!  But when it comes to public policy, we have an tendency to say “people want this” “people don’t want that.”  If we’re honest, we have to admit that it’s a tendency that should make us uncomfortable.

 

A lot of uses for vacant urban lots have been proposed, but one of the most common so far seems to be giving the vacant lot to the home owner next door.  Maybe it’s a case of what my Appalachian mother used to call “making a silk purse our of a sow’s ear” – she meant when she said that, attempting to make something nice out of something not all that appealing.  And given that most mass demolition programs so far have basically created scattered vacant lots interspersed with some proportion of leftover houses, it’s certainly an on-its-face-logical tactic.

 

But as the idea has proliferated, the rhetoric being used to justify attaching vacant lots to the house next door  — and the act of calling that a “solution” — is starting to worry me.  It’s worrying me because it sounds like the kind of solution we invent when we fall back on an old assumption without asking whether that assumption fits this issue – or whether it ever fit anything at all.

 

One of the themes of the vacant-building-demolition movement, and a common justification for trying to hand the vacant lot to the neighbor, has been this idea, this assumption, that giving people more open space, less density, more distance between buildings, means giving them a benefit.  If you review “rightsizing” plans and other vacant lot strategies all over the northeastern US, you repeatedly encounter the more-breathing-room, big-side-lot, look-you-can-have-your-very-own-garden justification for handing that newly-vacant lot over to the house next door.

 

Here’s my problem: we’re assuming (or maybe hoping) that urban residents will see more land, more open space, as a good thing.   And I am not convinced that it is a good thing. Or that the people we need to invest and re-invest in these neighborhoods will see it as a good thing, either.

My bigger concern is that we may be assuming that without realizing that we’re assuming it.  Which means we can’t see the flaws in what we’re assuming at all.

 

If you were trained in planning or urban design or urban studies or the like, you got exposed at some point to the Garden City school of thought.  It runs, kind of counter-intuitively, through the whole history of urban planning – from  Ebineezer Howard’s Garden Cities to Mies van de Rohe’s mega-blocks surrounded by parkland, and back from that and forward from that.  They look a little different, but the overarching theme is the same: Design places so that people live as close to an idealized small town , semi-agrarian life as we can get.

 

And in case that sounds like ancient history, note that there is a new Garden City competition unfolding in the UK today.

 

For some reason (probably rooted in a desire for cleanness and simplicity and a system that we can understand), urban planning types have always had an ambivalent relationship with full-bore urban places.  We have this strange tendency to keep wanting to revert back to that “everyone can be a gentleman farmer” mode.  And even with the embrace of the Jane Jacobs legacy over the past 20 years, with the value that she placed on an urban environment’s vibrancy, and the economic power generated by proximity, and her distrust of forced “open spaces,” this tendency in the profession’s thinking patterns seems to keep surfacing, like a partially-forgotten reflex.

 

It’s dangerous to give too much weight to your own experience.  But here’s something to think about:

 

How many people living in an urban or semi-urban setting actually want to double the amount of land that they are responsible for maintaining?

 

There’s probably some, no doubt.  All I really know is that I’m not one of them.

 

I live on a third of an acre lot in a suburb.  I have very busy days and a lot of things making demands on my time.  With the exception of a couple of weeks in the spring (when the first sight of green shoots after months of grey probably turns everyone into a closet farmer), I don’t even want to maintain the yard and flowers and trees I already have.  In my head, the trimming and weeding and planting is just Another Thing I Have to Deal With.  If you gave me the lot next door to take care of, free or cheap as long as I would take care of it…I wouldn’t want it.

 

I wouldn’t take it unless I felt that I had to… that I had to control that land in order to protect my home from someone or something else.  Unless I felt that I had no other choice.  And if I have to take on that burden to defend my home, that would probably increase my eagerness to find a new home as soon as I can.

 

Just one, admittedly over-extended, person’s opinion.

 

But in a society where the average age is climbing, where average household size is plummeting, where hours worked are increasing, and more and more people live alone, how many people are seriously going to want more land to take care of?

 

Post-War single family suburbs are being told by planners that they are in trouble, that they have to diversify their housing stock, because the traditional two-parent, two-kid families is on its way to becoming an endangered species.  And as a denizen of one of those, I will tell you that I believe it.  But I will also tell you, having lived in those neighborhoods: those are the places where people have the time and money to maintain big yards and trees and flower beds.

 

So, while it’s likely that a few people in your Neighborhood X might tap their inner Hobbit and embrace the opportunity to extend their flower and vegetable plots onto the next lot, I cannot help but fear that this is more of a once-in-a-while idiosyncacy than a workable strategy.  But since no one’s going to force someone to start gardening the lot next door, no harm, no foul, right?

 

That’s what I thought… until I saw the item about Youngstown that opened this essay.  Now I wonder if we are not inadvertently reinforcing these neighborhoods’ and cities’ decline.

 

Here’s the core problem: we’re assuming that more open space and more trees and more room between houses will look like a Good Thing to potential future house buyers.  In a sense, we’re saying,

 

“Look! This is just like those big lots in the suburbs… look how much room you’ll have!”

 

But here’s how that might translate in the minds of those future buyers:

 

“Look!  You’ll get more stuff to have to take care of!  Oh, and all those benefits of being in the city, like transit and ability to walk places and shopping options… well, there’s not enough people to support that stuff here anymore, so you’ll have to drive to the shopping centers the same as the suburban people.  And yes, I know these roads are broken up and half the street lights don’t work and the recreation center two blocks over closed because we don’t have enough tax revenue to support all this stuff.  But look how much land you have!

 

I think that we have to recognize, rationally, that this isn’t a very compelling sales proposition.  And because it’s not a compelling sales proposition, and because we haven’t come up with anything better, I fear that we are going to watch that hemorrhage continue, rather than stabilize.  If we don’t think critically about their assumptions, and instead pin our hopes on this Urban Little House on the Prairie idea, we will probably find that we have thrown money and time at a strategy that did nothing to stem the population loss, and may in fact make it worse.  It’s more likely that the vacant lots signal to people a lack of future, not some happy urban farmer/fake suburbia thing.

 

 

I understand very well that people who are struggling to try to fix these neighborhoods are faced with the bitterest of awful, no-win choices.  Nothing in here is intended to imply anything else, and I’ve worked over and worked over this essay until it turned into a baroque tangle of caveats and conditions in an attempt to not sound like I want to cut them off at the knees.   As I’ve said elsewhere, I am frankly in awe of the determined people who fight to make communities better in the face of disinvestment, discouragement, unending frustration and setback.  And I know that’s what the people on the front line of the urban vacancy issue are living with.

 

My goal here is to encourage these folks to keep fighting, and not give in to the temptation to cling to a simplistic answer as the longed-for solution. The urban vacant building issue is probably the biggest wicked problem we are going to face in the next decade, and I sure as hell don’t have an easy answer.  There probably isn’t one answer – urban farmers, condo-seekers, restless temporary alighters and overextended, overwhelmed constant-workers are probably all parts of our future urban neighborhoods.  Monolithic assumptions are a big piece of what gets us into trouble in the first place.

 

And I know that’s not the neat wrap-up answer that people want at the end of an essay like this.  It’s damn easy, I know, to be a critic.

 

But a big part of the problem with how we are handling urban vacancy, and many of the other issues we face, is that we keep looking for easy answers. We have too much of a tendency, particularly among urban planning and design professionals, to blindly accept the received wisdom of past generations, even when we can see for ourselves the evidence of that wisdom’s failures.   And when we accept a happy piece of pablum, one that pacifies us into thinking that we might not have to undertake the blindingly hard fight to gain the money and the attention that we need to figure this out in a manner that will actually work, then we have done ourselves no favors.

 

So let’s take this issue on seriously, and more meaningfully support the organizations and volunteers and communities who are facing and taking on this fight. Let’s test some tactics – really test them, putting money and intellectual rigor into figuring it out.  There have been a few systematic experiments, but nowhere near enough.  Let’s figure out what we actually need to have in our toolbox, and how we can best use it..

 

Preferably before we finish all that planned demolition.

More (MOAR!) Books – Recommendations for your reading list (or for someone else)

Yesterday I pointed you to an introduction to the Wise Fool Press’s upcoming work, but obviously there’s a ton of good information and general good writing out there that is helping inform my thinking and that of many people who care about helping communities work better.  So if you’re interested in rethinking how your community works, I’ve created a page of additional resources that I think are worth your time, effort, and a little bit of your cash.  You can find those books and links to purchase them here, or under the MOAR Books! link at the top of the page.

Right now the list is short, but it will be getting longer.  If you have recommendations for other items to add, or if you want to add to the conversation about how these books made a difference for you or your community, just let me know.  Thanks!

 

 

Peek behind the curtain for Wise Fool Press

Since the launch of The Local Economy Revolution, people have been asking me about the Wise Fool Press.  So I wanted to make sure you knew that an overview of what the Wise Fool Press is about has been posted here.  This page also introduces a few upcoming publications, including

  • A how-to for creating more meaningful public engagement events; 
  • An exploration of how economic development might learn from the Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approaches to urban planning, and
  • A collection of personal essays from people all over the country about why they work for the future of their communities, and how they keep going when it gets tough.

So I hope you’ll check the page out, and let me know what you’re excited about.  And as I said, we’re looking for partners to help make all these things happen faster and better, so let me know if you want to help us.

 

 

What we learned: lessons from the Rust Belt’s children

A slightly different version of this essay appeared about a week ago at my friend Jason Segedy’s blog, thestile1972.tumblr.com, and then (to my delight, because he deserves a much broader audience) at Rustwire.com.  In the meantime, I had done a little tweaking to the original post, since everyone benefits from an editor, myself definitely included.  So I’d like to share this with you as a very moving and profound response to my Rust Belt essay here not too long ago.

One thing that Jason gets at beautifully, which I think kind of got lost in my piece, is that neither my goal nor his was to rewrite history, to put some kind of Rust Belt Chic spin on the industrial era.  Jason references his uncle’s death in an industrial accident, which wasn’t as uncommon as you might think.  The Phelps brothers’ sculptures that I described in the previous piece resonates with me because of the labor and the dirt and the exhaustion they portray.  And my own father’s brain tumor probably had more than a little something to do with a lifetime around toxic chemicals. Romantic, not so much.

The thing that I want to explore, though, and that Jason has picked up on, is whether that experience of being in that time and that place at that formative age impacted how those of us who work on making communities better…do that work.  I think it colors the experience, shapes the perspective of this subset of 30- and 40-something community professionals and advocates, and my theory is that because of that experience, this subset does that work a little differently than others.

And since communities of all kinds and all regions are struggling with how to deal with massive changes, wicked problems and bewildering economic issues, maybe those of us who grew up in the first wave of this sea change might have something beneficial to offer.

So, I’m toying with this topic for an upcoming book, but I don’t know exactly where we’re going with it yet.  If you’d like to share your insights, please feel free to send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.

Thanks.  Here’s Jason.

Go to sleep, Captain Future, in your lair of art deco
You were our pioneer of progress, but tomorrow’s been postponed
Go to sleep, Captain Future, let corrosion close your eyes
If the board should vote to restore hope, we’ll pass along the lie

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

In the Beginning…

map of NE US
“Image Source: Wikipedia: Change in total number of manufacturing jobs in metropolitan areas, 1954-2002. Dark red is very bad. Akron is dark red.”

As near as I can tell, the term “Rust Belt” originated sometime in the mid-1980s.  That sounds about right.  I originated slightly earlier, in 1972, at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio, Rubber Capital of the World.

My very earliest memory is of a day, sometime in the summer of 1975, when my parents, my baby brother, and I went on a camping trip to Lake Milton, just west of Youngstown.  I was three years old.  I have no idea why, of all of the things that I could remember, but don’t, I happen to remember this one.  But it is a good place to start.

I remember looking at the green overhead freeway signs along the West Expressway in Akron.  I remember the overpoweringly pungent smell of rubber wafting from the smokestacks of B.F. Goodrich and Firestone.  I remember asking my mother about it, and she explained that those were the factories where the tires, and the rubber, and the chemicals were made.  They were made by hard-working, good people – people like my Uncle Jim.

When I was a little bit older, I would learn that this was the smell of good jobs; of hard, dangerous work; and of the way of life that built the modern version of this quirky and gritty town.  It was the smell that tripled Akron’s population between 1910 and 1920, transforming it from a sleepy canal-town to the 32ndlargest city in America.  It was a smell laced with melancholy, ambivalence, and nostalgia – for it was the smell of an era that was quickly coming to an end (although I was far too young to be aware of this fact at the time).  It was, sometimes, the smell of tragedy.

We stopped by my grandparents’ house in Firestone Park on the way to the campground.  My grandmother gave me a box of Barnum’s Animals crackers for the road.  My grandparents were Akron.  Their story was Akron’s story.  My grandfather was born in 1916 in Barnesboro, a small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania, somewhere between Johnstown, DuBois, and nowhere.  His father, a coal miner, had emigrated there from Hungary nine years earlier.  My grandmother was born in Barberton, in 1920.  Barberton was reportedly the most-industrialized city in the United States, per-capita, at some point around that time.

They both worked in factories their entire working lives (I don’t think they called jobs like that “careers” back then).  My grandfather worked at Firestone.  My grandmother worked at the Saalfield Publishing factory, one of the largest producers of children’s books, games, and puzzles in the world.  Today, both of the plants where they worked form part of a gutted, derelict, post-apocalyptic moonscape in South Akron, located between that same West Expressway and…well, perdition.  The City of Akron has plans for revitalizing this area.  It needs to happen, but there are ghosts there…

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

My grandparents’ house exemplified what it was to live in working-class Akron in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  My stream-of-consciousness memories of that house include:  cigarettes and ashtrays; Hee-HawThe Joker’s Wild; fresh tomatoes and peppers; Fred & Lamont Sanford; Archie & Edith Bunker; Herb Score and Indians baseball on the radio on the front porch; hand-knitted afghans; UHF/VHF; 3, 5, 8, and 43; cold cans of Coca-Cola and Pabst Blue Ribbon (back when the pop-tops still came off of the can); the Ohio Lottery; chicken and galuskas (dumplings); a garage floor that you could eat off of; a meticulously maintained 14-year-old Chrysler with 29,000 miles on it; a refrigerator in the dining room because the kitchen was too small; catching fireflies in jars; and all being right with the world.

I always associate the familiar comfort of that two-bedroom bungalow with the omnipresence of cigarette smoke and television.  I remember sitting there on May 18, 1980.  It was my eighth birthday.  We were watching TV coverage of the Mount St. Helens eruption in Washington State.  I remember talking about the fact that it was going to be the year 2000 (the Future!) in just twenty years.  It was an odd conversation for an eight year old to be having with adults (planning for the future already, and for a life without friends, apparently).  I remember thinking about the fact that I would be 28 years old then, and how inconceivably distant it all seemed.  Things seem so permanent when you’re eight, and time moves ever-so-slowly.

More often than not, when we visited my grandparents, my Uncle Jim and Aunt Helen would be there.  Uncle Jim was born in 1936, in West Virginia.  His family, too, had come to Akron to find work that was better-paying, steadier, and (relatively) less dangerous than the work in the coal mines.  Uncle Jim was a rubber worker, first at Mohawk Rubber and then later at B.F. Goodrich.  Uncle Jim also cut hair over at the most-appropriately named West Virginia Barbershop, on South Arlington Street in East Akron.  He was one of the best, most decent, kindest people that I have ever known.

I remember asking my mother once why Uncle Jim never washed his hands.  She scolded me, explaining that he did wash his hands, but that because he built tires, his hands were stained with carbon-black, which wouldn’t come out no matter how hard you scrubbed.  I learned later, that it would take about six months for that stuff to leach out of your pores, once you quit working.

Uncle Jim died in 1983, killed in an industrial accident on the job at B.F. Goodrich.  He was only 47.

The plant would close for good about a year later.It was an unthinkably tragic event, at a singularly traumatic time for Akron.  It was the end of an era.

 

Times Change

My friend Della Rucker recently wrote an essay entitled The Elder Children of the Rust Belt. .  It dredged up all of these old memories, and it got me thinking about childhood, about this place that I love and where I still live, and about the experience of growing up just as an economic era (perhaps the most prosperous and anomalous one in modern history) was coming to an end.

That is what the late 1970s and early 1980s was:  the end of one thing, and the beginning of a (still yet-to-be-determined) something else.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s because I was just a kid.

In retrospect, it was obvious:  the decay, the decomposition, the slow-at-first, and then faster-than-you-can-see-it unwinding of an industrial machine that had been wound-up far, far, too tight.  The machine runs until it breaks down; it is replaced then with a new and more efficient one – a perfectly ironic metaphor for an industrial society.  It was a machine made up of unions, and management, and capitalized sunk costs, and supply chains, and commodity prices, and globalization.  Except it wasn’t really a machine at all.  It was really just people.  And people aren’t machines.  When they are treated as such, and then discarded as obsolete, there are consequences.

You could hear it in the music:  from the decadent, desperately-seeking-something (escape) pulse of Disco, to the (first) nihilistic and (then) fatalistic sound of Punk and Post-Punk.  It’s not an accident that a band called Devo came from Akron, Ohio.  De-evolution:  the idea that instead of evolving, mankind has actually regressed, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society.  It sounded a lot like Akron in the late 1970s.  It still sounds a little bit like the Rust Belt today.

As an adult, looking back at the experience of growing up at that time, you realize how much it colors your thinking and outlook on life.  It’s all the more poignant when you realize that the “end-of-an-era” is never really an “end” as such, but is really a transition to something else.  But to what exactly?

The end of that era, which was marked by strikes, layoffs, and unemployment, was followed by its echoes and repercussions: economic dislocation, outmigration, poverty, and abandonment; as well as the more intangible psychological detritus – the pains from the phantom limb long after the amputation; the vertiginous sensation of watching someone (or something) die.

 

And it came to me then
That every plan
Is a tiny prayer to Father Time

As I stared at my shoes
In the ICU
That reeked of piss and 409

It sung like a violent wind
That our memories depend
On a faulty camera in our minds

‘Cause there’s no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous paces bracing for bad news

Love is watching someone die…

-Death Cab For Cutie, What Sarah Said

 

But it is both our tragedy and our glory that life goes on.

Della raised a lot of these issues:  our generation’s ambivalent relationship with the American Dream (like Della, I have the same unpleasant taste of rust in my mouth whenever I write or utter that phrase); our distrust of organizations and institutions; and our realization that you have to keep going, fight, and survive, in spite of it all.  She talks about how we came of age at a time of loss:

not loss like a massive destruction, but a loss like something insidious, deep, pervasive.

It is so true, and it is so misunderstood.

One of the people commenting on her post said, essentially, that it is dangerous to romanticize about a “golden age;” that all generations struggle; and that life is hard.

Yes, those things are all true.  But they are largely irrelevant to the topic at hand.

There is a very large middle ground between a “golden age” and an “existential struggle.”  The time and place about which we are both writing (the late 1970s through the present, in the Rust Belt) was neither heaven nor Lord of the Flies. .  But it is undoubtedly a time of extreme transition.  It is a great economic unraveling, and we are collectively and individually still trying to figure out how to navigate through it, survive it, and ultimately build something better out of it.

History is cyclical.  Regardless of how enamored Americans, in general, may be with the idea, it is not linear.  Our existence as a culture is neither a long, slow march toward utopia, nor toward oblivion.  We  see times of relative (and it’s all relative, this side of paradise) peace, prosperity, and stability; and other times of relative strife, economic upheaval, uncertainty, and instability.  But we have clearly moved from one of those times to the other, beginning in the 1970s, and continuing through the present.  And I think the Rust Belt has been that movement’s ground zero.

The point that is easy to miss when uttering phrases like “life is hard for every generation,” is that none of this discussion about the Rust Belt – where it’s been, where it is going – has anything to do with a “golden age.”  But it has everything to do with the fact that this time of transition was an era (like all eras) that meant a lot (good and bad) to the people that lived through it.  It helped make them who they are today, and it helped make where they live what it is today.

For those of us who were kids at the time that the great unraveling began   a big part of our experience has been about the narrative that we were socialized to believe in at a very young age, and how that narrative went up in a puff of smoke.

In 1977, I could smell rubber in the air, and many of my family members and friends’ parents worked in rubber factories.

In 1982, the last passenger tire was built in Akron.

By 1984, 90% of those jobs were gone, many of those people had moved out of town, and the whole thing was already a fading memory.

Just as when a person dies, people reacted with a mixture of silence, embarrassment, and denial.

 

As a kid, especially, you construct your identity based upon the place in which you live.  The whole identity that I had built, even as a small child, as a proud Akronite:  This is the RUBBER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD; this is where we make lots and lots of Useful Things for people all over the world; this is where Real Americans Do Real Work; this is where people from Europe, the South, and Appalachia come to make a Better Life for themselves.

That all got yanked away before I was 12.  I couldn’t believe any of those things anymore, because they were no longer true, and I knew it.  I could see it with my own eyes.  Maybe some of them were never true to begin with, but kids can’t live a lie the way that adults can.  When the place that you thought you lived in turns out not to be the place that you actually live in, it’s jarring and disorienting.  It can even be heartbreaking.

___

We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.

Tyler Durden, Fight Club

I’m fond of the above quote.  I was even fonder of it when I was 28 years old.  Time, and the realization that life is short — and that you ultimately have to participate and do something with it– has lessened its power considerably. But it remains the quintessential Generation X quote, from the quintessential Generation X movie.  It certainly fits in quite well with all of this.

But, then again, maybe it shouldn’t.

I use the phrase “Rust Belt Orphan” in the original title of this post, because that is what the experience of coming of age at the time of the great economic unraveling feels like at the gut-level.  But it’s a dangerous and unproductive combination, when coupled with the whole Gen-X thing.

In many ways, the Rust Belt is the “Generation X” of regions – the place that just doesn’t seem to fit in; the place that most people would just as soon forget about; the place that would, in fact, just as soon forget about itself.  The place that, if it does dare to acknowledge its own existence or needs, barely notices the surprised frowns of displeasure and disdain from those on the outside, because it has already been subsumed by its own self-doubt and self-loathing.

A fake chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

-Radiohead, Fake Plastic Trees

The whole Gen-X misfit wandering-in-the-Rust Belt-wilderness meme is a palpably prevalent, but seldom acknowledged, part of our regional culture.  It is probably just as well.

It’s so easy for the whole smoldering heap of negativity to degenerate into a viscous morass of alienation and anomie.  Little good can come from going any further down that dead-end road.

 

Whither the Future?

“The Greek word for “return” is nostosAlgos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”
– 
Milan Kundera, Ignorance

So where does this all leave us?

First, as a region, I think we have to get serious about making our peace with the past and moving on.  We have begun to do this in Akron, and, if the stories and anecdotal evidence are to be believed, we are probably ahead of the region as a whole.

But what does “making our peace” and “moving on” really mean?

In many ways, I think that our region has been going through a collective period of mourning for the better part of four decades.  Nostalgia and angst regarding the things that have been lost (some of our identity, prosperity, and national prominence)are all part of the grieving process.  The best way out is always through.

But we should grieve, not so we can wallow in the experience and refuse to move on, but so we can gain a better understanding of who we are and where we come from.  Coming to grips with and acknowledging those thingsultimately enables us to help make these places that we love better.

We Americans are generally not all that good at, or comfortable with, mourning or grief.  There’s a very American idea that grieving is synonymous with “moving on” — and (even worse) that “moving on” is synonymous with “getting over it.”

We’re very comfortable with that neat and tidy, straight, upwardly-trending line toward the future (and a more prosperous, progressive, and enlightened future it will always be, world without end, Amen). We’re not so comfortable with that messy and confusing historical cycle of boom-and-bust, of evolution and de-evolution, of creation and destruction and reinvention.  But that’s the world as we actually experience it, and it’s the one that we must live in.  It is far from perfect.  I wish that I had another one to offer you.  But there isn’t one.  For all of its trials and tribulations, the world that we inhabit has one inestimable advantage:  it is unambiguously real.

