Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Roadhouse (Red, White and) Blues

When the Governor of Arkansas, William Jefferson Clinton, gained his party's endorsement as their Presidential candidate in 1992 and sought to unseat the incumbent, President George H. Bush, the task was daunting. President Bush and a grand coalition had just reduced Saddam Hussein's Iraq war machine to mush and it seemed every other newborn Kuwaiti baby (and not just the males) was being named George. The Cold War had ended, the Persian Gulf War concluded with a triumphant parade down the Canyon of Heroes in Manhattan (still picking the confetti out of my hair on that one, and I have a lot less hair now than then). For a moment