“Moving on” means refusing to become paralyzed by the past.  It means living up to our present responsibilities and striving every day to become the type of people that are better able to help others.  But “moving on” doesn’t mean that we forget about the past, that we pretend that we didn’t experience what we did, or that we create an alternate reality to avoid playing the hand that we’ve actually been dealt.

I don’t think we can, or should, “get over” the Rust Belt.  The very phrase “get over it” traffics in denial, wishful thinking, and the estrangement of one’s self from one’s roots.  Countless attempts to “get over” the Rust Belt have resulted in the innumerable short-sighted, “get rich quick” economic development projects and public-private pyramid-schemes that many of us have come to find so distasteful, ineffective, and expensive.

We don’t have to be  something that we are not. We can’t be, even if we want to.  But we do have to be the best place that we can be.  This might mean that we are a smaller, less-prominent place.  But it also means that we can be a much better-connected, more cohesive, coherent, and equitable place.

The only people that can stop us from becoming that place are we ourselves.

For a place that has been burned so badly by the vicissitudes of the global economy, Big Business, and Big Industry, we’re so quick to put our faith in the Next Big Project, the Next Big Organization, and the Next Big Thing.  I’m not sure whether this is the cause of our current economic malaise, or the effect, or both.

Whatever it is, we need to stop doing it.

Does this mean that we should never do or dream anything big?  No.  Absolutely not.

But it does mean that we should be prudent, and that we should  prefer our economic development and public investment to be hyper-nimble, hyper-scalable, hyper-neighborhood-focused, and ultra-diverse.  Fetishizing Daniel Burnham’s  “Make no little plans…” quote has done us much harm.  Sometimes “little plans” are exactly what we need, because they involve fundamentals, they’re easier to pull off, and they more readily establish trust, inspire hope, and build relationships.

Those of us who came of age during the great economic unraveling and (still painful) transition from the Great American Manufacturing Belt to the Rust Belt might just be in a better position to understand our challenges –and to find the creative solutions required to meet them head-on.  Those of us that stuck it out and still live here, know what we have been through.  We’re under no illusions about where we live, or who we are.  I think Della was on to something when she listed what she thinks that we can bring to the table:

  • Determination
  • Long-game focus
  • Understanding the depth of the pit and the long way left to climb out of it
  • Resourcefulness
  • Ability to salvage
  • Expectation that there are no easy answers
  • Disinclination to believe that everything will be all right if only we do this One Big Thing

 

When I look at this list, I see pragmatism, resilience, self-knowledge, survival skills, and leadership.

It all rings true.

He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.

“Long ago,” he said, “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.” 

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, Winter Dreams

 

So, let us have our final elegy for the Rust Belt.  Then, let’s get to work.

 

Grasshoppers without antennae: economic development and boxed-out young professionals

Want to get some help making your community’s economic development work better?  Check out www.localeconomyrevolutionbook.com.  You might thank me for that.  Or maybe not.  Won’t know til you check, will you?  

 

In a rather eerie turn of events, I ran across an article from a few days ago in the New York Times a couple of hours after I put up an admittedly uncomfortable post designed to spur some conversation around the role of young professionals in economic development.  In the article “Embracing the Millenials’ Mind-Set at Work” by Tom Agan, you read this paragraph:

When a small, closed group…  holds power, it tends to limit information and education and resist innovations that threaten its strength, the authors explain. By contrast, innovation thrives when information is unfettered, education is nurtured, people can readily form new groups, and decision-making is inclusive. These circumstances offset the strong tendency of those in power to resist change — in a country or at a company.

Studies of organizations make the point of that paragraph pretty incontrovertibly — groups that limit information and resists innovations damage themselves because they destroy their ability to understand and deal with change.  They end up like a grasshopper that loses its antennae — they fail to perceive big pieces of what’s going on around them, which means that they can’t react appropriately.  Which usually

sparrow with cricket in beak
Bird Lunch. From http://www.backyardbirdcam.com/

means they end up as Bird Lunch.

That’s why every Fortune 100 you can think of puts huge effort anymore into increasing the range of its employees – gender and race, yes, but also cross-disciplinary team assignments.  It’s not just to make nice. They’re doing it to widen their scan of the market they operate in, and the emerging issues that will help or hurt them.  They’re doing it to strengthen their antennae.

The two words I deleted at the … were: “of elites.”  I deleted that because we tend to make that assumption — that the “elites” somehow are responsible for closing out those other voices — younger, older, GenX, whatever.

I edited that quote for a reason, and it wasn’t just to be nice.

We don’t have to think of ourselves as “elites,” or have anyone else think of us as “elites,”  for that deadly closing-off effect to occur.  If, as the Twitter stream quoted in my last post indicated, young professionals working in economic development are excluded from the mainstream of the profession and are having to have “their own conversations,”  I will posit to you that this is a major risk to the economic development profession.

But frankly, I’m not too worried about them.  Young professionals who want to make their communities better will find a way, and what professional label you put on yourself probably matters less and less in the context of addressing complex contemporary challenges.

The question, then: what happens to the grasshopper that has lost its antennae.

 

Important Question: Do younger people feel boxed out of economic development?

Christa Franzi of Camoin Associates posted an insightful Twitter stream to LinkedIn the other day.  I had been part of the original discussion on Twitter, so I was particularly glad to see the key elements pulled together.  Here’s what she posted — I’ve bolded a couple of the comments that I thought were particularly insightful/disturbing:

Originally posted this question on Twitter and wanted to include the greater economic development community — some initial responses below: 

@ta9ti Some young #EconDev pros may feel boxed out but 4 the profession to succeed they need to be welcomed in. #IEDC has a #YoungPro group. ~ GISPlanning

@GISplanning @ta9ti good q. Young pro for on LI at least had been very quiet. Seems like something more interactive is needed. But what? ~Della Rucker 

@ta9ti – It’s an old school crowd in #econdev with few reaching out to younger people. Not much plan for the future-> the ‘chasm’ is growing ~GISWebTech

@dellarucker @GISplanning I think they’re thirsty to be part of the #econdev conversation, but not always included so they have their own… ~ Christa Franzi

I wrote this response. and since there has been little reaction over there, I wanted to ask this question to a broader audience.  The key question is in bold at the end.
The comment from GISWebTech above is pretty telling, and it resonates with what I have been hearing from younger professionals all over the country.
The elephant in the room, perhaps, is that three issues are converging. First, younger professionals seem to be coming in more from public policy-related fields and educational/personal backgrounds than previous generations, who mostly came in from business, marketing, etc (I don’t know this for a fact, just my sense of the wind. Would be interested if anyone has better information). My hypothesis would be that this means that these folks are coming from a more holistic, and perhaps more complex, world view than folks who came in to the field with “go sell this town/state” marching orders.
Second, I would posit that younger folks might have a harder time buying into conventional, relatively simple understandings of the economic development job. Those that find themselves operating within a sell-at-all-costs, winning-is-the-only-thing environment might find it hard to reconcile that job description with the broader picture of the health of the communities they care about (where they work, where they grew up, whatever). If you have watched your community and the school district you came out of continue to struggle for funds, and you can go through your college friends and count the number working for low wages, part time, brutal hours, etc., …I wrote recently about how the experience of growing up in the Rust Belt when I did had the ability to blow big holes in your faith in the system, in your assumption that “New Economic Thing” = Issues That Matter To You Get Better. I wonder if some of that might be in play here.
Last, there’s no question in my mind that the economic development profession as a whole is going through some massive growing pains. Just like practically every industry , we’re being forced to shift from an old, formerly stable model to…. what? No one’s 100% sure yet. And that’s understandably scary for a lot of people who were comfortable with the way things used to work. So there’s this pervasive tension between status quo guards and those who might be wondering whether the Emperor actually has anything on.
All that isn’t unique to economic development, but as other industries trying to innovate have found, you have to open the door to let meaningful discussions about change happen. You have to make it OK for people to say that something needs to change, and by and large I don’t really see that going on in economic development at this point, certainly not to the extent that it has gone on in city management or urban planning. Without broadly and meaningfully opening the door, without enabling and accepting meaningful discussions about how to innovate — without making it OK within the professional culture to say something innovated– only the really bull-headed are going to take that risk. Instead, an alternative conversation is going develop, and the ability for the broader community to discover the changes that they need is going to be hobbled.
So, let me reframe the question: if young ED professionals are having “their own” conversations about the practice and future of economic development, how do the rest of us help get that conversation into the mainstream, for the benefit of all of us?

The Tornado at work: excepts from my interview at Strengthening Brand America

I was so honored that Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America asked me to do an interview with him about The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  That interview ran this morning.

A lot of SBA’s work is structured around the idea of reframing economic development work in terms of how it will impact existing local residents, and (being a good branding guy), he refers to that as helping residents reach their “American Dream.”  I wrote last week about how my own experience makes me deeply uneasy with even those words, and I think you’ll pick up on that if you’re paying attention.  That tension between Ed’s vision and my past experience creates a question that I’d like to hear from you about sometime: Do we know what residents are looking for, and do we actually have the ability to help them achieve it?  And should we?

Ah, yes, the interview.

The Local Economy Revolution is one of those packages of ideas that’s simple on the surface, but sometimes hard to fully get your head around.  As a result, I’ve been slowly learning how to explain what this book is about,, and do it in a way that balances the hearfelt and the head-worthy.  I think I’m getting better at it.

You can read the whole interview here (including the part where Ed describes me as a terrible destructive force feared by all Midwesterners…hm), but here’s a taste:

So what I most wanted to do with this book was peel back, get underneath the level of the programs and methods that we tell people they should be using, and get to the deeper place of why it matters.  Why is it that we need to change what we do so fundamentally?  What’s driving the need to discard some of our familiar old approaches and strike out in directions that are unfamiliar and scary?  Why should I keep trying when it’s hard, so very hard?

The book was designed to give people an underpinning, a deep framework for understanding why all the new methods and change are necessary. And hopefully find some encouragement to keep at it when the work of being a changemaker gets tough.

…I am starting to conclude that the attraction model of economic development, at its core, has largely outlived its usefulness, and I think that simply transferring economic development’s historic dependence on attraction strategies from businesses to people… doesn’t fundamentally impact the root of the problem.

Here’s what I mean:  If a community is going to focus on “becoming a magnet for top talent,” it’s going to find itself in tighter and tighter competition for a pool of “talent” that, if it’s growing, isn’t growing at anywhere near the rate necessary to appease the huge and growing number of places trying to jockey for a piece of that action. ….

The goal can’t be simply making your community a magnet for talent. I think we have to shift internally, to focus on making the best possible use of the community and human assets we have in our communities. That means growing our own talent based on the unique environment that each place individually offers.   And we have to start with the raw materials that we have to work with.  Otherwise we have just shifted the hunt for big businesses to the hunt for fancy degrees, while the places we are trying to attract them to fall apart.

I want to not only see the denizens of the other local government silos at the economic development plan table, but I want to see the shop teacher, the high school student, the immigrant mom, the environmental whacko who opposes everything….they all need to be part of it, or at some level, it doesn’t work.  It won’t work, it will miss something important. That doesn’t mean that they’re allowed to drag the work off track or overturn the objectives. It does mean that a structure is used to engage them in the search for solutions that everyone knows we need.

I don’t claim to have a magic answer to all our community economic woes.  What I have concluded is that our usual simplistic approaches – shoving on two or three levers and insisting that our tweaks on those will generate the complex results that we said we wanted – that’s not working.  As humankind, we have methods for understanding and dealing with complex interrelationships, but we’re not using them on the public policy level yet.  My long-term objective for the Wise Fool Press is to help us do that better.  But we have to make that mental shift, step out of that simplistic paradigm first, before we can do the rest.

 

Thanks again to Ed for the very kind opportunity to continue to share this message.

Tactical Economy?

I have written a few blog entries and posted a few videos at the Local Economy Revolution book web site this week about an event that I participated in last weekend in Middlesboro, Kentucky.  This small town on the edge of the Cumberland Gap held an event called Better Block Boro, and I was one of three national figures who were invited to come, participate and share our expertise.  The other two, Mike Lydon of The Street Plans Collaborative and Matt Tomasulo of Walk Your City, helped the participants implement some tactical urbanism strategies to demonstrate the impact that some relatively simple improvements could make in terms of the downtown area’s quality of life.

I, on the other hand, spent most of the day in “pop-up” conversations with Mike, Tom, Isaac (the downtown program manager) and many others about how low-cost, low-risk improvements like these impact local economies.  With everything that was going on, we had a lot of food for thought.

You can review some of the photos and videos from that event at localeconomyrevolutionbook.com.

Tactical urbanism at work.  Guerilla historic markers.  Makes you realize the potential right in front of you, See more examples at http://wp.me/p3SamA-1m
Tactical urbanism at work. Guerilla historic markers. Makes you realize the potential right in front of you, See more examples at http://wp.me/p3SamA-1m

As I was driving away from Middlesboro that afternoon, I started thinking more directly about how the principles behind tactical urbanism might be applied to revitalizing local economies as well.  There’s several spoken and, sometimes, unspoken assumptions behind tactical urbanism that drive this strategy’s relevance and increasing importance for communities these days.  Without cribbing from any of the standard sources, here’s my interpretation of why Better Block/tactical urbanism efforts have become such a powerful part of the urban planning landscape:

  • They focus on improvements that are achievable in the short term.  Rather than waiting to pull together the funding, the plans, the approvals needed to do a Big Project, they emphasize doing what they can do with what’s available.  Pallets get turned into chairs and bike racks and tables and hanging planters (how many uses can you think of for a wooden delivery pallet?  A whole lot more than I had come up with, apparently).  Vacant lots get turned into outdoor dining spaces and music stages, and extra parking spaces turn into community gathering spots.
  • They place emphasis on the community education that comes from the improvements as much or more so than the actual thing they build themselves.  The goal of a pallet street chair isn’t just to give people someplace to sit.  It’s to give them a real-world lesson in the impact of making public spaces comfortable for people to hang out in.  The implicit realization: many places have had such paltry human-scale public space investment over the last couple of generations that building support for meaningful investments means physically demonstrating what we can do and how it can impact the community.
  • They know that iterative is OK.  A Better Block event is by its nature a little messy.  You have volunteers working on a dozen little projects, things being built out of castoffs, “scavengers” hunting for more wood or tarps or whatever, and a constant stream of “Where can I find an extension cord?” “Do you know where the staple gun is?”  “What do you need me to do?”  The goal isn’t to do everything.  It’s to do enough, this time, with what we’ve got, to move things forward, to spark some understanding and some energy, to get farther down the road to something better than we are today.

One thing Mike Lydon told me is that when his firm proposes to design conventional streetscapes or park improvements or the like anymore, they add a tactical urbanism piece to their proposal — they want to build something physical, something temporary, to maintain the community’s desire to implement the full plan during the long period between finishing the pretty pictures and getting the funding and approvals together to build the permanent project.  They’ve come to understand that people need to see forward momentum, that simply designing something to plop into a space often doesn’t empower the change in minds and hearts necessary to make real community change happen.  After decades of working with urban planners and designers across the spectrum, I felt like a veil had been lifted.

 

The broad conditions that I think have led to the growth of tactical urbanism pull from the same zeitgeist that is impacting how we do a lot of the work that we find ourselves needing to do with our community’s economy.  That includes:

  • Not enough money to do the big projects that we relied on in years past
  • Increasing awareness of the complexity and interrelated impacts that those big projects can generate
  • Increasing levels of peoples’ ability to access and spread their own information (or misinformation) about your Big Project’s feared impacts
  • Increasing distrust that the Big Project will have all the benefits that its supporters promise.

For physical planners, those Big Projects might have been multi-million dollar streetscapes or parks.  For people in economic development and revitalization, that might be big commercial building projects, things that require big financial incentives, big business recruitment.  Just like the streetscapes and the parks, those kinds of economic projects still happen in many places, but the broad trend seems to be that they are getting harder to do, demand more and more money and staff time and community energy, and too often fail to live up to their promised impacts.

So, this is the germ of an idea, and I’m putting it out to you for your ideas, thoughts, brick-throwing exercise, whatever.

I think that we need to start developing a Tactical Economy toolkit.  When people want to do Better Block stuff, a quick Google search can give them all sorts of ideas for projects to try and stuff to build.  Part of what people find when they do that search is simply ideas that they might not have come up with otherwise (how often do you think of putting up guerilla historic signs?), while the other part is specific plans and step-by-step instructions, such as to build a chair.  Not exactly something you want to just take a flyer at and then leave out for people to sit on.

We need both of these in  Tactical Economy toolkit.  Some of the tools might be pretty straightforward to implement – the challenge may be simply helping people think of them.  Others might require some how-to instructions.

What do you think?

 

 

The elder children of the Rust Belt

Psst…looking for some new ideas to make your town better?  Check out www.localeconomyrevolutionbook.com.  But you didn’t hear it from me, ya got that?

 

Growing up in New Castle, Indiana, identical twins Kelly and Kyle Phelps shared everything – a bed, hand-me-downs from their six older siblings, their school classrooms, and all the rhythms and routines of life in a Rust Belt manufacturing town during the 1970s and ’80s, the waning heyday of the American auto industry….

“Kyle and I would go and pick the metal shavings out of the bottoms of his soles. It was big fun to do that,” Kelly recalls. Their dad’s clothes would smell of machine oil, a powerful sense memory for the twins to this day. The next morning, without fail and without complaint, he’d get up and do it all over again….

Now 40, the Phelps twins share a very personal artistic vision. Together they make art that puts a human face on a growing statistic – workers displaced by downsizing, outsourcing, automation, and hard times.”

–  “American Made. ” American Craft Magazine http://craftcouncil.org/magazine/article/american-made

 

sculpture of work shoe
Kyle and Kelly Phelps, “Industrial Sole.” The most moving to me of the works in the article, probably because my dad wore work shoes a lot like this.

Before I write anything else, let me encourage you to go read this article and examine the Phelps brothers’ work.  Haunting isn’t a good enough word for it.

I read this article on a flight, and had to keep my sunglasses on because of my red eyes.  I read art magazines a lot — I have a taste for contemporary ceramics and jewelry — but I tend to prefer abstract designs and shy away from representational work.  So my reaction to this article caught me way off guard.

The thing that bewildered me is how deeply the Phelps brothers’ work resonates to me.  And for many reasons,  it shouldn’t.  I grew up in a town a lot, a lot like New Castle, but I live a comfortable middle class life now.  On top of that, a lot of the Phelps brothers’ work reflects the role of unions in Rust Belt workers’ lives.   I have a personal,  emotional-level ambivalence toward unions, which were often blamed for making the collapse of the industrial economy worse when I was a kid.  But I”m only saying that to get my own emotional baggage out onto the open.

 —

It’s there something about rust belt children of our generation that is different?  What do we know/claim/resonate?  I’m talking here particularly about the children of the blue collar workers.  So that doesn’t include my husband, who grew up in the heart of the Rust Belt, but whose dad had gotten out of Appalachia and into upper management.  And maybe not even my brother in law, who spends every working day now managing the GM factory in Flint, Michigan, arguably Rust Belt Ground Zero.  He didn’t grow up being formed by that experience, although he lives in its backwash now.  And certainly there’s many people younger than I who have gotten caught up in the subsequent waves and have certainly been shaped by their experience too.

But there’s a small cadre of us who had that experience in the beginning, in the 1970s and 80s in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Buffalo and Akron and Gary and Milwaukee and more, and who are now working in communities in the Midwest and across the world.  And as I have gotten to know many of them and listened to them, is striking me that we may share a unique perspective.

But I’m not yet sure what it is.

 

Is it an ambivalent relationship with American Dream idea?

A background expectation of uncertainty?

A tendency to assume uncertainty, impermanence, in economic fortunes and community life?

Awareness of how much pain your can have, and how helpless you can be, in face of major economic shifts?

A realization that you have to keep going regardless?  A certain kinds of stoicness–maybe learned from watching parents get dislocated?

A distrust of organizations and institutions.  Maybe not distrust–but lack of faith.  expectation of fallibility?

Awareness of risk of romanticizing?

Hm.

The Rust Belt’s children know probably better than any that something is gone that will never come back.  We watched the industrial age end, not on TV or in an academic report.  We stood in the wings while the scenery crashed down.  We are the ones who watched as children while the old world died.

And many, many of us got out, while others chose to stay and fight.

Perhaps the big difference is this: we came of age in time of loss–not loss like a massive destruction, but a loss like something insidious, deep, pervasive.

We are specifically the first post-American Dream generation, or generational cohort, to be specific. We were probably first in at least a few generations who couldn’t make that assumption about doing better than our parents, at least, not make it automatically.  And that’s not because we haven’t done better than our parents, by and large, although that’s probably generally true.  But we saw our parents not do better than their parents.

Maybe that’s why talk about an American Dream sounds so hollow to me, why I can’t even write that phrase without discomfort.  Even though my own story, the fact that I have had the education I have had and  live comfortably and all that makes me in some respects the poster child for that idea….

I’m seldom not aware that my story has been something of an outlier.

There’s a place in the back of my mind where I never really believe it’s permanent.  Even after all these years, I can never lose the sense that the other shoe can quickly drop.

I have a hard time believing that the idea of an American Dream of some kind isn’t rhetoric.  And my gut sense is that I’m not alone.


So what do we, the oldest Children of the Rust Belt, specifically bring to the work of revitalizing our communities?

Maybe it looks a little like this:

Determination.
Long game focus.
Understanding of the depth of the pit and the long way left to climb out of it.
Resourcefulness.
Ability to salvage.
Expectation that there are no easy answers.
Dis-inclination to believe that everything will be all right if only we do this One Big thing.

Years ago, I gave a keynote speech in Michigan.  It was one of the first time I’d been back in Michigan since starting to work out the early versions of my core message.

And I felt actually embarrassed taking to this audience about small business ecosystem and resilience and all this stuff.  More than most places in US, these guys were already doing it.  They’d had to–they lost the other options long before.

Are we the ones to whom new economic realities, and the apparent best but not easiest answers, make the most sense?


An elegy is an exercise in emotion–it’s a Romantic-era conceit that expressing strong feelings is all that is needed.  An elegy does not help us figure out what to do with it.

But as I’ve said elsewhere, we aren’t just creatures of the head… We have to remember, to reconnect with the reasons why the hard work we do matters. 

Maybe the oldest children of the Rust Belt can help us all learn some of the lessons that our communities need.

 

 

Miles to go before I sleep: Events & appearances this week (Oct. 23-26)

Having just come through a presentation and great discussions at the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) North American conference in Salt Lake City, and then a moderated session and lots of great discussions at the International Economic Development Council Annual Conference in Philadelphia…

you’d think it might be a good idea to stay near home for a while.  And my landscaping and half-empty freezer would agree with you, not to mention the other humans in the house:

(“What do you mean you can’t pick me up this afternoon?”  “Um, I’m in Utah, for one thing…”)

However, that’s not gonna happen.  Next week I’ll be roaming all over, switching hats on the fly and burning up my tires as I go.  Here’s the itinerary:

  • Wednesday and Thursday morning (October 23 and 24), I’ll be at the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City Economic Summit in my role as Managing Editor of Engaging Cities.  My plan is to record interviews and conversations with as many interesting people as I can during the time I’m there. If you see anyone on the agenda that you’re particularly interested in hearing from, let me know and I’ll work on it I’ll cross post what I learn both here and at EngagingCities.

 

 

  • Friday night, I’ll be heading from Columbus to Middlesborough, Kentucky to participate in their inaugural Better Block Boro event on Saturday, October 26.  I’m not exactly sure what I’m getting into, but it promises to be a combination street fair, unconference, urban hack, and DIY urbanism event — all in a (formerly) quiet Appalachian town.  I’ll be leading a pop up talk/discussion around the learnings from my new book, The Local Economy Revolution:What’s Changed and How You Can Help, signing booksdesk, and nosing around and recording as much of the other stuff going on as I can.

Then I come back and try to remember where my office is!

desk by window
The desk at The Clearing in Wisconsin where I wrote The Local Economy Revolution. If I end up here, I’m in big, big trouble.

For the People Who Give A Damn: Della gets interviewed by PodCatalyst

I had such a great interview the other day with Clay Banks, one of the brains behind the great economic development podcast Podcatalyst….and discovered to a little bit of shock when they posted the interview that he had pulled the title from a line in the introduction of The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.

In the introduction, I say that the book is for community professionals, elected officials and the broad variety of “people who give a damn” about their communities.

My mother would not be happy, but ya know, I think it fits….

Podcatalyst does a great job of sharing interesting conversations with people who are doing ground-breaking economic development stuff all over the country.  We’re looking at developing a partnership with Podcatalyst to cross-post content (they have an Itunes feed, while we go with SoundCloud).    So I’d encourage you to check out my interview, but to also dig through their catalog.

So be sure to check out this interview, and the rest of Podcatalyst’s work.   And thanks so much to Chad, Trey and Victoria for the chance to chat!

The Book is DONE! The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help

Woo Hoo!

After much head-thumping against online publishing systems and my own levels of distraction, the first Wise Economy publication is finally on sale!

The book is titled The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  It’s designed to do the one thing that the piles upon piles of economic development/local government/planning books out there don’t do:

It’s designed to give all  of us a deep understanding about how what we need to do in our communities has changed, and help us summon the bravery and determination to go do it in the face of all the frustrations and resistance that any change-maker is going to encounter.

For that reason, I wrote it in the most accessible, personal style I could muster.  You’ll find some talk in here about economic structures, measurement systems, downtown revitalization strategies and economic development incentives, but you’ll also find stories designed to bring that abstract stuff down to where our guts live — to families, personal histories, loves and loss.  cover of book

Longtime readers of the Wise Economy blog will probably recognize some of the stories, but you’ll also find new stories and a new sense of comprehension, structure and meaning that becomes possible when you work in something bigger than 600 – word chunks.  And more importantly, I think you will find something here that you can share – with your colleagues, with your board members and volunteers, to help encourage them to see the big picture of what you’re trying to do, and maintain the willpower to keep it going forward.  I think, and hope, that this book gives you a platform to support your own local economy revolution.

I’m obviously not just doing a charity here, but writing this book, like most of the writing I do, isn’t a great money-making proposition.  The market for books is glutted and even with all the online tools, it’s hard as hell for one little voice to get itself heard.  But after a lot of years of listening to the resolve and fight and  heartbreaks of many of you, and watching what works and what seems to be failing, I think this book is a message that we all need right now — that engages the head and the heart together and strengthens us to keep pursuing what we know our communities need.

So, I’m hoping you’ll help.

First, if you want to buy the book, you have four current options:

  • You can buy it for your Kindle e-reader here.  You can also download a free Kindle Reader app for your smartphone or tablet or computer here – it works well.
  • You can buy it for a Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader here.
  • If you’d like a hard copy, nicely bound and all pretty-like version, we got’cha covered right here.
  • AND, if you want to go relatively old-school and don’t mind doing your own printing, you can get a PDF version el cheapo here!

I’m still working on the Apple iBook edition.  But that’s coming soon.

 

Second, if you do get a copy and read it (and you don’t completely hate it), I’d be grateful for your positive review on any of the sites.  Even a couple of sentences would be helpful.  If you’re really sweet, I might ask your permission to put your quote in the front of the next version!

Third, if you want to learn more about how exactly we can get this hard and important work done, bookmark http://localeconomyrevolutionbook.com.  We’ll be sharing real-world examples and having important discussions over there.

Fourth, if you have colleagues, bosses, junior staffers, elected officials, volunteers or random humans that you think would benefit from the paradigm-shift and encouragement that this book offers, please share with them.

 

As I wrote somewhere near the end of this thing, we who are trying to make our places better often feel like a violin in the void.  But in our communities, a strong violin can change the void.  We can do that.  We have to do that.

It’s a job for the head and the heart.  My deepest hope is that this book feeds both.

 

So vive la revolucion.  And thanks for joining me on the adventure.

 

 

 

It’s not an answer, it’s a conversation: EMSI and learning to use data for decisions (audio interview)

This interview with Rob Sentz of Economic Modelling Specialists Inc. (EMSI) introduces you to one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive data analysis platforms out there today, and it gives a great insight into why producing a Thing that grabs a lot of data — or grabbing data to try to plug into a fast decision —  isn’t enough.  Not if we actually intend to develop intelligent solutions to wicked community problems.

When I heard that EMSI was starting a fairly intensive training program for users of its subscription-based tool, I was a little surprised.  Even the earlier versions of the EMSI platfom that I have used in years past were, I thought, pretty easy to use, and I knew the new version, which I had seen but hadn’t played with, was even more user-friendly.  So why would this very established platform, with lots of long-term users, feel the need to get into the training business?

The answers, for me, were pretty interesting.  Here’s a few of the elements that I think are most informative:

  • EMSI wanted people to understand what they were doing.  They wanted users to not only grab data sets that looked relevant, but they wanted people to understand the background of the data they were using — what a source was designed for, what it includes, what it doesn’t include, what assumptions underlie that data set and how it might or might not be relevant to your situation.  Educated people, theoretically, know that data sources are only as good as the source, and than garbage in can equal garbage out.  But how often do you use online information, or get handed some kind of analysis, and have any clue whether you can actually trust the information to mean what you think it does?  And if you don’t know if you can trust it, do you take it on faith or do you slip it into the drawer and go back to deciding by the seat of your pants?

 

  • EMSI seems to understand that in pushing for this higher level of understanding, they are quietly fighting against one of the biggest challenges facing every analyst, analysis-user or data-provider:  We want that pile of information to directly tell us what to do.  Make it easy, on us, we secretly tell our computers.  Just give me an answer, hand me a Number, and let me get on with it.  But Rob articulates the challenge beautifully: real data analysis, the kind that allows us to make intelligent decisions, is not a magic pill.  There are few easy answers.  Meaningful data analysis requires, as he put it, a “conversation” with the data — a back-and forth process that takes us gradually through the layers and builds a mature understanding, not a simplistic assumption  — or a wild goose chase.

 

  • EMSI came to this understanding out of a very simple strategy: they listened to their customers.  As Rob says, ” Any time you create a technology, people will use it for stuff you haven’t planned on.”  So EMSI has remained in conversation with its users, too — and grown and changed along with them.  It wasn’t enough to just put a platform out there and update the information regularly.  The meaning, and the value, of what they provide to their subscribers, comes from this ongoing conversation, and their willingness to change in ways that build that relationship.  And that’s a different skill set than crunching data or building an app.

After all the time I’ve spent lately  talking with Pete Mallow about The Number and how we have to do economic analysis better, and all the time I spend here and at Engaging Cities looking at online civic tech, I particularly enjoyed this conversation with Rob.   You can learn more about EMSI and its tools, and read some great case studies, at http://www.economicmodeling.com.  And if you decide to call them up, say hello for me.

Enjoy!

 

False Choices and the Only Differences Worth Exploring

Jason Segedy is a planner and transportation leader extraordinare, and he’s also one of very few people I have ever, ever met who can both talk with expertise about Complete Streets design and put a quote from Dostoyevsky in his email signature.  And then share an obscure Joy Division track.  The Renaissance Man is alive and well, thank you.

Jason recently started blogging, which is fantastic because he’s had a tendency to write multi-Tweet epistles that you know are saying something profound but you have to tease it out from all the intervening junk (not your tweets, of course!).   So I’ve been delighted to see him get a chance to take his perspective and run with it.

He posted a piece yesterday that quite impressed me – both for its insight and for its articulate-ness.  He embedded a description of the neighborhood where he grew up in the middle of it, and while that description paints a powerful picture, I wanted to make sure you heard both his primary focus and had an opportunity to think about that experience.  So I’m going to share his work with you via two posts.  This one is mostly focused on what I’ve termed in the past False Dichotomies…but I think Jason says it better than I did.  The second post is going to get into his personal reflections on what it was like to grow up in the kind of neighborhood that he sees being challenged.

Full, albeit uninteresting, disclosure: I had a piece published by New Geography a couple of years ago.  I read the blog occasionally, but I haven’t yet read the piece that Jason is responding to.  Didn’t want to wait the 6 months it might take me to get back to it at my current rate before I shared Jason’s work with you.

Make sure you go follow Jason at thestile1972.tumblr.com, and pick him up on Twitter @thestile1972.  You will be glad you did.

____

Over at New Geography, Joel Kotkin says this:

“In this bizarrely politicized environment, even the preservation of the most basic institution of society – the family – is morphing into a divisive partisan issue.”

I agree with him.

But then his very own web site runs an a post by Mike Lanza entitled “Suburb Hating is Anti-Child” that says this:

“A large proportion of intellectuals and politicians, including President Obama, decry these problems with suburbs as reason to hate them and advocate for their elimination, in favor of dense, big cities.”

So, after decrying the fact that the civic discourse regarding cities and suburbs has been “bizarrely politicized” and bemoaning the fact that it has “degenerated into a divisive partisan issue,” New Geography proceeds to do just that: create a bizarre politicized environment and foment partisan divisiveness over that very same issue.

What gives?

I have never seen someone with strong opinions about residential living environments (be they urban, suburban, small town, or rural) change their mind in a point/counterpoint exchange. It is about as likely as seeing atheists and theists; staunch conservatives and liberals; or abortion opponents and proponents change their point-of-view following a spirited debate. It doesn’t happen.

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to respond. Why?

Because I think the entire debate is a false choice to begin with. And if there is one thing that is singularly responsible for hamstringing our civic discourse in this country for as long as I’ve been alive, it is the proliferation of false choices and how they get foisted upon the unwilling and the unaware.

Generation X and Millennials have never known an America where you could have an honest disagreement on public policy without the same tired partisan straw men being trotted out over and over again. Cities vs. Suburbs is an old classic. Elitists versus Salt-of-the-Earth; Enlightened versus Ignorant; Socialists versus Real American Patriots.

The real Americans are all in small towns! No, that’s where the bitter clingers and fanatics live!

It’s tiresome and depressing – all the more so  because none of it is even remotely close to the truth.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Good and decent people; people that love children, their neighbors, the place they live, and their country; they are found everywhere – big cities, small cities, suburbs, towns, rural areas. Everywhere. There are also some crummy people out there. Unfortunately, they can be found everywhere, too. And they always seem to have a disproportionately large negative impact. C’est la vie.

The only differences worth exploring and debating with regards to cities and suburbs, in my mind, are those that involve space and place; along with the associated and interrelated issues of:

1) Fiscal Sustainability: How do we ensure that taxpayer dollars devoted to public infrastructure are used wisely? and

2) Community Viability: How do we create places that future generations will cherish, enjoy, and be willing to sustain?

The short answer to both questions is that we should want to have cities, suburbs, small towns, and communities of all types which are fiscally sustainable and are built to last for generations to come. How precisely, we, the American people, should do that is a topic that is worth debating.

Here is what is not worth debating: Which types of people live in which places and which types of grievances do they have to bring against one another? Which places contain people that are good and virtuous and which ones contain people that are evil and corrupt?  This is all just begging the question.

The core premises  are fallacious: suburb hating; child hating.

Why do you hate the suburbs? Why do you hate children?

When did you stop beating your wife? These are classic loaded questions.

Are there people out there that hate suburbs? Yes. Are there people out there that hate children? Yes. Are there people that hate both, and see a connection between the two? I don’t know.  Probably.

Do most intellectuals and urban politicians hate suburbs and children? I don’t think so. Do some? Sure. There are boorish cranks in every crowd.

None of this is new, or noteworthy. People of every social class, ethnicity, and creed that have hated people that aren’t like them. There are not a lot of them, but there are far too many. This is why the history of humankind is one of nearly continual strife, bloodshed, and warfare.

But is there really an organized conspiracy, involving President Obama and a cadre of elite intellectuals, bent on eliminating suburbs?

If there is, they are failing miserably. Honestly, it begins to sound like Agenda 21 paranoia.

I don’t believe that Mike Lanza really believes in his heart of hearts that there is a far-reaching organized conspiracy to eliminate suburbs. I think this is simply rhetorical posturing on his part. But even if he does, this is America, and he is entitled to his opinion; and either way, I wish him well personally. We agree to disagree. He has something that he cares enough about to devote an entire blog post to it; he clearly cares about people and places, and that’s good enough for me.

But I don’t recognize my experience, or that of my urban friends, family, and colleagues in the piece that Mike Lanza has written. Similarly, I don’t recognize the caricatures of suburbanites that appear in the missives penned by those with a political axe to grind against the suburbs.

 

So let’s not do it anymore. Let’s not get caught up in these endless arguments about the real and imagined virtues or vices of the people that live here, or the people that live there.

Let’s focus instead on the ends that we can agree on: Quality places that are built to last, which people can love, care about, and will preserve; infrastructure and public investment which is fiscally sustainable and which furthers the cause of creating better places.

And let’s reserve our disagreements and our passionate debates (and we should have them) for the means to carry out those agreed-upon ends. What should our transportation policy look like? Housing policy? Land use? How do we strike that balance between environmental protection, jobs, and property rights? Let’s debate it all.

But let’s debate it with intelligence and good will. Let’s assume that one another’s intentions are benevolent, rather than malevolent. It’s obvious that Mike Lanza cares about places, he cares about people, and he cares about kids. I know that he is doing good work for kids. I apologize for hastily characterizing his piece as “outright lies” on Twitter yesterday. I still disagree with his overall premise and with the false choices that it entails. Disagree we may, but I think we can still learn from one another.

“To find the middle way will require all our intelligence and all our good will…”

-Aldous Huxley

You think you have tough public meetings? How about handling 10 languages? (Audio interview)

I did an interview in my role as Managing Editor for EngagingCities that I thought Wise Economy readers would also find interesting.  This half-hour discussion focuses on what an organization called CDF in Clarkston, Georgia is doing to build its residents’ ability to prioritize and addresses the community’s needs– and they’re doing it in a community that’s about as challenging as I can imagine.

You think it’s hard to have a productive public meeting in your town?  Imagine having a 42% foreign-born population, most of whom are refugees from civil wars, and running small group discussions among people who speak 10 different languages.  And then asking them to set priorities, designate representatives and figure out what to about them with a small but not insignificant pot of money. CDF’ s story will give you a good sense of what rising to a challenge like this takes.

I wrote a little more about this at Engaging Cities if you want a somewhat more detailed summary.  But stream or download from the link below to hear the story.  You won’t regret it.

Get better stilts: Uncertainty and The Number

Here’s the latest from my friend, regional analysis wizard and former real estate developer Dr. Peter Mallow, in our series of explorations about how the way we do economic analysis often sets us up for trouble.

In this one, Pete is taking on one of my favorite we-all-know-it-but-we-don’t-want-to-admit-it-and-then-it-bites-us topics: the fact that even our best predictions are built on inherent uncertainties.  We can’t avoid that, but we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, either.  So we ought to know what we’re looking at, and deal with it.

 

You can read Pete’s previous work here and here, and your can review an annotated version of a presentation we do here, and if you’re really a glutton you can listen to one of our presentations here.

Take it away, Pete!

___

If you read the past couple of posts on this topic, you learned that The Number can often be misleading or plain wrong.  For those that missed those posts, “The Number” refers to the new dollars, jobs, and taxes that an economic impact analysis claims will materialize from a new public project or a company coming to town. The expert or software has done some kind of magic with the data and returned a single Number that supposedly best describes how great the public project or company will be for the community.

People like The Number because it’s simple and it’s easy to understand.  However, it is almost always, by definition, wrong.  Even the best intentioned, well-meaning analysis is most certainly wrong when it reports one Number – that’s Statistics and Probability 101. We often excuse our Number’s lack of accuracy when we realize how far off The Number was through some variant of “garbage in, garbage out.”  We easily claim that the data or assumptions driving the analysis were flawed, and we can blame some combination of uncontrollable factors.

But this is an over-simplification of the problem. Uncertainty is, fundamentally the real problem, and most of the time uncertainty is the root cause of the Number turning out to be wrong.  Uncertainty exists everywhere in the analysis, whether the data is finely tuned or back of napkin.  Yet we give the uncertainty inherent in our analyses very little attention.

To better understand uncertainty, think of walking on stilts.  The smaller the base of the stilt the harder it is to balance and walk. The width of the base of the stilt represents how certain you are that The Number is actually correct.  In this case uncertainty takes the form of four different stilts – more on that in a moment. But think for a minute about the width of those stilts – how strong or weak, stable or wobbly, each one of them could be.

people on stilts
I think these guys need wider stilts. From Flickr Creative Commons

The more certain you think you are of your analysis results, the more narrow the range of results you will consider as possible outcomes.  If you’re so sure of your analysis that you can say, “this number is, most definitely, absolutely, the thing that is going to happen!”  then the stilt holding you up is very narrow- in fact, it’s only one number wide.  If you know that there’s a range of possible outcomes – if the results could vary – then admitting that range of possibilities means that your stilt is wider and more stable –its strength does not depend on just one number.

We know instinctively that wider stilts mean a stronger and safer walking experience.

If we build our plans on the basis of one Number, and we don’t account for other possibilities, then it is as though we are walking on very skinny stilts.  All it takes is a little variation, something relatively minor to go wrong, and the plans we made on the basis of those assumptions will go all to pieces.

 

There are four of these stilts, or types of uncertainty: The economists have defined them with the following words:

  • Stochastic,
  • Parameter,
  • Heterogeneity, and
  • Structural.

Don’t worry, we will peel back the jargon.

Here’s the main thing to remember: uncertainty is always present – you cannot escape it.  But by understanding the types of uncertainty, and carefully checking your “stilts” to make sure they are as wide and solid as possible, you can have greater confidence in The Number.

Here are the four basic types of uncertainty that we need to check our stilts for:

 

Stochastic Uncertainty (aka randomness)

Stochastic uncertainty is the randomness of life.  It basically means that you don’t know exactly what will happen until after the thing happens.  Here’s an example: if you toss a coin into the air, you know it will either be heads or tails. But which one?  You won’t know the answer until you toss the coin.

In terms of economic development there will always be some randomness about the project or new company that you cannot control nor predict – at least, not until after it has happened.

 

Parameter Uncertainty

A parameter is a set of measurable characteristics that define an object. How you define these characteristics is not set in stone, and if what happens differs from the parameters, then the results will be different as well.

For example, a high tech industry can be defined the types of jobs it contains (i.e. computer scientists, executives, sales people, administrative, engineers, etc.).  The specific mix of these jobs will be different for every company.  However, when you are looking at the economic analysis of a high tech industry, you will be working within a parameter – you will be using an assumption about the types of jobs that a new company within that industry will employ.

If a new company says it will bring in 1,000 new jobs, it’s possible that their employment could include any possible combination of job types that equal 1,000. But based on the type of industry, the economic impact analysis will probably assume a certain set of parameters – a typical or average or idealized mix of job types that it assumes the new business will create.  But this specific business might not fit those parameters.  If the new company ends up with a larger than typical number of remote sales jobs and administrative people, for example, then the parameter assumptions that fed into the economic impact analysis.  When that occurs, The Number will not reflect what actually happened.

Another way to think about parameter uncertainty is our coin example from before.  We know a fair coin has a 50 percent chance of landing heads.  However, if we toss it 100 hundred times and find that 54 were heads.  Is this wrong?  No, it is parameter uncertainty.  Just because we know the odds are 50-50 doesn’t mean that 54-46 isn’t entirely possible.

 

Heterogeneity Uncertainty

Heterogeneity is a complex way of saying no two jobs are the same. Take, for example, a cashier job at Costco and one at Wal-Mart. Both positions require the same tasks and responsibilities, but people working in those jobs may be making very different wages for doing fundamentally the same work. In the economic impact analysis, we usually assume an average or typical or idealized income, but what actually happens can vary widely from that assumption.

 

Structural Uncertainty

Structural uncertainty is inherent any type of methodological approach, like the process used to develop any kind of economic study.  Economic impact analyses can be done in a number of different ways, ranging from complex input/output methods, to simple arithmetic estimates, and any number of methods in between.  They can also be done for different time periods. The choice of the method, the time period and how the parameters interact cause structural uncertainty. Remember every model is an abstraction of reality. Yet all too often only one model and its parameters are provided as the best abstraction of reality.

Uncertainty is always present. If you don’t analyze how uncertainty impacts the assumptions that are holding up your studies, that uncertainty will eventually make matchsticks out of the wooden legs that you’re standing on. But there is good news: you can make informed decisions to reinforce your analysis based on your analysis of uncertainty.

Most importantly, exploring and admitting uncertainty will probably lead you to report The Number as range of possibilities – a set of numbers, rather than a single one.  Think of that range as the width of your stilts — the wider the range, the stronger the base, the less the uncertainty, and the more credible your estimates of jobs, dollars, and/or tax receipts will ultimately be.

When consultants get it all wrong, and how to get it right

I’m really not an angry person.  Honestly.  That whole red hair thing is just a myth.  You know that, right?  Right??  Hm.

This essay was revised and included in The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  If you like this, chances are you’ll like that book.  Learn more here.

As I’ve been reading through my old blog posts here while getting ready to finish the economic development revolution book, I’m noticing a theme that I didn’t expect:  Anger. I hate to say it, but good old fashioned redhead answer — especially at consultants.  I asserted that one of the biggest names in planning was all wet, I marched around a conference fuming at a presenter talking about economic impacts, and I insisted that you needed some  non experts if you wanted to actually make something change.

Um, Della.  You’ve been a consultant for close to 20 years.  You still make money consulting.

You like to eat, don’t you?

Hm.

I’m starting to understand why I might not be the biggest money maker among consultants.

Traditional consulting relies on the expectation of the know-it-all expert.  The glossy

Victor Gruen portrait
My favorite dead expert to beat up on. Click the image for the Wikipedia link.

haired genius in the sweeping cape who tells you exactly what your town needs and withers you with his glare if you dare to question him.

The Guy With The Answers.  The Oracle. The Fixer. The Big Name.

But here’s the problem: we all know how many times the people we (or our predecessors) thought were Experts in the past turned out to be… wrong. Sometimes badly wrong.  Sometimes painfully, decades-long wrong.  The kind of wrong that we spend generations trying to dig out of.

And yet we buy the next set of promises. The next expert.  The next promised easy answer, wrapped in a flowing aristocratic cape.

Naveen Jain laid the basic problem out in one of the posts I just mentioned.  It’s essentially a problem of methodology: traditional experts rely on historical trends, on what worked in the past,  on their own, often unexamined assumptions.

That’s how we define an “expert,” after all.  How many years have you been doing this? How many projects have you done that were just like ours?

The problem is this: if much of what has been done in our consultants’ lifetimes hasn’t worked, if much of it didn’t really do what we hoped for, and if the challenges we’re facing are wicked and complex and new and interrelated, then what makes us think that a past book of  experience alone counts very much?

Part of what gets me so mad is that neither the consultants nor the people who hire consultants admit or face up to these limitations.  Both sides keep pretending- one that it has all the answers, the other that there are simple answers to be had.

In their guts both sides have to know that neither charade is true.

Or maybe they don’t know that.  Maybe they know but don’t want to know.  Do they?

Now I’m not sure what to get madder about.

Years ago, I managed comprehensive planning projects for a consulting firm.  When you start one of those, you get to review pretty much every plan that town has ever done.  And sometimes what you find yourself reviewing is a case history in delusion.

One community, struggling to find a bright future for a run-down suburban strip, spent a huge sum on a beautiful drawing of lovely new buildings lining the streets.  They also bought a rudimentary market analysis that indicated nothing about whether the lovely buildings could ever be funded through the private investment that the drawing promised.   And then the community threw significant sums of money and effort into finding the people who would build that grand vision.

Thirteen years later, the corridor hasn’t changed, except for continuing to fall apart.  I drove down it last week.

If you’re a former client of mine, and you think this is your town, it’s probably not.  I can tell that same story about 15 different communities.

So, Consultant as Wizard doesn’t work.  Should you ditch them entirely, rely just on yourselves, figure out all out the best you can?  Are the non-experts enough?

No.  Chances are you definitely need outside help.  You just need a different type of help than many consultants have been giving.

In this era, I think an intellectually truthful, community-benefitting consultant has to hang up the cape, drop the all-knowing charade, and take on jobs like this:

  • Trackless Waste Guide.  Adventurers like Robert Perry, who trekked to places people had never been, took people with them who had experience in that type of environment, although not in that exact situation.   Chances are, you Ms. Consultant don’t know the path any better than they do, but you’ve at least moved through an environment somewhat like this before.

So you don’t charge into the underbrush, pretending that you know where all the rocks and rattlesnakes lie, but you walk with them and help them figure out how to best navigate.

  • Framework builder.  When we can’t plug and play easy solutions, when we have to find our way through unknown territory, building mental frameworks gives us a way to evaluate options, think through the potential impacts of our choices and plan ahead for risks.  A consultant’ s experience can help build intelligent and flexible frameworks.  But a framework is not a blueprint, and it’s not a Magic Solution.  It recognizes that it might be wrong and it might have to shift and evolve over time.  It’s an exercise in managing uncertainty with the best intelligence we can bring to the table.   And since the framework is designed to enable shifting and evolving, it might actually continue to fit more than three weeks after the consultant’s last bill gets paid.
  • Tough question asker.  People who lead communities often fail to ask hard questions — you know, the unpleasant ones where we suspect the answers are not what we want to hear, or where the answers aren’t clear at all.  In far, far too many cases, communities get into deep trouble because no one asked the hard questions–either because no one knew what to ask, or because no one summoned the bravery to ask it.

By rights, and as a matter of integrity, the consultant should be the one to ask the hard questions when no one else can or will do it.  After all, the consultant is the one who gets to go home to Somewhere Else when the meeting is over.  More importantly, thought, the consultant can draw on that expertise, that guiding capabilty, to call out and articulate the questions that no one from the community wants to own.

But too many consultants never ask the tough questions — because they don’t want to piss off the client, they don’t want to knock themselves out of consideration for the next project.  Mostly because, at the end of the day, consultants really, deeply want you to like them.

So they let the client believe what they want to believe, and avoid the problems they don’t want to face.  After all, the consultant is the one who gets to go home to Somewhere Else when the meeting is over.  And there’s always another rube, some town we can convince that this project was Fantastic!! somewhere around the bend.

  • Decision pusher.  Communities often don’t ask tough questions, and lots of them try to avoid making decisions.  That’s where the laundry list comprehensive plan failure that I’ve talked about before comes from, as well as a lot of other problems ranging from underfunded pensions to broken water lines.  Decisions are hard, you know… they mean saying yes to some things and no to others.  And we won’t even talk about setting priorities.  Ow.

The consultant’ s job has to include guiding, structuring, pushing and cajoling a community to make a decision.  It just has to.  It has to be done, and I don’t know an honest consultant who hasn’t been around the block enough times to know that in their guts.  If the community doesn’t make important decisions, if you haven’t done everything in your power to get them to do it, I don’t think you’ve earned your fee.  If they flat out refuse, so be it.  But too often we who have the experience and framework to make out the rocks in the water ahead are too timid to tell the captains that they need to change course.

Consultants don’t want to push people to make decisions,either, for all of the same reasons as above.  But unless they do, the effort is probably wasted.


Communities definitely need consultants.  The difference I see is this:
The consultant communities need is a collaborator, a fellow-seeker who brings a new set of expertise, a new collection of tools, to the work of improving your community.

We who do consulting work for communities have to deeply rethink what we provide as consultants, and we who work for communities have to deeply rethink what we demand from our consultants.  Settling for a pretty picture of an imagined future, or a kum-ba-yah list of all the happy things everyone in town said they wanted,  is worse than a waste of money.

It’s setting up the community for a future crushing of hope, a long-term trend of growing cynicism and tuning out.  And it’s setting up the community for painful opportunity costs- wasted resources chasing unachievable pipe dreams.
Letting a community persist in mistaken optimism or pessimism or inertia is not morally, ethically or fiscally acceptable, for consultants or for community professionals.  We simply don’t have that much slack in the system anymore.  Consultants should — and must — help fill a community’s gaps in capacity to make wise choices and tough decisions possible.

Economic Development’s Junk Food?

My good friend Bill Lutz has been on a tear lately… and once again I think he’s onto something.  I’m always glad to be able to serve as his editor and publisher.  Here’s his latest: 

 

—-
I fully believe that LinkedIn is a very powerful tool, and I find myself drawn to the discussions in those groups that I work in, most notably those groups in economic development.  There are very few forums that provide a real-time discussion on relevant issues with input from every corner of the world from highly respected individuals.

 

On one such occasion, I was looking through discussions and saw the following comment dealing with issue of incentives in economic development:

 

A monetary incentive is the easiest way for elected community leaders to say “we respect you, want you and invest in our community.” Incentives bridges the gap between “saying” you will do something and actually “doing” something for the company. 

 

In all fairness, this was not the complete comment, but I pulled out the two sentences that struck the loudest chord with me.

 

The comment left me speechless.  It sounds like the author is all for selling out a community to land the big win… you want the big business to come in, you have to respect them and that respect can be bought, for the right price.

 

As I think about that string of logic, it gets me to one of the great paradoxes I see in the way economic development is being practiced.  Our local governments, local chambers of commerce, local economic development organizations, are charged with hiring men and women of high caliber to lead economic development efforts.  In this line of work, economic development professionals are careful to use vague code words to describe leads, they safeguard the business intelligence and trade secrets that they know, they understand that relationships are built on trust and they do everything they can to earn and keep the trust of the business clients that they are working with.  Yet, according to this author, the “sell out” is the key.  Of course, we are not selling out the business, we are selling out the community, the state, the taxpayer and whoever else might be footing the bill for the incentive.

 

The paradox lays in the fact that economic development professionals are hired for their ability to earn and keep trust, but not with the people that hire them. Rather, you might conclude that the trust they are responsible for maintaining belongs to the businesses they work with.

 

But, as I re-read the comment, I realized that there is more to it.  The author tells us that the monetary incentive is the “easiest way.”  Maybe that is the operative word – easy.

 

But easy for whom?

 

Of course it is easy for the business to accept the incentive, and it may be easy for the local government, the local chamber of commerce or local EDO to give out the incentive.

 

But is it easy for the community?

 

 

If a community get used to relying on the “easiest” way to bring in business, what’s going to be the strategy when it requires hard work?  Any community that is willing to shell out money to a business is not fooling a soul when it claims that it just bought itself a long term commitment.

Do you really think the business you had to pay to come to your community wants to stick around if there is a better deal somewhere else?

 

burger
Incentives = Big Bacon Bomb (or whatever this is)?  From salon.com via Creative Commons

I am beginning to think that economic development incentives are analogous to junk food for our communities.  In the short term, they might satisfy our hunger and we might even feel better about ourselves and our community.  But in the long run, the questions remain:

 

Is it worth it?

 

Will our communities continue to bloat up with empty buildings?

Could have the dollars that were used for incentives been better used elsewhere?

 

Was the easiest decision the best decision?

 

 

Can she talk any faster? Della’s 5 minutes on Small Business Ecosystems

This video apparently just surfaced…. back in February I participated in an Ignite session at the International Economic Development Asssociation’s Leadership Conference.  If you’ve never seen an Ignite presentation, it’s a series of 5-minute presentations from different speakers.  Each speaker is allowed 20 slides (no more, no less), and they advance automatically every 20 seconds, which is an effective, if slightly evil, way to make the session end on time.

This presentation gives a brief outline of my theory of small business ecosystem development…the premise being that the fact that businesses are different than they used to be means that we have to change the way we do economic development. That is, instead of thinking that everything we do in economic development has to be about twiddling the levers of a big machine, we need to realize that this isn’t working, and shift to a focus on creating opportunities and connections for smaller businesses.

Confused?  Seriously, it’s five minutes.  Just take a look.  And while you’re at it, check out some of the other Ignite sessions. They were good.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAXScjX3edc

 

Do you tell your region’s story? Agenda 360’s Story Project (Podcast)

We do this thing in economic development and community promotion sometimes, and it’s kind of stupid: we assume that “selling” our community’s benefits to people and business means that we have to dumb down everything that makes us unique into one cute logo and a catchy catch phrase.  In the process, we often end up with something inane — anice drawing and a sentence with “Liveworkplayeatsleep” stuck in the middle of it….or “the Present in the Future of Our Past,” or “We’re within 800 miles or 60% of the universe,” or something equally…

meaningless.  And I do mean “meaningless.”  Come on: how many of those things have you seen that actually made you think, “this place might be worth my attention?”  And yet we keep spending that money for those minimal, at best, results.  Probably because we have no clue what else to do.

The Agenda 360 initiative in Cincinnati did something very different last year, and something that I think will be much more beneficial to the region in the long term.  Instead of trying to mash everything you would ever want to say into one meaningless phrase, Agenda 360, in partnership with its Northern Kentucky partner Vision 2015 embarked on the Story Project: an initiative to uncover and articulate the themes, the characteristics, that make Cincinnati Cincinnati, and create a communications tool kit that enables everyone in the region, from small businesses to large corporations, local governments to nonprofits, to talk with their contacts about the region in a way that has meaning, real meaning.

It’s kind of the anti-marketing: it’s an articulate statement of the fundamental characteristics that make the place different from other places.  And it’s not a command-and-control marketing campaign; it’s a basis for networked, share movement, whether that’s a big corporation talking to potential relocating talent or community staff trying to think about context – sensitive design characteristics.

The Story Project is a powerful tool in the deepest sense: like an underground river, it’s feeding a multitude of marketing efforts and enabling them to work in concert.  It creates an alignment that none of the participants could have created on their own, and that might be more beneficial than any single marketing campaign could achieve.

Mary Stagaman, Executive Director of Agenda 360, gave this presentation at a local conference in February 2013 (I said September on the intro…my bad).  In this presentation, she gives a great overview of why the Story Project was undertaken, what they found and how they’ve been using the results.  It’s 40 minutes that you’ll be glad you spent.

Thanks again to Mary and Agenda 360.  Enjoy!

https://soundcloud.com/wiseeconomy/mary-stagaman-agenda-360

 

 

More on incentives…with double barrels! Via Strengthening Brand America

We’ve been a little heavy on the incentives issue here lately, but one more thing I wanted to share with you if you haven’t seen it.  A couple of weeks ago I did an interview with Ed Burghard for Strengthening Brand America that’s generated some pretty good discussion on his site and on some of the LinkedIn groups he posts to.  Because of the format, I think I mounted my bully pulpit with even more verve than I usually do (not like I’ve ever been accused of being meek), so I thought you might find it an entertaining and maybe useful read.

The majority of the interview is below; you can check out the nice things Ed said about me and the rest of Strengthening Brand America’s impressive work at

http://strengtheningbrandamerica.com/blog/2013/07/effective-use-of-incentives-interview-with-della-rucker/

 

It seems that the use of incentives in economic development has become a hot topic lately.  How would you frame the core issue, and what are the potential ramifications of the debate?

From where I sit, the key issue is that we have deep and substantial needs in communities and regions that are calling us to facilitate sea changes in economies, and in many cases our incentive policies do not move us in the direction of those goals.  Or they might be doing that, but we don’t know if they are, we don’t have the right information to know what they’re doing, and as a result we can’t demonstrate whether they are doing what we need them to or not.  We got used to being able to just wing this – just assume that everything was working fine – when we had local economies that were flush enough to hide a little sloppiness or some wishful thinking or simple assumptions in how we handled incentives.  But now, with relief for budget pressures nowhere in sight, and with basics like how work works changing faster and faster, we don’t have that slack anymore.  There’s just nowhere to hide.

As I’ve said before, I am not against incentives per se.  I have spent much of my career working with downtowns and disadvantaged communities.  A well-placed incentive can tip an area or a business sector from economically infeasible to economically possible, and when that happens it has direct and profound impacts on the people who live and work and invest in that community.  But if an incentive isn’t having that kind of impact, it’s wasting money that we just don’t have to waste anymore.  I’m starting to formulate in my own head how the fundamentals of incentives should be reworked; anyone that hard up for entertainment can check it out here.

One of the things I have been saying to economic development professionals is that I’m not all that much worried about communities as a whole (certain ones worry me a lot).  There are thousands of people in the US who do things related to improving local economies – from planners working with neighborhoods, to people running accelerators and hackerspaces, to the growing number of self-organized groups that can kick change in a community into gear simply by their numbers and the ease with which internet technologies allow them to communicate and work in concert.  The big question to me at the moment is, where are economic development professionals going to fit into that evolution, and what impact will it have on people and on communities if the profession, and those professionals, simply become irrelevant?

Incentive practices will eventually change because the forces on them are only getting stronger.  The question in my mind is, how much of our limited resources will we waste with trying to hold back the tide?  And how will that affect the communities, and the professionals, who don’t adapt and find themselves trying to swim in those waters?

 

Return on taxpayer investment is certainly one objective when deciding if an incentive is appropriate as part of the financial negotiation between a community and company.  How should the economic development professional think about the ROI calculation? What factors typically go into the assessment?

ROI on value to the taxpayer can be calculated pretty simply if you want to do it on a strictly dollar-and-cents basis.  Most people with a reasonable education can figure out how to do that –if cost is less than benefit, you’re ok, right?  Easy cheesy.

Two things tend to get economic developers in trouble – the one is a shortcoming in diligence (or bravery), the second comes from the limitations of the tools we use (like that cost-benefit analysis)

Economic developers get into the first kind of trouble when they get estimates of “economic impact” from developers or project promoters, and they either don’t know how to dig into those numbers to see if they make sense, or – and I think this is more common – they choose not to examine that analysis critically.  I have a training I do with Pete Mallow, who also writes for the Wise Economy, where he tells a story about how during his development career he never gave the same calculation of the costs of a project to a bank as to a local government.  That’s not just Pete, that’s standard.  Unless it’s done by an impartial party, and unless you can see for yourself every assumption, every multiplier that the calculation is using… any decision you make on the basis of that study stands on a foundation of sand.  If you don’t see it, you have a responsibility to ask for it.  We have to get better, as professionals responsible for administering public or donor monies responsibly, at asking the tough questions, forcing the assumptions into the light, demanding reasonable answers instead of the pie-in-the-sky that we will get if we don’t push for the truth.  We used to be able to get away with incentive deals that didn’t measure up to their rosy promises, but the money and the scrutiny is too tight now.

The second thing that gets us in trouble is when we are trying to do the right thing – when we are using an incentive as a strategy for getting something off the ground that the market alone can’t do.  There are sometimes very compelling reasons to give an incentive to a project that will never show up in its pro forma – the project will empower people with new skills that they can use elsewhere, it will rehabilitate an eyesore that is damaging the community’s economic prospects, it will seed the growth of new businesses in the region, etc.  You can’t justify some projects that will benefit the public interest by straight return on investment – some portion of the benefit may be impossible to quantify, or their benefits can only be turned into a number through the kinds of mental acrobatics that render those analyses suspect.  That’s a big difference from how an analysis in the private sector would work.  These kinds of opportunities are going to be automatically harder to justify on a dollars and cents basis, and in many cases they might present a riskier proposition. We might have better analytical tools for assessing non-quantitative impacts in future years –social scientists are working on this – but I would argue that the best way right now to manage this risk is to spread the investment.  Lots of little bets may have more overall impact than a couple of bet-the-farm propositions, and the likelihood that you get your head handed to you when one goes south drops significantly.

 

Opportunity cost is something businesses discuss when evaluating their own capital investment options.  They take a portfolio approach and acknowledge investing in option A means not investing in option B.  Do economic development organizations go through a similar portfolio review and consider the implications of offering an incentive on other investment options like education, infrastructure, community services, etc.?  If not, should they?  When do you decide to invest the money in improving the community value proposition rather than incentives?

I harp on opportunity costs a lot – and I might be missing someone doing something great, but as far as I know, economic development organizations don’t explicitly identify or analyze opportunity costs.  At least, I’ve never myself heard of one doing that, and it’s not a part of any standard economic development training that I know of.  It should be.

Part of the problem we have with changing how we do incentives is that we don’t systematically and rationally evaluate what else we could be doing with those funds.  But that becomes part of the argument against incentive deals.  It’s just a matter of time before someone else does that math and forces the economic development supporters to confront opportunity costs more explicitly.  I am a big believer in the MPAA model of self-regulation: if someone is probably going to force you to do something you don’t want to, you might as well take the initiative and use your expertise to do it the right way yourself.

 

What are the top 2 – 3 questions an economic development professional should ask to determine if offering an incentive makes business sense and is not simply “buying jobs”?

wrote about that recently, but it was a first step.  I’m still trying to figure it out, too.  So these are going to be a little vague, but here’s a start:

  • How does this proposed project reinforce or carry forward our community’s economic priorities? (HINT: if you don’t have a clear, priority-driven, broadly-endorsed economic development strategic plan that aligns all the players around shared goals and enables them to take meaningful action to meet those, then stop giving out incentives and get yourself a plan. Otherwise, you’re swinging in the dark.)
  • How is this incentive going to facilitate positive change – not just for this specific business, but for a place or a business sector that is important per that plan?  What are the valuable spillover effects?  If you can’t identify important ways that this incentive deal with help move the community toward those goals, not just feeding one business, then that incentive may not represent a good enough investment in the public interest.
  • What’s our risk if the project doesn’t work as we hope it will?  Clawbacks are fine in some cases, but if your goal is to facilitate meaningful change in the local economy, demanding the money back could backfire.  Venture capitalists demand high returns, but they also expect that some of their investments will go belly-up.  And in the tech world, which I think tends to be a leading indicator for a lot of other long-term growth sectors, the entrepreneur who has failed is often considered a better investment risk for next time, because presumably he/she has learned a few things that will make the next attempt better. Trying to grab the money back in a case like that could be shooting larger goals to grow a sector in the foot.  Don’t get me wrong, people absolutely have to be held responsible for their actions, and communities cannot just say “oh, well” and watch their money get piddled away on boondoggle projects and pipe dreams.  But elaborate legal mechanisms to recapture as many red cents as possible may be less useful to communities than two other simple strategies: better evaluation of risks and benefits, and spreading the risks across more incentive recipients.

In your experience, are there viable alternatives to incentives that will practically allow a community to remain on the due diligence short list?  If yes, what might they be?

We have plenty of evidence to indicate that the majority of businesses don’t make a relocation decision on the basis of incentives.  I get told stories regularly about businesses that get offered an incentive after they have already decided to relocate or expand in a community.  We tend to grossly overestimate the impact of incentives because businesses have figured out how to play us.  But in most surveys of growth industries, incentives are way down the list of priorities, far below things like labor force characteristics and transportation networks.  For non-growth sectors whose primary competition strategy is to shave costs mercilessly, incentives might be a bigger part of the decision.  But do you want your community to be the bargain-basement option?  How well is that going to work?

People think that you can only compete on quality of life if you’re Austin, Texas, or somewhere uber-cool like that, but I don’t think that’s the case at all.  Austin would probably be a lousy fit for many businesses, but for the right businesses it’s so ideal that they don’t need any incentives.  The key question comes back to the assets that the community has to offer – what is it that makes us unique?  Who would we be ideally suited for?  And if we’re not unique or not ideally suited for anyone right now, what can we do most efficiently to make us ideal to someone?  We tend to think that incentives are the only arrow in the quiver, but that’s never the case.  Building the character and quality and uniqueness of our community opens opportunity.

We don’t pay enough attention to building uniqueness – to finding our community’s niche.  If I hear one more town tell me that they’re a great place to live/work/play/sleep whatever, or that they’re within 600 miles of 80% of US consumers (like every other town within 300 miles of them…yeah, that’s unique)…well, I might get crabby.  JK

The poor overlooked stepchild in economic development is business retention, and its sidekick entrepreneurship. Let me rephrase: we give those two a lot of lip service anymore.  A lot.  But where does the money in the budget mostly go?

There’s an old saw that says that where your treasure lies, there your heart lies. There’s so, so much evidence that supporting local businesses and helping grow new businesses makes for a stronger economy long-term than does any recruitment.  But if we know that, why does so much money go to incentives, and so little to doing meaningful things to help local businesses get better?  Yes, absolutely, incentives should be offered to local businesses –I’d even argue that, all other things being equal, local businesses should probably get priority.  But what else can we do with our funds to improve their capacity and resilience?  What training do they need?  What connections?  What information?

Your company offers support to communities on strategic planning, including thinking about the appropriate use of incentives.  If a community wanted to reach out to you for help, what is the best way?

Assuming that I haven’t torched all my bridges here… JK

Email is della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com, twitter is @dellarucker.  Those are probably the two that will get the fastest response!

Continue the conversation: Remaking Economic Development Incentives

As usual, when I post something about economic development incentives to economic development groups on LinkedIn, I get some insightful feedback.  The comments below are selected from responses to my recent Remaking Economic Development Incentives post here.  They raise a number of insightful questions and challenges to our current modus operandi that I think are worth a broader discussion, such as:

  • How do we build/support political leadership to make the tough decisions to realign incentives with what the community needs them to do?  Is education sufficient? Have our methods of education been inadequate?
  • How can economic development practices (and the profession itself) reposition to benefit from the methods businesses are using to handle change and find new opportunities in the evolving economy?
  • If, as one person wrote, “a monetary incentive is the easiest way for elected community leaders to say ‘we respect you, want you and want you to invest in our community,’ ” is that a worthwhile use of funds?  What are the (presumably) harder ways to do that, and is the return on investment for incentives vs. “harder” ways changing?
  • If we know what the right answers are, how do we advocate for that change in the face of the fear of “dusting off my resume?”

As usual, these comments were made in a public or quasi-public setting (depending on the group structure), but I’ve removed the names to avoid causing anyone problems.  DGR is me, the other initials are other people.  If anyone wants to claim their role in this conversation, please be my guest.  But I hope many more of you will join in the discussion.

 

It’s Time to Re-Make Incentives. http://wiseeconomy.com/?p=1978

 

Perhaps it’s time to take a big step back– to revisit what an incentive was supposed to do in the first place. And perhaps it’s time to screw our courage to the sticking point, confront where and how our practices are going awry, and re-formulate incentives programs– not throw them away, not just control them better, but fix them, so that they do what our communities need, and so that they are worth the money we invest in them.

First, let’s take the Wayback Machine to Econ Development 101:

The purpose of a tax incentive is to make something happen in the free market that market forces alone can’t do. An incentive is supposed to…

 

 

D • Della – this is a great topic re: a very complex policy question. There is considerable opposition in many legislative circles to any use of taxes as a means for altering markets and pricing in “externalities” when applied to “progressive” agendas; social engineering is a term often used in opposition of these initiatives. A carbon-tax is an obvious example but there are many others. An example where “tax incentives” are used widely among states is for economic development and job creation. There have been many papers written questioning the wisdom/value to the public of the “competitions” that states engage in to lure private investment, but legislative support for their use is accepted when related to job creation, even in very conservative states. So a fundamental pre-requisite for the use of incentives is political, as in: Is the leadership and legislative will-power in place to address Problem X, and if so what types of incentives will be acceptable?

The list of “filters” you outline for reviewing incentives will be more or less acceptable when applied to an incentive program depending on the political framework that supports them. Using a “Directly Improve the Community” filter may work against urban renewal and carbon tax programs if the political makeup of the governance body holds the view that the role of government should be limited. That same body may be more receptive to incentives related to urban renewal and carbon tax programs if they are cast within the framework of “Grow Workforce Capability” filters. Without judging their applicability to any particular social issue, the use of incentives needs to be crafted in context with the political and social make-up of the community.

 

DGR • D — nicely said, thanks.

The key missing element behind many incentive programs — and the piece that elucidates the political will element that you articulated so well — is a clear, well- documented economic development plan that was developed through a broad community-based process. The only way I know of to deal with the political component is to identify clearly where the community’s will (its political will, in a sense, lies), and build the economic development plan around that. It’s basically the same process that we would identify as good planning on the land use front, just applied to the community’s economy. Too often economic development plans are developed by small groups of insiders in an echo chamber — and then we wonder why there’s no political will to support them.

As I think I said in this piece, I don’t support throwing incentives out entirely — sometimes they are needed entirely because of the need to push a local economy in a direction that it’s not going by itself. In some respects, that’s the “social engineering” that D referred to, although of course people don’t use words like that when it’s a change that their community needs because the old industries have tanked. But the incentive needs to fit the objectives, and fit it very closely and intelligently.

 

M • Incentives are not the problem, it’s the entire economic development practice, approach and processes that are outdated and needs to be reimagined. Certain states have been very innovative with their incentive programs, but that’s only part of the equation.

 

J • M: can you provide some support for your statements? In what ways is a “tired” profession responsible for the use and misuse of inducements and incentives? How should the profession change? I wish more people were weighing in in this, because it is critically important.

 

 

M • J, I can elaborate on a few things here, but it’s a complex issue and I may or may not have the entire solution. I know many fine economic development professionals and would never use “negative language” to describe it.

— The profession faces the same challenge of “relevance” that many companies face in today’s changing business environment. As we grow into this “new economy”, there’s a paradigm shift that’s taking place. This transition is from bureaucratic capitalism and heavy government and corporate influence to entrpreneurial capitalism, where smaller companies and entrepreneuers will become much more influential. For that reason, the engagement model for economic development is flawed because the origin and practice is rooted in government. While that’s unlikely to change, to remain relevant in the “New Economy”, the practices and approaches must align with the”dynamic” and rapid changes in the direction of the businesses, the country, and the economy with an eye on “the future” — It’s also very insular. We created that depicts its insular nature that quite compelling and would peak any professionals interest. …

What the profession needs is a more modern approach to business recruiting, business retention and expansion that’s more focused, service oriented and balanced, with an engagement model that emphasizes “economic innovations” and finding “the next big thing”. It should encourages an ROI on incentives that’s “fair and balanced” and more closely aligned with entreprenurial capitalism and the future direction of business, the country, and the evolving state of its economy. It should also align more closely with communal values, where all stakeholders (including taxpayers) are invited and capable of becoming team players.

DGR • M — that’s very well said. You’ve done a good job here of summarizing the fundamental challenge — the world has changed and is changing and we’re still trying to play by increasingly irrelevant “chump” rules — and how the work needs to change to become more far-sighted, more in keeping with what’s actually emerging in this economy, and more responsible to its community.

 

DC• We all know some people respond to incentives or economic benefits for performing an action you would like to encourage. When talking about incentives you can’t use the phrase “business.” The term you need to think in is “business owner” “CEO/President”, or “board of directors.”

A business does not respond to incentives; however, the individuals making the decisions certainly do, they are people like all of us. Some may respond to money, others to a kind/comforting word form a head elected official, or others to words from piers in similar industries. Some are just headstrong and don’t respond to anything you put in front of them.

In the end, business owners want to know that communities they invest are sensitive to their good will, company’s interests, and ability of their entity to produce long-term profits. A monetary incentive is the easiest way for elected community leaders to say “we respect you, want you and invest in our community.” Incentives bridges the gap between “saying” you will do something and actually “doing” something for the company.

The playing field was never level, the economy has always been dynamic, and business leaders need to be looking at every competitive advantage they can get. Communities that want to be safe, appealing, and enjoyable for their citizens must understand that real wealth is created in private enterprise. Private enterprise is run by people, who want to be treated like a person and surround themselves with other like minded individuals. People who run enterprises are typically “doers.”

 

JC• We had a similar discussion in a different group a while back. My summation was that we as a field are all fighting for the same pieces of a smaller pie, when we could be collectively working to just make a bigger pie. The limit, in my view, is a political barrier more than a knowledge gap, though there may be a bit of knowledge/issue, too. In general, it’s the elected officials who drive economic policy, hence we get the short-sighted goals and strategies. I’m sure we, as practitioners, all agree that a sustained, long-term effort and investment is what’s needed, but the decision-makers always have at least one eye on the election cycle. The times I’ve tried to speak truth-to-power usually resulted in my dusting off my resume for update.

DGR• JC: Understood (and I suspect there’s some wincing back behind that statement!)

Since I spent an early part of my career in downtown revitalization, it always surprises me a little bit how seldom economic development types don’t use a tool that good downtown folks often wield very successfully: clear communication with the public and involving them in the development of the plan of action. I don’t mean political mobilizing in support of an action — obviously that’s not ethical for a public or quasi-public official — but pulling a broad range of consituents into making the plan, setting the priorities. It’s amazing to me how often the strategies, programs, etc are developed in a back room echo chamber, and then we wonder why the electeds don’t support it. If there has been broad public involvement underlying the plan that justified that program, then there’s a group of people who have a stake in it and are more likely to carry the water for an initiative that they previously identified as important. Too often we don’t try to include them, or we issue one weak invitation to come to a meeting and give up when they don’t immediately grasp why it would be worth their time.
DGR Do you all know if anyone has attempted to correlate incentives with their inferred impacts, like change in average income? We all know that the NYT story demonstrated that proof of causation of positive incentive impacts on communities was extremely hard to come by, but I am wondering if anyone knows of academic studies, even case studies, that had such an impact. I know of some anecdotally in the downtown revitalization and urban reinvestment world, but not outside of there. My suspicion is that no one has seriously tried to answer those questions yet, and I’d argue that this is a key piece of research that the profession ought to try to make happen.

 

 

Deep Thoughts: the future of economic development, generations and big change (and Bill Lutz)

Here’s a podcast that I’ve wanted to share with you for a long time: last December I sat down with Bill Lutz in Piqua, Ohio to record three podcasts: one about the redevelopment of the Fort Piqua Hotel, one on Piqua’s Citizens Academy, and this one (I guess you can think about it as the lost third chapter of the trilogy…or not.  Nevermind).

Bill has written here and here and other places before about how economic development practices increasingly don’t make sense in the context of what people, especially, younger people, are looking for.  He’s a great observer, and he articulates it so well.  So rather than steal his thunder by trying to write a Cliff Notes version, let me pique your curiosity with a few good quotes that you can find in this recording:

“Do people my age really want to work for a big company?”

“This generation watched our parents get pink slips.  This generation has seen the previous generation get burned.”

“They weren’t invested in us…. This generation is looking for more.  They also have the tools and the skills to not have to settle for what the big businesses offer”

“I think of community development as being like a general practitioner.  I don’t know much, but I know a little about a lot of things.  And I know who to ask.”

“If we know that statistically those local businesses are more likely to stay here, then let’s talk to them.”

“Community Development has been defined as being all about housing.  That’s not right at all.”

“I live in all three worlds.  You can’t recruit or zone your way to a better community.  You can only do that if you take a community development perspective.”

 

Take a listen.  Enjoy, think, and tell us what you’re thinking below.

 

Materials from Webinar: Evaluating the impact of your economic development work with Blaine Canada LTD, June 27

I promised that I would post the materials that Jim Kinnett and I used yesterday to give our webinar on how to evaluate the impact of your community’s economic development efforts.  Here’s the power point, the list of tdata sources I mentioned, and the simple screening tool that you can use as a framework to evaluate your efforts.

Evaluating Your ED Efforts BC webinar [Compatibility Mode]

ROI Gut Check Screen 1 and 2

Sources of Data to Get your ROI Analysis started

I also mentioned two podcasts that I thought were good examples of local government – driven communication initiatives that are enabling change.  One was in Piqua, Ohio, where staff started a Citizen Academy to help people deeply understand how their local government works (this goes well beyond the usual ride-with-a-cop-for-the-day), and one was in Dublin, Ohio, where a considered initiative to share information with elected officials over time enabled senior staff to get support for some pretty impressive changes in their community.  If you click the city names above, you’ll get a little introduction and a link to the podcast, which you can listen to live or just download as an MP3.  A second blog entry talking a little about the Dublin work is here.

 

Thanks again to Eric Canada for such a great opportunity!

It’s Time to Re-Make Incentives

We’ve been talking (or, well, not talking) about incentives in economic development a lot lately.  They work, they don’t work.  They’re necessary, they waste money.  You need this control, that recapture method, no your don’t, that’s gonna backfire.  So on and so on.Perhaps it’s time to take a big step back– to revisit what an incentive was supposed to do in the first place.  And perhaps it’s time to screw our courage to the sticking point, confront where and how our practices are going awry, and re-formulate incentives programs– not throw them away, not just control them better, but fix them, so that they do what our communities need, and so that they are worth the money we invest in them.

First, let’s take the Wayback Machine to Econ Development 101:

The purpose of a tax incentive is to make something happen in the free market that market forces alone can’t do.  An incentive is supposed to exist to give the market a push in a direction that it can’t/isn’t going by itself at this moment.  It’s there to fill a gap.  Typically, says Econ Dev 101, the incentive is needed because the market can’t see or isn’t aware of an opportunity — because it’s a new opportunity, because the market is overlooking a location’s potential because of negative assumptions about it, etc.   The incentive is designed to kick-start the change, to get the market opportunity over that initial hump.  That’s why we started giving out incentives — to overcome barriers to entry so that the potential of a labor pool or a technology or a place could be discovered by the market.

No one would say that goal of an incentive is to replace the market, or fake up the market.  But it’s hard to miss that this is exactly what many incentives do.

So, if an incentives is supposed to do what Econ Dev 101 said, it follows that any incentive should have the following characteristics:

 

  • Time limited–not just in terms of a specific deal having an expiration date, but time limited in availability.

If the purpose of the incentive is to change the market, eventually the incentive should facilitate a change in the free market by demonstrating that a business type or a business location can actually work economically.  If that case has been made — if businesses can make a go of it — then the incentive has done what it was designed to do, and it should not be offered anymore.  Extending the incentive might be OK if that market opportunity still exists but hasn’t fully taken off yet, such as might happen if an area experiences a natural disaster.   But the incentive has to stop being available at some point.  If it continues after the market no longer needs it, it’s not levering the market — it’s distorting it.   And a market that can’t survive without the incentive is probably too risky to the surrounding community to be worth supporting.

  • Grow a market.  The incentive has to be targeted specifically to emerging or sleeper market opportunities–like the “but for” test that many incentive programs at least give lip service to, but more.

 An incentive should be available, not just when Project X won’t work without it, but when the larger market opportunity, with all of its potential, can’t take off without it.   The incentive shouldn’t be about that specific business, although it may technically get applied to one business.  An effective incentive will demonstrate potential to grow the opportunity — to grow the market segment, the market ecosystem.  To grow something that is bigger and more impactful than any one business.  The argument (the provable, demonstrable argument)  has to be that incentivizing Project X will facilitate the growth of a whole sector, not just one firm.

Part of the reason why the incentive focus has to shift from incentivizing one business to growing a market is that most of us ain’t gonna see many individual business opportunities that can single-handedly make a big impact on the local economy.  We all know that businesses are getting smaller and smaller, and almost no one is seeing the four-digit employment investments anymore, no matter how much sugar they throw in the pot.  If from nothing other than a pragmatic point of view,  the purpose of an incentive has to be building an economic sector, not just one individual business, because any one individual business is going to be just one drop in the bucket of the job and investment growth our communities need.  I’ve talked before about the need to shift economic development thinking from doing projects to building an interdependent, interconnected ecosystem.  Same idea here.

A nice side benefit: an incentive that’s focused on building a sector rather than a business spreads the risk.  Instead of chewing our fingernails worrying that Business Y is going to renege on its incentive agreement, or move the day after the incentive runs out, or somehow otherwise break that supposed bond of trust and smear a lot of egg on our faces, an incentive strategy that focuses on building a sector should lessen the economic development initiative’s dependence on any one business.  If Business Y pulls something down the road, a strategy that has focused on using incentive money to build a sector, rather than just make Business Y happy, should have a decent chance at having created a larger system in which Business Y’s employees, suppliers, etc.  can find other beneficial options.

The question to ask isn’t

“Do we need to do this incentive to get this business?

The real question is,

“Are we building a base of human capital, expertise, relationships that can outlive any one business?”

 Remember, businesses aren’t just getting smaller, but there’s lots of evidence that the life span of the average business is shrinking as well.

  • Grow Workforce capacity.  This point follows on to the need to feed the growth of a sector, not just a business.  Whether we’re talking about office, service, manufacturing, tech, whatever, we know more and more that the most valuable and most critical asset we can offer is the skills and capabilities of our workforce.  If we need businesses to help us understand the sector’s workforce needs, and people’s capacities are at least partially built through their work experience — and those businesses where they work become smaller and shorter-lived and generally more fluid everyday — how much sense does it make to just hand businesses a piece of our precious funds and hope that something good will happen?

Why not structure some conditions around building the capacity of their employees?  Why not have an agreement about how they will support or participate in the training, networking, connection-building needed to grow their sector in your community?  That’s not going to ask much of them beyond basic good business practices (retain your employees because that’s cheaper than hiring, build good relationships with your suppliers so you can get credit if you need it, etc.)   You might as well give them a little extra push in that direction  — especially as businesses get smaller and owners and managers may not always fully realize how much they need to be part of the larger system.

 

  • Directly improve the community.   Here’s one you know, but maybe don’t want to say out loud:

Your citizens are sick of throwing their hard-earned tax money at businesses that they don’t think give a damn about their community.

Popular pressure is probably the biggest single threat to current incentives practices — and as people get better at self-organizing, and as anyone with a mobile phone becomes their own broadcast network, that pressure is going to build.  That’s the nature of the social media, internet world.  So why not give yourself some cover from the public watchdogs, and use incentives to prod businesses to be better community citizens?

Plus, you’ve got precedent.  Planning commissions routinely require developers who want a variance or special zoning to do a little extra — more landscaping, higher quality facade materials, etc.  If you, Madame Developer, don’t want to do that, you can use the standard zoning without going through any extra process.  But if you give us a little extra, you can use our expedited process or get special exemptions.

Why not ask a potential incentive recipient, explicitly, how will you give back?  How will you help build our community?

After all, it’s your taxpayers’ money. They want more return on the investment.

So…that’s what I’m thinking.  We all know that the devil usually lives in the details, but I think we in the economic development and local government world need to start talking about deep and fundamental changes to how we do incentives…. before someone else makes those decisions for us.
What do you think?

The Economic Development Incentives Debate: It’s running away without you

I heard a story this week, and I’m trying not to be disturbed by it, in part because I don’t know if I’m getting it right. . But if it’s at least part true, it indicates how far behind we are on dealing with the economic development incentives issue… and how the world has changed in ways that we may not always want to admit.

The story comes to me second hand, and in a very sketch manner.  Somewhere on the order of 20 years ago, a major economic development organization saw that the trend in the money value associated with high-profile incentive deals was becoming worrisome – growing higher and higher (since, again, I only have this story third-hand, and probably incomplete at the moment, I don’t want to name the organization).  Staff and some of the membership, wanted to take some kind of position on this, possibly because they could anticipate the degree to which incentives at this level could distort the market and suck up resources that they felt that they needed for other purposes.

According to what I heard, this effort was outright opposed by a large component of the organization’s leadership.  Even a proposal to simply identify the characteristics of a “good” incentive went down in flames.  The final version of that proposal received only two supporting votes out of something on the order of 40 or 50 total.  I don’t know why so many opposed it – I can only presume that they felt it would put them and their community at a disadvantage.

Again, this is a thirdhand eyewitness account, and I’m only putting in the details that seemed pretty solid.  I don’t much like sharing stories with so little substantiation, but if I wait until I can corroborate all the details, I might not get this written for years, if ever.  If you have first-hand experience with this decision and you’d like to share your experience, either on or off the record, please let me know.  I’d like to talk to you.

___

Here’s the point: regardless of the details, a decision like the one that apparently went down relies on a critical assumption – one that simply does not work anymore:

We the professionals control the information. We control the decision.  This is our domain and we have the power to lock the door to the sanctorum if we want to. And if we do, we have closed the subject.  Phew.

There might have been very good reasons why the people involved opposed the content of what was being proposed.  I have no idea what was in that definition of a good incentive.

But look what’s happened:

 

  • In late 2012, the New York Times blew the cover off of one of the industry’s biggest dirty secrets: too many places can’t prove what much of their incentive money bought.  And they did that using what’s called Big Data journalism – using the internet and analytical tools to aggregate and analyze records that were previously impossible to make sense of.

 

  • Thoughtful types like Strong Towns have helped thousands see the unintended consequences of how communities bought into a “Ponzi Scheme” to build infrastructure that was promised to improve local economies — but eventually left us deeper in the hole than we were before.  And Strong Towns has done that without a major media mouthpiece: they’ve done it primarily through blogging, podcasts, YouTube –the tools of social media available at little or no cost to anyone who wants to take on an issue.

 

  • The nonprofit organization Good Jobs First has arguably taken the lead in articulating how incentive practices should be changed to create more transparency and accountability – to the point where my colleagues who conduct trainings on using incentives use Good Jobs’ checklist.

 

These are all issues that the leadership of that organization could have addressed back then. For whatever reason, they decided not to.

 

But not addressing it did not make it go away.

 

What not addressing it did was much more profound: it took that economic development organization out of leadership of the debate.  Instead of using its real-world expertise to guide an intelligent debate, the organization and its members today find themselves in a painful situation: they can try to defend practices that are increasingly hard to defend, or they can place themselves in opposition to the leadership of their chosen profession.

I’ve said in other places that we need to get past the incentives debate — that obsessing over the incentive issue distracts all of us from the other important work that we need to be doing, like growing entrepreneurship and improving our planning and decision-making.  But “getting past it” does not mean “pretending it’s not there” or “sweeping it under the rug” — precisely because it will not stay under the rug.  We have to deal with it.  We have to stand up like adult, admit the problems, and start actively participating in the search for solutions.

And we have to do that, if for no other reason than to prevent this issue from eating us alive, to keep it from undermining all of the other important work that economic development does.  We cannot get past the incentives debate until we deal with it.

___
Here’s the key message for everyone who classifies him or herself as an ”economic development professional,” regardless of what credentials or memberships you carry:

 

The world’s has changed on you.  You are losing  control of the incentives debate, you’re losing ownership of the incentives issue.  Others are defining what’s wrong with incentives and what should happen to them,  — in some cases, perhaps, leading the discussion into places where you didn’t want it to go.  And because anyone who can run a basic Google search can find what they are saying about as easily as they can find what you are saying – or share what they think about it with thousands — you simply cannot afford to pretend that your opinion is the only one that matters.  It just doesn’t work.

 

We talk a lot in economic development, and in any kind of public policy arena, about breaking down silos.  In reality, it’s too late to even assume that we have the option of keeping the silos in place.    The silo walls may still appear to stand, but they are riddled with holes and as porous as a sponge – what lies within “our” domain will seep out, and what’s outside our area of expertise is already seeping in.

 

That’s not a judgment, that’s a practical fact. castle tower ruin

 

You’re going to have to choose to join the debate, honestly and transparently, or give it up and resign yourselves to irrelevance.  Because if you continue to pretend that all you have to do is guard your watchtower, you will watch it crumble.  The incentives debate is already in the process of running away without you.

 

 

 

In the Workshop: moving local government innovation from the Skunkworks to Center Stage

But when you look closely, you find that many of these [local government innovations] happen in spite of the prevailing culture. Savvy bureaucrats find clever ways to reach across organizational silos to make things happen. They scrape together private funds to launch a pilot. Or they leverage a crisis – and the self-examination these moments can create – to advance new thinking.

While that’s good, it’s clear that relying on opportunism, bureaucratic heroism, and luck to drive the innovation agenda isn’t good enough. There’s too much at stake. Cities today are being called on to do more with less – and these trends will likely accelerate.

 

This essay does an excellent job of pin pointing the great problem facing community innovators today.  Thousands of dedicated people in large and small communities worldwide are making Herculean efforts to transform their communities– often from the inside, often with minimal or shallow support, often in a context of bureaucracy out politics or just a sort of cultural inertia that makes a seemingly simple improvement a test of determination.  And as they keep striving, in many, many places, the vise continues to tighten.

In the business world, many of the most successful corporations have been documented to work innovation, not just as a covert activity done in some hidden skunkworks, but as a consistent part of how work, from top to bottom, gets done.  I suspect that awareness underlies this assessment:

 Innovation, here, isn’t some mystical process. It requires neither rocket science nor light bulb moments. Instead it’s about a set of sequential steps and techniques that, when implemented with fidelity, help city halls come up with better ideas more often. It’s about increasing the hit rate for innovation – while recognizing that some degree of failure is inevitable (and important).

I think this is the great challenge, the deep need that faces is over the next 10 years.

We’ve actually gotten pretty good at inventing cool new little programs, at Doing Something Neat, even when (or maybe sometimes because of) local government systems that stifle more than support.

But it’s not enough.

We have to figure out how to come up with–and carry through on- better ideas more often.  We have to increase local governments’ hit rate for innovation, or we’re not going to be able to meet our communities’s needs.

I know everyone is tight on budgets and time, but so are your private sector neighbors.  So how do they do it? How do we translate those processes to local government?

What do you think?

 

The Divergent Creative and the Kid Who Won Everything Else

It’s strange how watching your kid face a defeat means more–and hurts more–than anything that could happen to yourself.

This essay was revised and included in The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  If you like this, chances are you’ll like that book.  Learn more here.

I have two kids, who I’ve generally stereotyped here before (and in a lot of conversations), as the Good Kid and the Mad Scientist.  The older one has all sorts of great qualities–intelligent, good grades, well behaved, respectful, etc.  Classic firstborn.  Good Kid.

The second is… well, he’s…yeah.  He’s the one that leaves a trail of chaos in his wake.  Remnants of projects and drawings and creations litter half the house.  Fifty percent of all the food storage containers and reusable water bottles that have ever crossed our property line end up as bug habitats.  Pretty much anything… scrap wood, tinfoil, sticks, my office supplies, silverware, you name it… gets conscripted into his projects.  When he’s working on something, he goes at it with a single minded devotion that verges on obsessive.  Fat chance getting that dishwasher unloaded

Granted, they’re amazing projects.  I know, Mom is supposed to say that, but even given my bias…  The kid makes clay fish the size of your fingernail so detailed that you can identify the species.  He makes reefs with dozens of types of corals that fit in your palm. He draws birds with all their plumage. The kid has sold his work at art shows, exhibiting next to adults.  He’s been the youngest exhibitor every time.  He’s 11.

Today was Awards Day, the culmination of his years in elementary school.  He won…nothing.  The award for achievement in art went to the Kid Who Won Everything Else.

Jon knows how the quality of his work compares to his age peers.  You can’t help but notice at the school art shows.  But he doesn’t always do the art class project exactly the way he was told.  Sometimes he figures he knows a better way. I don’t know if he actually does know a better way or not.  But he’s usually quite sure of his vision.

 

I watched from the other side of the room as Jon congratulated his classmates…generous kid, sweet disposition.  I watched him jump forward,then sit back down as a kid with the same first name as him was called to receive the science award (Jon’s also a biology wizard, which explains the fish and the bugs and the birds).

But after the art teacher gave her award, Jon sank into himself as though someone had let the air out of his body.  Across the gym, I tried to catch his eye, give a thin smile of encouragement, but he looked at no one.

After school, in the car alone, tears, dashed expectations, I try and try but I’m never good enough.  Why don’t they understand me? What’s wrong with me?

Moms experience heart breaks that feel like nothing else in human experience.

—-

I have an undergrad degree in education.  About a year ago, bewildered about how to deal with this kid, I pulled out one of my old textbooks and reviewed the one chapter I could find on gifted education.  The book listed six types of gifted kids.  First up: standard good student. Check.

Second: Divergent Creative.  Characteristics: independent thinker, resist playing by the rules, challenge authority, driven by deep need to create.

Student is at significant risk of tuning out of the education process.

Look what I got.

The ironic thing here is that I started out as the Good Kid, but turned into the divergent.  I was the Kid Who Wins Everything when I was a kid.  Now I’m the one who challenges authority, who ignores people at the community pool when I’m writing. Who says stuff that isn’t always popular with my peers.   At least some of the time.

I can’t in clear conscience anymore tell him to conform, do everything you’re told, play the game without question.  That’s not true to me, and its not true to him.  And he knows that.

Kid is also pretty good at reading human behavior, including his own.

—-

Why do we crave reinforcement?  What makes us so desperate for praise,  for approval, to hear that “good job?”

I don’t know.  But we have to make a choice sometimes: try to fit the system in the hopes of winning the award, or obey what we are, what speaks to us, do what it seems like is our role in the world to do.

Part of why I think I have been evolving from Good Kid to Divergent is because I realized that I had nothing to lose.  And that’s something I’ve talked about here before— it’s not like job security is a reality for most of us anymore anyways.  And I’ve talked plenty of times about the need for bravery, for grit, and for determination to do the right thing and lead change in the face of discouragement.  If you need a dose of that, click some of the links in this paragraph.

Sometimes, though, that’s a lonely and misunderstood road.  Sometimes that just feels like shit.

But it doesn’t change who we are.  Or what we have to do.

Ironically, I stumbled across a music video yesterday that I hadn’t seen in years.  I never like it when it first came out.  But it’s kinda growing on me.

So this one goes out to all you change agents, community leaders, Mad Scientists and tap dancing bumblebee people.  Hang in there, guys.

And as Jon told me after he got the tears out of his system, none of today’s crap will matter a week from now.  He’ll try to play by the rules better, but he’s not giving up what matters to him.

Wise kid, that Mad Scientist.

Guess what? The Number might be pretending! Two common mistakes in economic impact analysis.

Here’s the second in the series from developer-cum -regional-analysis-whiz Peter Mallow on correctly and realistically using economic impact methods — and avoiding getting fooled by The Number that they generate.

In this essay, Peter is taking on two basic flaws in how economic impacts get prepared and used.  Between sloppy assumptions and amoral results, they often don’t give us the answers that we might think they do.

Amoral?  Yes. amoral.  Read on, and all shall be revealed… and if you have comments, questions… or violent protests… let me know below.

dgr

——

Economic impact analysis is a powerful method for ascertaining the potential jobs and dollars a new project or program will bring to your community.  The Number from the economic impact analysis is also used frequently to generate support when existing local institutions ask for public money.

And that’s a problem, because often The Number is pretending jobs or dollars are being added to the economy when they actually aren’t.

In this article, I’m going to call places that typically use an economic impact statement to ask for money Favored Community Institutions.  For reference, the Favored Community Institution could be pretty much anything: an arts organization, zoo, major employer, education institution, professional sports team, or a major tourist attraction.

cartoon of happy zoo
Awww. Isn’t that a cute Favored Community Institution?

It is important to note that the methodology of economic impact analysis is designed for new projects or programs.  When used by Favored Community Institutions, we need to factor a couple of very important considerations into the interpretation and explanation of The Number.

First, economic impact analysis is amoral. That’s a-moral (not immoral). You know that the Favored Community Institution holds a cherished spot in the history of the community, and most people have positive attachments to that institution.  The Number reinforces the strength of the attachment – “Not only is it fun to visit, but look, it puts money into our economy, too!”

You have to keep in mind, however, that an economic impact analysis does not tell us if the Favored Community Institution is better than any other institution in the community.  Economic impact analysis cannot answer the question that you have to answer: Is this an appropriately beneficial use of limited public money?

An example may help explain this distinction.

Let’s imagine that the Favored Community Institution is not a happy place like a zoo or a tourist destination.  Instead, the Favored Community Institution is a grenade factory. It employs a few hundred people who build and ship grenades all of over the world. The Favored Community Grenade Factory has been in town as long as anyone remembers, and its leadership serves the community on various boards and occasionally elected office.

The Favored Community Grenade Factory wants to retool due to high demand for their grenades.  The expansion will create new jobs and bring new dollars to the community from the increased production.  They even have an economic impact analysis showing a large Number of new dollars that will be brought into the community. But they can’t do it without a public subsidy for new roads and rail connections.

world war 2 grenade factory, Australia
Not such a happy Favored Community Institution. From www.publicworks.qld.gov.au

Here’s the tough question: can we conclude that this is an appropriately beneficial use of limited public money, even though its existence is predicated on people dying?  What about the brand-new, farmer’s market on the other side of town?  An infusion of public dollars will allow them to, employ more people, expand their parking, buy more from local farmers, and make people healthier

We want to think that all economic impacts are good economic impacts, but we know in real life that not everything is good for us (like grenades versus farmer’s markets). Unfortunately, economic impact analysis doesn’t help us make value judgments or compare the non-monetary impacts of different institutions.

Second, if a Favored Community Institution is already part of the community, then only new dollars or jobs are being estimated in the economic impact analysis.

The standard economic impact analysis method is based on the assumption that new money will be coming into the community.  The new money creates a “shock” that reverberates within the community.  The “shock” created by the new money is the multiplier effect – the promise that the new money will generate additional jobs and money circulation beyond the initial investment.  As a result, what that multiplier effect gives you is the amount of new (revenue, jobs, etc.) that will result from that investment.

But the Favored Community Institution is generating at least some of those impacts today, before the proposed investment.  Most economic impact analyses don’t separate those out.  They calculate the impact based on the total value of what’s there today and what’s proposed.  That basic overlooked assumption violates the fundamentals of economic impact analysis. When existing jobs and spending are included in the analysis, The Number will be grossly overstated because the community has already absorbed those jobs and spending.

Think back to our Favored Community Institution for a moment (the happy one, not the grenade factory).  Let’s say that it currently employs 100 people. It is looking to expand and is requesting $5 million in publicly-funded improvements.  This expansion will generate 50 new jobs.  The Number that they gave you in their economic impact analysis said that over 200 service and support jobs would be generated by the proposed expansion.

This is a gross overstatement of The Number. If they were introducing 250 new jobs into the community, then they might generate 200 to 300 new service and support jobs.  But according to any kind of reasonable estimate, 50 new jobs might support 75 to 100 service and support jobs.

So, does the Favored Community Institution deserve those additional public funds?  Well, it’s complicated … and the answer has to include factors outside of the economic impact analysis.  But don’t be misguided by The Number – at the end of the day, The Number only says what it says, and is only as good as the thought that went into it.

 

 

Are they running a small business that sucks?

Urban planners and downtown revitalization or regeneration types have done a great job of embracing the value and potential of places that we might be tempted to overlook.  The arcade-style retail space–a sort of anchorless mini-mall located in an office building or downtown corner– has been particularly hard to adapt, and hard for a lot of people to love.  Marcus Westbury in Newcastle, NSW Australia appears to be a welcome exception.  Here’s an excerpt from a piece he wrote hailing the potential of this space type:

Some of the very factors that once counted against them — the scale of their spaces, their relatively low foot-traffic (and hence low cost), and the fact that they require some effort to discover — are actually features, not bugs, in the brave new world where mass markets are shattering into hundreds of niches. Indeed among the fastest growing segments of business and creativity is small, home based, mixed online and offline businesses and arcades are logical places for these rapidly growing businesses to grow into….

For arcades to fire again they need to become eclectic, engaging, active destinational places. Activity will generate activity while decay begets decay. There are no lack of small businesses, online enterprises, hole-in-the-wall cafe or bar proprietors and others for whom the actual configuration of space is potentially tempting and it’s not that hard to find them….  For as long as half the shops sit, partially decaying, with the public facing spaces being left empty or used for storage owners need to realise that they are deterring not growing future value.

I don’t think this was quite his intention, but Marcus has also put his finger on a key issue that we face in the new world of economic development and physical  planning.  And it might not be the one you think.

We have had a tendency over the past 40 years of assuming that our places can only prosper if they fit standard formats.  We’ve built millions of acres of spaces designed to fit standard formats. And except in a few magical places, the market value of these properties has gone in the tank.  And yet we still see communities that don’t think they have arrived until they attain the full complement of chain retailers and restaurants.

We need to help our communities get over that.  We need to help them rediscover the value of the unique, the local, the thing-so-good- it’s-worth-finding.

I suspect we can all agree on that in principle.

 

But here’s the piece we miss, in both planning and economic development: it’s very hard to run a good small business.

It’s incredibly, stunningly easy to run a small business that sucks.

One of the side effects of the implosion of the real estate market globally is that the amount of really cheap space has skyrocketed.  If you have a business idea, and a little cash on hand, chances are you can find some property owner with a paid-off mortgage who will rent you that storefront for a song.  And as we idolize entrepreneurs, and as we keep telling people that going into business for yourself holds the promise of happy prosperity, more and more people will take them up on that offer.

Including a lot of people who have no damn business running a business.

I’ve written before about how small business owners often reminds me of movie cowboys: independent, self-sufficient, needing nothing from nobody.  And I’ve written about the fact that behind that facade, a lot of those entrepreneurs face each day overwhelmed, unable to muster from within just themselves the full range of skills and resources to run a successful business.

The good ones know that.  But many small business owners have no idea what they don’t know.

It’s easy for us to just write off business success or failure as the machine of the market doing its impartial work.  But like anything else, it’s not that simple.  Places like the arcades that Marcus describes, and many with more or less potential, can get a reputation as a lousy business place pretty quickly, even when we can see great potential.  It only takes a couple of wanna-be entrepreneurs getting a sweetheart deal from a desperate or disinterested property owner, and then crashing in flames when they botch their hiring or their inventory or their marketing, for that “bad spot” reputation to develop.  And for independent businesses, more likely to rely on experience and gut check than the data that the franchises devour, a location’s reputation becomes a very solid reality.

Here’s where you come in.  If you’re not linking your small business owners to detailed, hands-on training and coaching, you’re shooting your community in the foot.  If you’re not inducing or requiring your incentive recipients to go through intensive business training, you’re wasting too much of your limited funding.

And here’s the most important point: you need to have some process, some system, that will help some of your potential small business owners learn the most valuable thing they may ever learn:

That opening that business would be a bad idea.

Sometimes the best thing you can do to help manage your community’s ecosystem is to keep the unhealthy ones from getting planted in the first place.

patch of weeds
Looks familiar… missouribotanicalgarden.org

 

Concerned, Communicating, Connected, Commitment: Building Community-Local Government Relationships

My old – but-not-so-old friend Bill Lutz wrote to me recently about his perceptions of how local governments should pursue community engagement, and as usual he brought a perspective and insight to the issue that went well beyond anything I would have thought of.  His differentiation between transactional and relationship-based interactions, and his framework for building those relationships, captures a significant and necessary sea change in how we should relate to our residents.  And as Piqua has demonstrated through its impressive Citizen’s Academy, building those relationships takes a pretty small investment for a pretty substantial payoff.

Let me know what you think, and I’ll share with Bill.  Thanks!

___

Local government officials and staff tend to think about community engagement as a purely transactional exercise, and that’s not surprising.  Think of our typical experience: our residents, businesses or stakeholders come to us and want something, such as a service or asolution to a problem.  Once that need has been met, the transaction is over and the other person vanishes from our offices.  To be fair, the reverse is also true.   When local governments need public input for a project or an activity, we publish notices or get the local paper to write an article and (hopefully) residents come and provide input… and then leave.  In both cases, citizen engagement is reduced to a series of transactions.

While working in terms of transactions may be efficient and effective, they are, in a sense, damaging to the business of local government..  Every day, our residents make judgments and assessments of our community and those thoughts lead to a well formed (although, yes, not necessarily well informed) perception of the community in which they live.

It’s hard to influence those perceptions when our rules are reduced to a series of transactions.

Here in the City of Piqua, we struggled with that very issue:  How can we change the dynamic of local government being seen not as a transactional relationship but something more transformational?  We made a concerted effort to increase citizen engagement strategies, to create situations where residents felt more ownership in their community and had a better understanding of what our city staff does, with the expectation of engendering trust and confidence within the city government.

We’ve come to understand community engagement as a circular process,  –as four interrelated steps  that build an ongoing relationship on the foundation of  mutual understanding, not transactions.

Diagram of public engagement process

In the first step, we need to find residents who are Concerned about their community.  Many times, residents in this stage are those who are coming to the public hearing or a council meeting to voice their perceptions on a particular issue, sometimes in a negative fashion.  Often these residents are afraid of the future consequences of a proposed action, and that fear calls them to action.  At this point, we think local governments should not treat the interaction as  a transactional event, but rather the beginning of a relationship.

In Piqua, we encourage this relationship by Communicating to these residents that our local government is concerned about the well being of the community and has their concerns at heart.  This stage can be difficult because, at its root, it is not transactional, but relational.  A local government manager or an elected official can’t simply state from the dais that they have the community’s best interest at heart – like any relationship-building, actions often matter much more than words.  We Communicate these residents by involving them — by demonstrating to them the decision making processes and the internal struggles that local government goes through.  Taking time outside of the meeting and showing residents the information that the government knows can go a long way in convincing residents that the local government is making the best decision for the community.

The third stage is to Connect residents to each other.  It is at this stage where the true power of community can really be unleashed.  Many times, our residents may feel disconnected and isolated as they want to tackle community problems that the local government is not well equipped to handle.  The local government can play a major role as connecting residents to each other to other neighbors to develop opportunities to forge substantive change.

The final step in the process is Commitment.  Once residents are linked together, things happen.  If a resident sees a litter problem at the park, the local government can link them with other likeminded and committed individuals to start a litter collection program.  For many residents, giving back is easier with strong support from their neighbors and the local government.

Community engagement is more than just a series of sterile transactions; it’s built through continuous and conscious efforts to forge positive relationships.  This four step process helps explain how the relationship develops to build trust and commitment among residents and the local government.

Economics or Public Engagement? Yes I am… no I’m not…Yes I am…no…

Hi.  My name is Della, and apparently I look like this:

Sesame Street two headed monster
Hopefully I’m not this furry.

About every other week I discover that I have totally confused someone with my business.  Yesterday it was a longtime colleague (granted, he’s not known for his powers of observation).  He couldn’t figure out why I have a business with the word “economy” in its name, although his community has hired me to do public engagement.  He thought I should lose the economy part from my company name.  Like I said, he wasn’t the first one.

I know.  It’s all weird.  But it’s not.  Really.

When I starred this business a couple of years ago, I settled on the Wise Economy name because I tend to see everything I do through the filter of whether or not it fosters long term economic health. The original business plan included a cumbersome five service lines, one of which was traditional public engagement. It’s turned out that most of the consulting work I’ve been doing has had more to do with in person and online public engagement.

I’ve learned in the process that there’s almost no overlap between the public engagement people and the economic development types.  And that those are commonly seen as completely unrelated professions.  Even after spending a lot of years In local government consulting, that surprised me.

 

Here’s the thing: in my head, at least, economic revitalization and public engagement aren’t two unrelated things.  They are critically intertwined, and we screw both of them up when we try to do one and don’t deal with the other.

We depend on our economies.  We live in a world where economic decision making either sets a community up for success or drives it deeper into a hole.  And we live in a world where the economy that we all depend on doesn’t look much like it did 10 years ago.  If we want healthy, desirable communities that will stay that way for a long time, we have to deal with that set of conditions.

And yet, when we do economic development, we tend to treat that as an insider game.  We claim confidentiality or that “it’s too complicated,” and we confine our planning and strategy to a star chamber of ED types, elected officials and a few Blue Ribbon Committee business leaders.

Then, when we propose The Big Project, the community fights it, raising ill-informed (or maybe just uncomfortable) questions about real economic impacts, or community side-effects.  They don’t make it easy, and sometimes their scrutiny kills our pet project.

Rubes. Don’t they know anything?

 

Similarly, when communities do “public engagement,” we tend to ask people questions in a way that’s divorced from economics, as though dealing with the dollars and cents that determine whether a choice can become reality or not would somehow sully the truthfulness of the public input.  Long range planning is the worst for this– “what do you want to see here?”  Not surprisingly, we get dreams, we get idealistic visions.  We get Santa Claus lists.

Then, when the plan comes out, those residents turn out torqued that the economically impossible answer they gave didn’t make it into the plan.  Our if we go with the Kum Ba Yah theory of plan-writing, we put the fantasy in with full realization that there’s nothing in there to help make it happen. In either case, the damage is done:

“They didn’t listen to us.” “They didn’t really want our feedback.” “Planning and public meetings are a waste of time.”

 

We need to do a lot of things better in public engagement, but perhaps the most important is using the process to help people apply the creativity we know they can provide within realistic economic boundaries.  And we need to do a whole lot better at economic development planning, but our most critical need may be to help people clearly understand and evaluate their community’s economic options and the potential consequences of those choices.

Most important, whichever we’re doing, we have to admit that we don’t have all the answers, and that we need to crowdsource as much wisdom as we can get.   That doesn’t mean the public has some magic set of answers, but it does mean that we need the community’s perspective and experience, just like they need our expertise.

We need both wise community engagement and wise economic decision making.  They’re part of the same mission. And we have to get them working together.

 


As some of you know, I just became managing editor of an online magazine that I’ve admired for a long time, called Engaging Cities.  Engaging Cities has focused for years on the fast-evolving interface between internet technologies and public engagement or community participation.  It’s a thrilling opportunity for me to get back to my journalism roots, do more writing and play a role in the evolution of a field that I find fascinating–and critical to achieving the kind of working together that I described a minute ago.

The Wise Economy Workshop isn’t going anywhere…I’ll still be writing and sharing great thinkers with you here and on the podcast, and I’ll continue to do speaking and writing and consulting from this platform. So stay tuned!

 

Using Data for Sustainable Economic Development with GEDI/ MIT CoLab

We finally have the second podcast up in our mini-series on Sustainable Economic Development, produced in partnership with MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab).  This series features 14 professionals who participated in the 2012 Mel King Fellows program that helped to launch a new initiative called GEDI (Green Economic Development Initiative).

At the beginning of their fellowship, these mid-career professionals talked with CoLab staff about their ground-breaking work in communities across the country and their observations about the challenges of doing economic development in a manner that sustains a community’s environmental health and grows economic opportunity for residents.  The interviews weren’t recorded with the intention of sharing, but the Fellows’ observations were so rich that I jumped at the opportunity to help share them.

This podcast focuses on the use of data and analytics by several of the Fellows.  We hear about the challenges of measuring avoided loss  in New York, sorting out the information you need from the information you don’t need in Portland,  impacts of _not_ being able to measure impacts in multi-country initiatives, and the importance of reality testing in Massachsetts.

Upcoming podcasts in this series will focus on breaking down professional silos, what the Fellows are doing in their communities to build sustainable economic development, and what it all means for the future of the economic development, planning, environmental, social justice and other professions.  These are a little more complicated to produce than my usual podcasts, so stay tuned.  We’ll get the next one up as soon as we can.

GEDI Podcast #2: Data

 

Ooooh…pictures: Videocast with Urban Interactive Studio for PlannersWeb

I’m delighted to announce a new partnership with PlannersWeb (the new online incarnation of the Planning Commissioner’s Journal) to share interviews with people who are leading us into the future of  public engagement and public participation — improvements that you can use in your community.

We’ll interview people who are

  • improving our understanding of how to do public engagement more effectively;
  • developing online and in-person tools to improve our residents’ ability to engage constructively; and (occasionally)
  • people who have a bright ideas in the hopper that are close, but not quite ready, to hit the street (everyone needs some you-heard-it-here-first, right?)

You can watch and listen on a computer, smart phone, tablet  or other device — anything that can show you a YouTube video.

Urban Interactive Studio logoOur first interview, which you can watch below, is with Chris Haller, CEO of Urban Interactive Studio and developer of several online engagement platforms, including Engaging Plans, which is demonstrated here at about minute 10. Chris and Della talk about the new world of planning project web site development (hint: it’s much easier and more powerful than it used to be!), as well as the challenges of engaging our residents in the mobile era … and the importance of bringing online and mobile engagement face to face with real world spaces.

If you know of people we should talk to or issues you’d like to see addressed, let me know.  Enjoy!

Citizen Engagement and the Cranky Old Cranky Cranks

It might have something to do with me still being young enough to relate to the vibrant lifestyle of 20-somethings, but it has occurred to me that the field of planning is overrepresented by old people.  Specifically, old cranky NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) men who have a tendency to desire their neighborhoods to be quiet and devoid of any activity that might upset them and their touchy sensibilities on what makes for a ‘nice neighborhood.’….
If my city doesn’t evolve beyond a bedroom community, these colleges will not flourish and likely close down in a few short years.  And if the some colleges can somehow manage operating in a low-attendance environment without vibrant urbanized conditions and instead a burden of maintaining space for ample parking among a struggling core, then these graduates in their 20-somethings will have little reason to stay.  They will see a bedroom community that was design by the retired, for the retired and these recent grads will be the ones cranky about the (un)city conditions and look for jobs (or start companies) elsewhere.
You have to give credit to a writer who manages to work the word “cranky” into five paragraphs about 47 times.  In this piece from the blog “A Planner’s Commitment,”  Ryan Wozniak expresses a very common frustration with older folks’ reluctance to change — one that I hear more and more from young people (and older) across a variety of community-oriented professions.  Ryan employs a little more scorn than I would prefer, but he illuminates one of the most difficult challenges of any kind of community planning, whether for economic development strategies or future land use or transportation:

snapping turtle face
Cranky old cranky turtle. www.quickmeme.com
Dealing with people who aren’t anticipating that the future of the community might not look like its present.
Of course, the kind of situation Ryan describes is common, and it’s not limited to his community in Arizona or to surburbia in general.  But in my (never particularly humble) opinion, writing off this response as NIMBYism or crankiness is too simplistic…even though it’s a write-off we do all the time.
Implicit in Ryan’s situation, and in almost any where the term “NIMBY” gets applied, is a failure to meaningfully engage the public, to do two way communication, and do it consistently, transparently and intelligently enough for it to matter.
And we have got to change that.

My last podcast told the story of a town that has undertaken an aggressive and pretty revolutionary revisioning of itself— and done this in a community that, to everyone else in its region, seems to have everything going for it. Big suburban houses, giant office parks, great schools, fat tax rolls, lots of highly educated middle aged people.  Classic Best of Suburb kind of stuff.

I’m gonna fess up.
I was not excited about doing that podcast.
I was glad when I arranged with my friend Colleen to do it a few weeks earlier, but I ended up going there on the way home from an emotionally and intellectually tough trip to my hometown outside of Cleveland.  When you’ve spent the last two days in what felt like the valley of the shadow, and talked out loud to yourself the whole drive back about why you and others  continue to work so hard for beat up places that sometimes don’t ever seem to get better, summoning enthusiasm for the kind of place that All The Money Went To…
Let’s just say I didn’t feel the mojo was working when I walked in that day.
In my own dark (and yes, cranky) guts, I braced myself for an enthusiastic account of pretty pictures and the magic pill that many communities think form based codes will provide.  I expected something driven by some somebody’s big ego.  Something without critical thinking behind it, and perhaps less staying power as a result.  Not like I haven’t seen that before.
What I didn’t expect to hear about was the thoughtful consideration, the reasoning together, that underpinned the decision to invest a comfortable, conservative… and older… community’s resources in a profound change in direction. The consideration and reasoning that made the uncomfortable stretch into a future very different from the present possible.

Here’s what they did: before the plan, before the picture, before anyone asked Council for a penny, the city manager crafted a community discussion.  He publicized factual information about changes in the region’s demographics.  He recruited thoughtful experts in issues like economic change and fiscal implications.  They hosted presentation and round tables about the big questions facing the future of the region – not just the future of their town.

Not an agenda to support a plan in process, not trying to work the PR machine to win support of a development,  just issues on the horizon that might or might not impact the future of this community.

More importantly, the community, its leaders and residents, had a conversation- or rather, a series of interconnected conversations about what that information implied for the city’s future.  And by the time a proposal came forward to make big changes, a large portion of the community and its elected and informal leadership has a pretty clear-eyed understanding of the challenges and the options.

That groundwork, the quiet, rational, non-ideological discussion– made a historically unthinkable change in direction possible.

Put aside all that idealistic stuff about public engagement for a minute.  Transparency, democratic process, people have a right to know… yah, yah.  Got it.

For a moment, be purely selfish.
The fact of the matter is that we screw ourselves over as professionals when we don’t have those conversations right at the beginning.  We make the whole process of doing our jobs 47 times harder on ourselves than it should be.  The simple fact of the matter is that you know there’s stuff that your community needs to deal with, and not dealing with it is compacting your budgets and your staff and your time to the point where the most basic parts of the job get harder and harder.  You need stuff to change – better tax base, more efficient land use, less money getting sucked up into roads and pipes and programs that aren’t generating a decent return on investment.  And you know this is the case all over, so job-hunting doesn’t get you out of the mess.
People who don’t work in your field are not going to see the emerging issues that are self evident to those of us who do.  They’re not going to intuitively understand what you’re seeing any better than you’re going to be able to anticipate what 3-D printing will enable 10 years from now.
And it’s psychological fact: when people don’t have good information to work from, they over-rely on their past experience.  “It worked just fine 10 years ago, why upset the apple cart?”   That’s not an age issue or a gender issue, although age and gender roles might lead one to put even more emphasis on past experience or influence how a person communicates that.
It’s a human condition issue. And the only way to counteract that bias, that the future should look like the present, is to give our rational minds the information it needs to shift its gears.   That’s the way human creatures work.
So why do most communities fail to have intelligent conversations about their futures?
We have a tendency in local government to assume that people won’t listen to reason — we point to lots of situations where residents say stupid things or make assumptions that, given the more extensive level of information we have to work with,  just don’t make sense.  Even though we “told” them what the facts were, they “chose” not to listen.
Good teachers know that just telling someone something verbally doesn’t mean it will stick in their head.  That’s why teachers don’t just tell you something once.  You hear it in a lecture, you read it in the book, you do a project, you write a paper.  People need to interact with new information on multiple levels, and do that over time.  If you want someone to understand something, just telling them doesn’t cut it.
And yet, in local government, most of the time that’s all we do.  No wonder they can’t mentally shift away from the status quo.  No wonder they don’t see the threats and opportunities we know about.
A fundamental purpose of our work –in any kind of local government or community management– has to change.  We have to become managers and facilitators of community conversations, not just presentation-givers, open-house-when-the-plan-is-all-but-done-holders, grouse-helplessly-to-each-other-when-they-don’t-get-it-ers.  We can’t keep falling back on “it’s complicated…you wouldn’t understand…trust us.”  And then wonder why people don’t see the need for change.
Dublin did just that.  Rather than try to shove everyone along to some pre-determined conclusion, skimp on building understanding and risk an ambitious plan blowing up in their face, they built a shared, broad-based understanding.  And that included people who could have very well become cranky old NIMBY cranks.

happy old man
Guess I got old early. www.quickmeme.com

The Planner’s superpower: no straight edges required.

“This is not the planning profession John Nolen built. A century later, our great recession has sparked a full re-evaluation of what a city’s urban planning department should be ‘doing’ for its citizens. As witnessed in Los Angeles and San Diego, the planning profession is being measured by its eternal conundrum between Forward Planning Departments that plan for future development projects and Current Planning Services that process today’s development applications….

Having been regulated to stakeholder status in a city’s Economic Development prioritization, planners must reclaim their place at the city’s Capital Improvement Planning table.”

-“The Future of Municipal Planning: Is John Nolen rolling over in his grave?” http://t.co/lCrdPWdQQq

It’s always a little disorienting to agree and disagree with an author at the same time.  This article by by Howard Blackson on Placemakers gets at many points that I’ve advocated in the past– planners needing to be proactive, responsibility for fiscal decision-making, important role of planners in guiding economic development decisions.

But…the objective is “a place at the Capital Improvement Plan table?”   No doubt, that would be helpful. But it’s not enough.

Planners do more than lay out physical improvements.  We do more than illustrate desired future developments.  And we have to.  Our communities need more, a whole lot more. The responsibility, the importance of planning, goes far beyond capital improvement plans. Today more than ever before.

I know this is a long, long debate in planning…Moses vs Jacobs, van de Rohe vs Davidhoff, etc etc.  We sometimes joke about it as why the profession gets no respect…no one knows what the hell a planner does, and sometimes that includes the planners themselves.

But there’s a very practical reason why we all have to reach beyond our core skill sets: doing the job that needs to be done takes a lot more tools than pens and zoning codes and AutoCADD.

If all you do is physical design, and you meant it when you said way back when that your purpose was to make places better, you’re hamstrung by the box you have allowed yourselves to be stuck in.  Even if you are in a proactive and forward-thinking community and you can do great design work, how much of your ability to enable change and improvement is constrained?  How much difference can your design work make if people can’t find jobs?  Will they be happier just because you make it look good?

If you’re only tool is a hammer, how often do you actually fix the problems that need fixing, and how often do you just bust the box instead?

__
I was in Chicago for the American Planning Association conference last week.  Chicago has this incredible history of urban design and physical planning.  By the end of the week I suspect even design junkies might have had their fill of the Burnham Plan and the World Fair and Mies van de Rohe and the rest.

But Chicago is not the buildings or the parks.

I love Chicago’s architecture, but I would not move there to look at buildings, as much as I appreciate the buildings.  My husband and I, 20 years after leaving, still talk about retiring to Chicago…because of the human activity.  The things to do, the character of the place.

Crowd at festival
One of the real reasons why people go to Grant Park. www.lollapalooza.com.

Buildings and spaces set the stage for the things that make a city great or miserable, but they are just that: the stage upon which us as the actors make the play.   People often attach intensely to places that don’t have Millennium Parks and Sheds Aquariums, as delightful as those are.  Sometimes, they attach fiercely to a place despite their absence, or in the face of the lack of such loveliness.

It’s one thing to be an Artiste and dedicate your life’s work to pure aesthetics.  It’s another thing to take on the responsibility for using design skills to make our stages for human activity work better.  That’s a critical and necessary differentiation.

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I know…it’s not your job to fix everything. You can’t do it all. You don’t know it all. You don’t have all the answers.

Understood.  But… you, you might be our best hope.

I have spent most of my adult life in the intersections between professions– physical planners, landscape architects, traffic engineers, civil engineers, economic developers, community developers, Main Street managers, city admins, neighborhood rabble rousers, so on and so on.  My address book needs a sorting system that doesn’t come with the software.

This next part is for you who have some kind of degree or job with the word “planning” in it….and only you.  Everyone else go get a sandwich or something.

Ok.  Are they gone?

Here’s the deal: you guys, the Planners, whatever flavor, you understand the interconnections.  You get that, frankly, better than anyone else.   You guys have either learned or intuitively see how the human elements and the design elements and the infrastructure and the programs and the hundred other things fit together.  It’s not a perfect understanding, by any means, and you each come at it from a little different direction, but you’re closer to it than any of the other professions that deal with communities.

You’re at least talking about it…for all its warts and limitations, a conference like APA enforces that.  I can tell you that the economic development profession, for one, is deep in the throes of understanding the limits of its historic siloed approaches right now….and I think it’s going to be a long time before that profession, as a whole, comes out the other side.

I think a secret to the planner’s insight is this crazy messiness we’ve inherited… the fact that”planners” do a hundred different kinds of jobs, to the point where sometimes we have no idea what that word actually means anyways.

That always bugged the crap out of me.

But…I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s an advantage.  Or maybe a burden, but the kind of burden you have to carry to be able to do something great and meaningful and needed.  Kinda like a superpower.

“Able to see interconnections and interrelationships through walls and silos!!  It’s a design geek…no, wait, it’s a zoning director… It’s Planner Person!”

cartoon of superhero holding paper labelled Plan
eh….maybe not. www.branded4good.com

Ok, I won’t get the t shirts made yet…

But the communities we work in need you to use your superpower–to reach across the disciplines and find the interconnections. We need to do that better.  We need to develop the tools a and analytical frameworks to do that, and right now we’re still weak on that.

But we’re probably the best chance our communities have for getting to it.

 __

So if your main gig is design, incorporate into your design work the best understanding you can possibly muster as to how people actually use places and how they can support people better.  If you deal in land codes, strive to anticipate those unintended consequences– how one site’s development might have rolling impacts.  If you make land use plans like I used to, don’t just color maps–work through all of the interrelated elements that will either empower or hinder those recommendations.  And if you do any of those other 97 things… wade into the edges, take on the messiness, do your damnest to use the full range of your knowledge to make places work.  You won’t do it perfectly.  But try.  And keep trying.

Why? Because most of the others probably won’t get there any time soon.  And our communities won’t wait.  You, you might be our best hope.

No laurel-resting here: Dublin, Ohio plans for a changing future

People in Ohio tend to point to the Columbus suburb of Dublin as one of those places that has everything going for it: big houses, wealthy people, lots of high-paying jobs in beautiful office parks, great schools.  The kind of place where “planning” would typically mean maintaining the status quo.  But Dublin has done something kind of…well, radical, for an affluent suburb: it realized in the late 2000s that the world was getting ready to turn upside down on it, and decided to get ahead of that curve as fast as it could.  Here’s the podcast

https://soundcloud.com/wiseeconomy/dublin-ohio-bridge-street

This conversation with  Terry Foegler and Colleen Gilger focuses on the story of the changes that Terry and others saw on the regional and national horizon, and how they persuaded Dublin’s elected and appointed leadership to dedicate significant time and resources to a planning process that would lay the groundwork for a profound reconfiguring — and densifying — of the historic center of the community.  Beginning with an initial visioning process and continuing through the recent adoption of a form-based code, Dublin is trying to strike an unique and potentially trail-blazing balance between traditional suburbia and urban vitality.

As APA 2013 gets underway in Chicago, this is an interesting case study on convincing a community that doesn’t face many problems today to anticipate and get ahead of many of the trends that planners have been talking about, but communities haven’t always had the willpower to address, for a decade.

I could post a bunch of pictures, but since this is an ongoing project, and Dublin is pretty good at generating new information, here’s the latest on the Bridge Street initiative — videos and all

Enjoy!

APA 2013 — Sessions, events, awesome people…and maybe some blues. Or something.

Just a quick note for you planning types that I’ll be doing two sessions (read: I am an idiot) at the American Planning Association’s annual conference next week in Chicago.

On Saturday, April 13 at 4:00 PM, I’ll be talking about the future of web-based fiscal impact modelling with Doug Walker of Placeways, LLC and Chris Haller of Urban Interactive Studios.  We’ll be digging into two different web-based fiscal impact models, telling the truth about what worked — and what didn’t work — and thinking about what communities can do to capitalize on the explosion of analysis and communication power that these tools can bring to decision-making today.  Sound eggheaded?  Well, I hear that Chris has a guerilla app that’s launching this weekend, so you never know what will happen… especially if someone brings some bananas… what?

What’s a fiscal impact model?  You can read my explanation here, and a little information about one of the models here.  Per usual, I’ll post a podcast and annotated slides in the next week or two — after I find out what the heck these guys have to say.

On Monday, April 15, at 9:00 AM, I’ll be talking about building Small Business Ecosystems with Carolyn Dellutri of Downtown Evanston, Inc. and Taylor Stuckert of Energize Clinton County.  Taylor himself will be worth the price of admission, especially if some of his recent hard-earned luck can rub off on anyone else.  Not only is Energize Clinton County winning an APA National Planning Achievement Award for Innovation in Economic Development and Planning, and he was featured in Fast Company Magazine’s recent article on ” 7 People Under 30 Who Are Changing Our World,”   BUT…. he just successfully defended his thesis for his Master of Community Planning.  Like last week.  How freaking cool is that?

Does that Energize Clinton County thing sound familiar?  Well, it should…especially if you read or listen here very often.  Here’s a link to an awesome podcast that I did with Taylor and Chris Schock, his partner in crime at the county…awesome because of them and their story.  I mostly just held the recorder.  And Evanston?  In addition to having a completely kick butt downtown that Carolyn shepherds, it’s the home of my alma mater, where I’m proud to say they do it the right way.  If only the wedding ecosystem that Carolyn will describe existed back in the dark ages when we got out of school….  I’ll get audio and annotated slides posted for that one as well.

So, I’m gearing up for a busy, exhausting, exciting and energizing week of hanging out with the best and the brightest — these guys, and you.   If you’re going to be at  APA, send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com or on Twitter at @dellarucker.  I’m hoping to catch up with a lot of you and hear your stories about how you’re making great things happen where you live and work.  And I might have a notebook or a recorder in my pocket.

I’m even toying with an impromptu tour of NU’s campus or a night at the Kingston Mines.  You never know….

 

Changing Your Culture of Public Participation (or, Not Giving the Chance to Say Stupid Things in Public)

In a true display of democracy, a town hall meeting held at the New Bedford High School auditorium Monday gave the crowd of approximately 550 residents the opportunity to publicly voice every last one of the inane thoughts and concerns they would normally only have the chance to utter to themselves.

Though the meeting was ostensibly held to discuss a proposed $21,000 project to replace the high school’s grass football field with synthetic turf, City Councilman Thomas Reed inadvertently opened the floodgates to a deluge of ill-informed, off-topic diatribes on inconsequential bullshit when he allowed those in attendance to demonstrate their God-given gift of language.

–“Town Hall Meeting Gives Townspeople Chance To Say Stupid Things In Public.”  The Onion (everyone knows that this is a satire/fake news web site, right?  

Right??  

Just checking.)

__

This fall, my son starts a new high school.  After a lot of deliberation, my husband and I decided to acquiesce to the kid’s wish to attend an academically rigorous Catholic high school.  For a former public school teacher and career public education kid, this was a hard decision.  Our kids have gone to public school since kindergarten.  But in the end, we concluded that this was the right choice for this bright, serious, disciplined kid.  We decided that he needed an environment that would build on those assets.  And he wanted the challenge.  Hard to argue with that.

The kid was accepted in January.  By the time he starts school in August, he will have had one Saturday morning with the music program, a one on one with an assistant principal, two weeks of band camp and a two day freshman orientation.

He had the meeting with the assistant principal last Saturday.  It was not what I expected.  There’s my 14 year old, sitting across a conference table from a massive, intimidating-looking man–300 pounds of tie-you-in-a-pretzel-if-you-mess-up.  Generally a good trait in an assistant principal, thinks the former substitute teacher turned mom.

 The assistant principal places a binder full of information In front of the kid.  Mr. Intimidating then starts asking James questions (note that he had already been accepted). The questions start off with unsurprising stuff…what’s your favorite subject in school, what do you do outside of school…easy for the kid to answer. Then, the questions take a surprising turn: what kinds of situations stress you out? How do you deal with stress? What are you passionate about–what gets you out of bed in the morning?  If I asked your best friend to describe you, what would he say?

Find yourself a 14 year old boy and try those questions on him.  Or try them on yourself.

James stumbles through them, and Mr. Intimidating takes notes.

Then the assistant principal asks James to open the binder.  Sitting to the side, I steel myself for a marginally painful review of rules and requirements and consequences.  Instead, Mr. Intimidating spends the next 20 minutes conversing with James about the core principals of the school’s educational philosophy.

Critical thinking.  Self-awareness. Compassion towards others.  Integrity.

Deep stuff. Foundational stuff. Not a single rule or regulation.

As I listened, it dawned on me that this wasn’t a one-off thing.  It was just more obvious because of the setting.  When my son did the music department event a couple of weeks ago, the entire group of kids ended by singing the alma mater.  The incoming freshmen put arms around each others’ shoulders, exactly the way the upperclassmen do, while they tried to read the words off a piece of paper.

Find yourself a 14 year old boy and try to get them to put their arm around the shoulder of another boy.  Good luck.

And yet I watched my kid do exactly that.

__

Think for a moment about how we complain about the public’s involvement in our planning and economic development and local government–in person and online.  I opened this piece with a purposely over-the-top piece of satire, but…come on.   Hits a little close to home, don’t it?

We gripe that they don’t behave themselves, that they say nasty or off topic things, that they pound soapboxes…or worse yet, that they just don’t show up.

No wonder our meetings are so miserable.  It’s all their fault.

Now think for a minute about how much effort we’ve put into establishing our community’s culture of public engagement.  What have we — and our predecessors– done to convey, to demonstrate, what effective public engagement looks like?  What have we done to set the tone, to establish the environment we want?

Do we even know what the public engagement we want looks like? Or would we sound like a 14 year old trying to answer a question about how his best friend would describe him?

What public engagement culture do we have?
__

If all St. Xavier High School did was a 20 minute discussion of principles, I would never expect it to take.  A 14 year old would forget that stuff before he got out the door.  But when every aspect of the culture reinforces those principles– alma mater sung with arms around each other, freshman applauded by upperclassmen when they enter the assembly on their first day of school, senior mentors in freshman homerooms, band camp that welcomes new students instead of hazing them–then those principles come to mean something.  That’s how a culture–especially a culture that is radically different from what newcomers might expect– sticks.

The most successful companies all know that. Edward Deming, the father of modern manufacturing, gets quoted in business schools every day:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast and process for lunch.

Show me a Fortune 100 business, and I will show you how that company has built its culture through and into everything it does.

__

Last year I wrote a blow-by-blow account of how I managed a potentially contentious public meeting.  That post has now been read by 3,500 people.  Obviously that essay addressed something that a lot of people needed or wanted.

But keeping a meeting from blowing up….that’s simply classroom management.  That’s the very basics.  It’s not creating a constructive environment.  it’s not enabling a constructive culture.  It’s not in itself moving us forward at all.

We have to change the culture of community participation, and we have to do it top to bottom.  Organizations that take on culture change know that they have to do it intentionally…they have to build it into every interaction, every communication.  They need to consciously reinforce the principles of the culture they want–not just by saying what the principles are, but living them through every interaction.

What are your community’s public interactions telling people about how you want to relate?  What does the room setup say?  The rules…or lack of rules? The options and opportunities for involvement?

Is meaningful public engagement built into your processes, beginning to end?  How do you involve people upstream– in setting policy and deciding priorities? Do people have real opportunities to be part of the solution, or do your just invite them in when there is a fait accompli to argue against?

Do you give them the ability to do something other than say no, no, no?  Do you channel them into being part of the solution?

If you don’t, don’t despair. Culture change is a long and difficult process.  That’s why my son’s new school starts on this work long before they get their books, and why they build it all the way through the experience.  The more I think about it, I suspect it’s not luck….it’s got to be intentional.

___

Like more most analogies, this one breaks down. A 14 year old, to at least some extent, goes where you tell them to go and does what you tell them to do.  Especially if you are a 300+ pound assistant principal.  But your residents will participate only if they perceive that the value of doing so will exceed the c cost of their time and energy.  Which makes a culture of meaningful public engagement all the more important.

So you might as well get started.  Ask yourself: what would meaningful public involvement look like here? What do we need to learn from our residents? What do we want our public meetings to look, to feel like? What character, what principles do we want?  How can we build that into everything we do?

It won’t happen overnight. But goofy 14 year old boys don’t turn into men overnight, either.  So go ahead and get started.

Incentives: No more yes-no-yes-no.

I wrote the following as a response to an ongoing debate on incentives that has been occurring on one of the LinkedIn groups that I follow.  There’s been a strong yes-no-yes-no tone to the conversation, with a few people who oppose the use of incentives on principle butting heads with a few who adamantly believe that incentives are important and valuable.

I’m posting this here because that conversation seems like a microcosm of the ongoing debate.

And if you’re going at it as a yes-no-yes-no, on-off switch kind of choice, stop it.  You’re not doing anyone any good.  including yourself.

Instead, we have to start asking:

What are we trying to do?  What are the tools we have available?  What does our data tell us about how they’re working or not working?  How do we get better information on that?

And if it doesn’t seem to be working, how can we adjust our tools or add to the toolbox to give us a chance of doing what we’re supposed to do?

That’s the right conversation.  That’s the conversation that addresses the sober responsibilities that we have to our communities.  Time to grow up a bit.

___

Thank you again for leading the charge into this critical element of debate.  We need this debate.  We need it.  And we need much more invested in the debate than we’re-just-fine-don’t-rock-the-boat.

Every business and every profession has to grow and change — we of all people should know that, given the amount of time we spend with people who live in the business world.  And given the intersection where economic development lives — of government pressures and blinding business change — we absolutely have to take a cold-eyed, critical look at what we do, how we do it, how that needs to change and how that can be done better.

Part of the problem that surfaces here and in the previous debates on this group about incentives and the like is that we are looking through an insect’s compound eyes: we as a group represent a thousand differing perspectives, and we are being pushed harder than ever to make a coherent whole out of the picture — by voices outside and inside the profession.  And it’s a lot easier for any of us to just insist that the view through our little lens is the right one.

But we are reaching a point, whether it’s due to techology changes or government pressures or the information that the general public can grab and use and share without our spin control, where we can’t pretend not to hear those voices anymore. The profession has to turn a critical eye on itself, clearly understand its strengths and limitations, and change,

It’s not a binary choice — it’s not “Everything is fine!!!!” or “Everything stinks!!!”

Critique is a part of growing up, and in times of pressure you have to grow up faster than at other times.  We all have some growing up to do – in this and in all the other professions that are on the hairy edge of our understanding of how communities and economies work.  But we can’t rest on some claimed laurels today, more than ever.

 

So, new questions:

What do we have to do to make the real estate component part of economic development more valuable, more meaningful to communities?  What else do we need to be accounting for if we intend to have a positive impact?  Are our current methods creating unintended negative impacts — impacts that have hidden consequences for communities?

 

In the Workshop: What happens when an employer goes out?

I’ve got a new item in the Workshop that I’d like your feedback on.  My friend and collaborator Pete Mallow took an initial stab at trying to identify the types of basic responses that we are likely to see in communities after a major business pulls out.  I think he’s in the ballpark, but I don’t think in economics charts the way he does.  So I’d like to see what you think.  Is he missing any other possible reactions?

Obviously this doesn’t answer the critical questions of why these responses happen or how communities should deal with it, but it’s a way to start to understand what we might need to evaluate.  And it’s a baby step toward answering my most vexing question: Why do some places bounce back from disasters, and some don’t?  What makes the difference?

 

I’d like to continue to turn Pete’s brainpower to this issue, so let me know what you think of this framework.  Thanks.

The Rust Belt Bird-Flip to Dying

Sometimes you have to force yourself to walk with your ghosts so that you know who they are.   And who you are, too.

 

I always say that I am from Bedford, a small town outside Cleveland.  But “from” might be the most telling word.  After growing up there, deeply embedded in the community through my father and my grandfather and my own activities, I left that piece of the Rust Belt to go to college in Chicago.  I came back for three summers, and then…left.

When my parents were alive, I would visit every so often.  But not that often.

They died years ago.  The last time I was in the house I grew up in, my brothers and I went through all of the furniture and dishes and tools and all of that detritus of a life, and divided it up.  I continued to co-own that house with them for years, and my one brother still lives there.

I have never gone back inside.

I don’t want to go back to my hometown anymore.  I don’t want to go back to the place that formed me, that played such an integral part in making me who I am that I put a picture of 1970s Cleveland on the introductory slide of every presentation I do.

It’s one thing to talk about it.  It’s another thing to go there.

Don’t get me wrong.  Bedford is a charming little Western Reserve Yankee kind of town.  Lovely square with gravel paths and dignified war memorials, grand Victorian buildings around it.  Gazebo that supposedly has a brick with my name on it somewhere (I’ve never found it… who knows if Granddad told the truth…he didn’t always do that).   Solid buildings lining Broadway.   Stately houses on streets with real sidewalks.   The Old Urbanism, Exhibit A.

But…

Drive around after a few years’ absence, and you notice the potholes.  You see the vacant lots where something’s gone… what?  I don’t remember.   The post office on the site of the old Marble Chair factory – the one that shut down in the late 70s so abruptly that workers left their lunches on the tables – still looks too small.  Then drive through downtown and out into the non-quaint neighborhoods, and…vacant storefronts.  Empty buildings.  Dried weeds in lots.  Houses that might – or might not – have people living in them.  Who might or might not be able to leave the house under their own power.    You can’t quite tell by looking.

There’s a lot of that.

___

I went to Bedford last week, not wanting to visit my own ghosts, but to see a friend who has been visiting hers.  One of my oldest childhood buddies lost her mom a couple months ago.  I had to skip the funeral, in the funeral home on the corner of the cemetery where my own parents are buried, because I had a cold/flu kind of thing.  I wasn’t all that sick, but I didn’t want to risk infecting a room full of old people.  You think about that in this context.

I felt guilty about not supporting my friend.  And I did seem to have something.  But I was kind of glad not to have to go.

I didn’t want to go there.   I really didn’t want to go.

My friend lives in Alaska.  Seldom gets to Ohio.  It’s expensive.  She came back for two weeks to help her Dad move and help clean out the house she grew up in.  I promised I would come and see here.  I figured a friendly face might do some good.

I stood in the front room of the tiny Cape Cod, the one that I could almost find without the address, although I hadn’t been there in 25 years.  The trees in the front had gotten bigger, which made the house look smaller than I remembered, and that threw me a little. But that wasn’t as confusing at the thing that looked like a brick bunker at the end of the street —  that made me think I had taken a wrong turn.  Renee told me that the city had built that years ago to block off an alley – to keep drug dealers from the next town over from running their supplies down this little street.

The front room felt smaller, too, because of the boxes and bins and piles of papers and photos and phonograph records and who knows what else.  I’d stood in rooms like this before, so I brushed off my friend’s apologies.  I’ve been there, don’t worry about it, this doesn’t look too bad, you’ve made a lot of progress.  I know.  It’ll be OK.

When you sit there in the middle of all of that, with the ghosts of your own long-ago life racing around you disjointedly, you don’t know if you will ever get done.  Or if it will ever be ok.

—-

Later that day, I made the call that I didn’t want to make.  I called my brother, the one that still lives in the house where we grew up, who lives there alone and survived a long period of unemployment by selling off almost everything that my other brother and I didn’t claim.  Knowing how little he had, we didn’t claim much.

The one who never visits, never talks, with whom a 15 minute phone conversation feels like a mental battle to say something not stupid.

I apologized for the short notice, said I hadn’t known sure that I was coming until earlier that day (that was true – my friend had been sick), and asked if he had time to go grab dinner.  He said yes.  I hadn’t talked to him for over 8 months.

I proposed to meet at a little pizza shop that I had noticed on the way through town – in the storefront that used to hold the magazine shop at the foot of our street.  Two doors down from the newspaper where I had my first job, across the street from the shop where I got my first haircut.

The ghosts swirled.  I couldn’t get any closer.

Brian walked down the street, met me on the corner, hug.  It’s 8:30, pizza shop looks like it’s closing, everything else around is dark except for a bar (he doesn’t drink).  We get in my car and go to Applebee’s out past the high school, just this side of the shopping mall where I bought my first record, where I wrote a big feature spread for the paper when the mall turned 30 or 40 or something.  The place that I was warned on a trip home after college not to go near, because I was sure to get mugged.  I forget who told me that.

I mostly remember how to get there, but have to double-check myself with him a little.  He has lived in Bedford for most of his 41 years, never lived farther than an hour from here.  He doesn’t have that problem.

Under the pendant lamp at the Applebees booth, Brian looks a little less thin than he used to be.  I am probably thinner than the last time I saw him – I was supposed to run my first 5K tomorrow, but cancelled that to come here.  We have the same face, primarily our dad’s face.  Same hair, same shape, same wrinkles, even the same cleft lip scar, except that his is the mirror image of mine.

Same eyes.

Brian talks some about his job, asks politely about my kids, but talks for a long time about the church we grew up in.  They’re losing population fast, can hardly afford to pay a pastor.  When we were kids they had two pastors, and two parsonages.  They sold the one next door back when our dad was the church council president.  Now they are looking at a merger with three or four other churches, most of which are even smaller.  There’s no one left except old folks.  Brian says he’s the only one in his generation who shows up on Sunday.  And in a brief flash of something interior, he says: “This is the church I grew up in.  I don’t want to see it die.”

There’s a sadness in his eyes all the time.  He hasn’t had it easy.  That sadness intensifies in that second.

I drive him to the house I grew up in, note in the dark that it’s still standing, nothing obviously wrong, landscaping is overgrown.  Hug, goodnight, let’s do a better job of staying in touch.  A string of apologies from me.  He doesn’t invite me inside.  I head for a hotel downtown – I’ve scheduled a meeting with a colleague in the morning.

At the hotel, I look in the mirror.  And notice, not for the first time, the way my eyes look vaguely sad when I am not talking to someone.

“What kind of culture lets this happen to its cities?  How are people okay with the post apocalyptic Mad Max hellscape that is Detroit?”

One of my Twitter correspondents runs a regional planning agency in Akron.  He has been reading  Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff.  Jason lives the Rust Belt experience every day, and I know he’s a thinker.  I checked my Twitter over breakfast before leaving for Bedford.  This book is clearly working him over.   I read the review he tweets.

Cringe. I don’t add the book to my reading list.

____

 

Driving out of downtown Cleveland heading home after my last meeting, I glance sideways from I-90 to glimpse the Detroit-Superior Bridge over the Cuyahoga Valley.  That’s the two-decker one – the one that 70 years ago carried streetcars on its lower level.   That level hasn’t been used for decades.  My father, a self-taught paint chemist who always had bigger dreams that never happened, used to talk to me about his vision for a tourist experience in that lower level – a little fragment of streetcar track and a car to take people out over the river valley to take in the view and get a little meal in the old canteen at the stop down there.  He even took me at some point when someone did a tour of that lower level – I forget whether I was in college or if that was after I got married.  His love of places like that – and his inclination to proclaim “I see usability” – probably had a bigger impact than I know on my career.

The space was dark, full of debris, lit by only sunlight.  But it was a heck of a view.

It’s still not used, except for once in a while when someone holds an art fair or something like that on the old streetcar level.  I haven’t been, but my other brother, an illustrator, has exhibited there.  He says it was  fun – all sorts of exhibits and dance and performance art under temporary lights run off generators and extension cords.

I just bought one of his local prints from a proud-of-everything-Cleveland shop downtown.  It’s the names of the city neighborhoods arranged in the shape of the city.  I told myself that I bought it so that I could keep track of where the neighborhoods are if I end up with a consulting gig in Cleveland.   But I don’t really know why I bought it, other than I like his work and I want to support my niece and nephew…and this little store.

Random quote in my head: A violin in the void.   Vladimir Nabokov, describing his stories about dislocated Russian exiles before and after World War II.  I tell myself that’s the wrong quote for Cleveland, the Comeback City.

___

Past the bridge, it’s a minute or two til I pass the remaining steel mills – I catch the old familiar scent, but it’s not the overwhelming miles-away smell I remember – then into a grey landscape of highway, warehouses, suburbanish buildings, more spread apart buildings.  A landscape eventually dominated by the dark grey trees and brown grass of late Ohio winter.  I debate turning on the radio, but end up talking to myself instead.

Why does this place feels like the Valley of the Shadow of Death?  Am I just doing some kind of long-suppressed grieving – for parents who died too early, for tenuous family ties, for roots that have mostly shriveled, for my own realization that my time slides away?

Is it Renee in her family detritus?

Is it Brian struggling to hold together the family that I have never been for him, in the face of a community where old people die or move away, and new people never come?

Is it potholes, vacant stores, vacant lots – the physical in-my-face manifestations of all of the grim statistics and trends that I have read so long, that I know so well?  I follow news from Cleveland, from Detroit, from Buffalo, and so on, pretty closely – I am From Here, after all.

Is it Jason’s anguish for Detroit, for its sister communities he works so hard for, seeing in the brutal struggles of Detroit a mirror or a prophecy for the places he cares about?

That I still care about?

What audacity animates the people who are trying to build something here – the hundreds of people that I know, or that I know of, who are working in some way to turn Rust Belt communities around? The people who do the art thing under the bridge?  The people who fly in the face of Where the Market Looks Good  to open a shop in a struggling neighborhood, or run a downtown revitalization program, or make pictures that show happy local landmarks?

People like Jason?

I used to do that – I helped start a downtown revitalization program for a downtrodden neighborhood in Wisconsin, when I lived there in my 20s.  I still talk to and advise and support and encourage people all over the country who are trying to make their places better.  But I don’t do it myself anymore.  Where I live now, no one needs me for that.  And I know that it’s exhausting.

In some ways, it’s very easy for me to encourage people to be Brave.  If it were easy, you’d have already done it, I tell them.   Go get ‘em – go make it happen.

 

How do you maintain that bravery in the face of decline – decline that is everywhere you look, decline that goes back decades, decline all around?   How do you maintain it for the months and years and decades where you take a step forward and then (if you’re lucky, only) a half-step back?

___

The morning after my visits with Renee and Brian, while I was still standing in a hotel room that had been created from an old bank building on Euclid Avenue, Jason tweeted this passage from the same book.  When a quote matters so much to someone that they send it despite having to divide it into five tweets, you know that they think it matters:

#1 “The small, white ‘art community’ in Detroit complained that I was focusing on the negative in a city with so much good. What about (ctd)

#2 “all the galleries and museums and music? they complained in a flurry of e-mails and blogs. What about the good things? (ctd)

#3 “But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the (ctd)

#4 “abnormal becomes the norm. Writing about shit like that [galleries and museums] in the city we were living in seemed equal to (ctd)

#5 “writing about the surf conditions while reporting in the Gaza Strip.” -Charlie LeDuff “Detroit: An American Autopsy”

 

I felt like I should respond.  But I had no idea what to say.

 

When  we love a person – a parent, a spouse, a friend, a sibling – we know that we love something that is imperfect.  We know where the bad stuff is, where the baggage lies, we have a clue where the dark places sit and at least a little bit of an inkling of what might be in there.  We choose to love despite knowing that.  Sometimes the bad stuff is too much and we walk away.  But when we do choose to love someone,  we know that that’s going to be there.  And we’re going to just have to live with it.

But why do we ever make the choice to live with it?

I’m no psychologist, or pastor, or much of an expert on anything along these lines.  I often wonder how my husband and I managed to marry at such a young age and not completely botch it up.  And I’m not sure how much credit I get for the fact that somehow we haven’t.

But rolling across the grey highway among the grey trees,  asking my urgent question out loud in the empty car – “why should anyone keep trying to make a place better, when the whole system seems to be falling apart?”  something managed to dawn on me:

When we love someone, we focus on what’s good about them.  We know the bad stuff is there, and we try to help them with it, but that’s not what we choose to see first.  If you ask me about my husband, I will tell you about his kindness, his maturity, his self-assurance, his wisdom.  I’ll withhold the arrogance and the impatience, or make a joke out of them.  Hopefully he does that for me.

The work of setting up art shows, or fighting for better transportation systems, or cleaning up neighborhoods, or opening businesses, matters.  It matters furiously.  It matters a hell of a lot.

It matters because it shows us why these places are loved.  And they show us that somebody loves them, deeply loves them.  Which means that it’s OK for us to love them.  Despite everything.

It says, there is something, something profound, something deep here that Matters.  The old, the ugly, the despairing, the potholed… loving a place doesn’t negate those facts, or negate the need to fix them.  But our efforts at revitalization, however short of the Everything This Place Needs, allows us to see what’s good about it, what there is here that can engender that love.  And they allow us to connect to the place down in our hearts that wants to love our places ourselves.

____

Richard Rodgriguez, probably my favorite author, wrote a stunning essay in a book titled Brown: the Last Discovery of America.  You don’t realize this until the end, but the whole essay is actually about what you think is only one of its many themes: the death of his friend , a difficult and drawn out death, from cancer.  In one of those passages that you don’t know what it’s about until you’ve read the whole thing, he writes:

Adam and Eve were driven by the Angel of the Fiery Sword to a land east of Eden, there to assume the burden of time, which is work and death.  All photosynthetic beings on earth live in thrall to the movement of the sun, from east to west…. We know our chariot sun is only one of many such hissing baubles juggled about, according to immutable laws.

Fuck immutable laws.  Fuck mutability, for that matter.  I just had my face peeled.  I go to the gym daily.  I run.  I swallow fistfuls of vitamins. I resort to scruffing lotions and toners.  Anywhere else in the world I could pass for what-would-you-say?  In California, I look fifty.

You know that he realizes the ultimate ineffectiveness of his face peels and toners.  But he offers  no apology for them.  And taking that stance in the face of knowing that mutability – that audacious bird-flip to the universe… it does not stop death, but it asserts that Something Matters despite it.

 

Communities are not people – they live longer than any one person, and in most places, they never truly go away.  Cities in even struggling parts of Europe and Asia date back hundreds or thousands of years. So personifying a place – comparing it to a person you love – only works so far.

When you strive to make a place better, you are doing something that will have repercussions long past your own lifetime.  No one who built the Detrior-Superior Bridge, or the Civil War memorial on the square in Bedford, or the house where I grew up, is still alive.  But  the impact that those places have continues past their first humans.  Keeping those places working, maintaining and re-creating their relevance, empowering other people to take care of them and themselves, all of these things Matter.  They matter a hell of a lot.

Maybe what you do to revitalize your place is truly a violin in a void.  But maybe the violin in the void changes the void.  Maybe it eventually fills the void, makes the void no longer empty.  Maybe it enables the void to become something else.   Or maybe all you’re doing is flipping the bird to a world that says your place is dying.

And since places are not people, maybe you’re making that happen.

Fuck Mutabililty.

To those of you who fight this good fight, go get ‘em.  And thank you.

 

Business recruitment: Crap shoots and buying our own sales pitches

As we rethink how we do economic development, we need to give up the idea that the primary way to grow a local economy is through business recruitment. As much as we keep saying we’re really about the whole package–local businesses and entrepreneurs and all that stuff– let’s come clean, shall we? For lots of people who touch economic development, the trade shows, the sales pitches, making the deals…that’s still the primo part of the job.

This essay was revised and included in The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  If you like this, chances are you’ll like that book.  Learn more here.

I’ve made lots of arguments before about how I think that doesn’t work. I’ve talked about the importance of little bets, shifting from direct-touch to ecosystem-building, of growing your own, yah yah yah. Fine. Whatever.

If that stuff isn’t convincing, maybe here’s one that will, straight from the world of those business types we keep wanting to attract:

Business recruitment is inherently costly, time-consuming, high risk work. For anyone. Even the best. And the best are at highest risk of wasted effort because they are the most likely to believe their own sales pitch.  So the less we put ourselves in the position of having to do business development, the better off we will be. And the only way to put ourselves in that position is by developing a niche.

To explain that, here’s my own business development story.

When I was in my 20s, I found myself running a consulting business. That’s not because I was some Mark Zuckerberg entrepreneurial hotshot, but because I didn’t have a hell of a lot of other options. I had gotten married to a guy with a good job, but in a place where my teaching degree was pretty much useless. Through a long and contorted process, I ended up turning my writing and research skills into a little business that did National Register nominations and tourism materials. I didn’t get rich, but I could stay afloat.

When I look back now, the piece that amazes me the most is how little money or time I had to put into marketing in order to get jobs. Through no fault of my own, I had landed in niche–both because of where I was located (I was one of few doing this work In my part of the state), and because I was willing to take on the weird or obscure or plain ugly. (I have the distinction of being responsible for listing many of the ugliest buildings in northern Wisconsin on the National Register of Historic Places. You’re welcome.)

The point is, though, that projects that fit me typically found me– at least in enough volume to keep me busy. The projects that found me, that cost me so little to acquire, were the ones where I had a distinct inherent advantage. The ones that fit my niche.

Fast forward 12 years, and I found myself leading business development for a planning practice in a large firm. We spent hours upon hours upon hours preparing proposals. If you work in local government, you probably know what a proposal looks like — a book-length account of how wonderful firm X is, and how firm X will do everything you need, and what it will cost and how quickly they will do it and so on and so on.

For the proposal preparer, it’s a hugely time consuming process. And nine times out of ten, all of that time goes into a complete, unmitigated crap shoot. You, oh hotshot consultant, might have a little different approach, or a grey haired eminence or some other kind of special sauce, but at the end of the day, you’re 90% the same as every other team going after that job.

I’ve seldom had a client tell me that selecting the firm to do the work was an easy or obvious choice. What I’ve often heard: any of the firms that submitted could have probably done ok.

But here’s the most telling part: I, myself, always believed that our team was the best. Hands down.

I wasn’t just doing a sell job… I deeply, truly believed it. Maybe there are people out there who can sell professional services without the belief that their team really is the best, but I don’t think there are many. In most cases, we deeply believe our own spin.

Every time I lost– and if for no other reason than sheer odds, I lost a lot– I don’t think I ever said that the other team was probably better. Instead: the client didn’t understand the benefits of our approach. We didn’t adequately communicate our obvious advantages. They weren’t sophisticated enough to see past the other guy’s flash and dazzle and appreciate our deeper value. Of course. Of course.

Think about that internal justification in terms of your business recruitment. Chances are, on some level, you honestly buy your own sales pitch. Economic development types spend enormous amounts of time and money selling their communities to the Big Deal Projects. And in the process, we sell them to ourselves. No wonder it’s hard to walk away.

Here’s the problem: the cost of landing those projects, especially when that cost is spread out over all the ones we didn’t win… it’s a lot. It’s a hell of a lot.

Consulting firms that chase requests for proposals know this…and they do their damnest to limit the company’s exposure to all those self-believers and the hours upon hours they would spend proclaiming that message. That staff that wrote the proposal for your last project probably did a decent proportion of it “on their own time.” That means time that they didn’t get paid for…often nights and weekends. Because whatever amount of time they were supposed to be able to spend on proposals within their paid time wasn’t enough to get those proposals done. A lot of planning and engineering consultants pull routine 60 hour weeks, although they only put 40 on their time card. It comes with the job, they shrug.

The worst part, though, is that the treadmill of proposals prevents you from taking stock, figuring out how to do it differently, how to find or build the inherent market advantage that I stumbled into with my first firm. I could never do that at the Big Engineering Firm, in part because almost all the time I might have spent building something special got sucked up by proposal after proposal.

And as project budgets got squeezed harder and harder over the years, the benefit of landing the projects that we did get shrunk as well. The value of what we won, compared to the cost of winning it, didn’t look like such a good deal after all. Which both pushed the company to cut back business development hours and pushed is to do more of it on our own time.

What consultants don’t usually admit: you can’t sustain this system.

Think about those two different marketing approaches within your own community and your efforts to build your local economy. Which one are you doing? Are you spending the limited money and time you have on expensive crapshoots, buying your own sales pitch and believing in your gut of guts that this time will be different, this prospect, this one will get it?

If you are, are you getting enough return on that investment any more to make it objectively worth it? Or are you caught in the tightening vise?

Would you be better off if you invested your business development dollars in finding or reinforcing your community’s market asset, its niche?

My first business(and this one) will never touch the total amount of money that the Big Engineering Firm made. But my expenses and headaches were a lot less, too. If we can gain benefit from our assets, then we will probably come out at least as well, and with less wasted effort. And once we stop buying our own sales pitches and learn to clearly see what our places uniquely have to offer, we can use what we have to build healthier economies…and communities.

Load up your dog sled and make Little Bets

Yesterday I wrapped up with an assertion that the speed of change in the world means that the kind of resistance to change that Aaron Renn noted in how economic development is done in the US is understandable, but pragmatically impossible because of the accelerating pace of change and the fact that we have almost no clue what the future will look like.  From where I sit, it looks like most of our most basic assumptions – down to the very definition of a job, a worker, a business – will be extensively disputed within a few short years of today.

Not buying it?  Check out this examination from one of the leading thinkers about emerging issues in business and marketing in the UK:

Era of Disposable Company?

[I]n the digital economy I wonder if as an entrepreneur or business leader
should we change our concept of corporate culture?

When the digital age is moving so quickly and consumers are gaining power, maybe the future trend will be towards a disposable company – it launches, it delivers, it morphs into something else or disappears?

In my lifetime I have seen clothes, TV’s, phone’s etc come to a price point that makes them almost disposable if you want them to be….

So why not a company?

When the digital age is combined with slow economic growth…..the hockey stick financial plans look redundant. Imagine the hockey stick becoming a 2-3 year project? Imagine such a lean, decentralised company that it can move quickly, fold and then come back as something fresh that embraces the new technology?

Maybe, just maybe, we should be focused not on growing structure but on growing flexibility?

http://www.theengagingbrand.com/2013/03/era-of-disposable-company.html

From my own notes:

 A hell of a question….implications for economic development?

Implications indeed.  Think about not just this idea, but what it implies.

We know that employment looks for more and more people nothing like it looked for my father and my grandfather, to the point where even sessions at the IEDC Leadership Conference question whether the concept of a “job” still exists.  Fast Company described a Generation Flux where the most successful careers zigzag across business types.  High school students are advised that they may very well spend their careers in industries that don’t exist yet.

And the very concept of a business – the foundation of how we think about our local economies – could become an antiquated idea as well.

The woman who wrote for a newspaper 25 years ago on trash paper and a manual typewriter writes this on a glass screen that she holds in one hand and brushes with a finger.  And I do that as though I were born to it.

Don’t tell me that the world isn’t changing, or that we know what’s coming next.  If all that doesn’t make you very nervous, you might not have nerves.

___

Local governments are arguably the most slow-changing creatures on this landscape– and that’s partly prudent and partly by design.  If you live off the monies of people who are typically reluctant to give you more, and you have spent three decades in a zeigeist that suspects you of being wasteful sloths, you’re have a monsoon-scale tailwind pushing you take it slow, don’t get crazy, don’t rock the boat.

Add to that a constant, years-long, unrelenting squeeze on your budgets, loss of one co-worker after another who used to help you carry that burden, and a constant nagging cold fear about where the budget cuts will fall next, and its no wonder at all that we can barely get our heads around issues like this, let alone figure out how we meet our responsibilities in an upset-the-apple cart world like I just described.

I’ve said before no shortage of times that we need to fundamentally change how we do economic development and planning…but for me, just like for everyone else in the growing chorus singing from that hymnal, this picture hasn’t come into focus yet.  Whether you’re me or Richard Florida, there’s parts that become a little more clear, and huge swaths that lurk in the shadows.  Talk about seeing through a glass darkly.

But we can’t give up, we have to start figuring it out, unknowns or not.  But how?  We know the feds aren’t going to do this for us, or some well-funded research outfit, or our state’s economic development agency.

So what do we do?

____

Here’s a small way that we can all start sharpening the picture, for all of us.  And I do mean, small.

Businesses that remain successful for the long term continually look forward.  And based on what they see — but knowing that what they think they see could be a mirage or something much different than it appears today — they make Little Bets.

Little Bets sometimes sound like experiments, but I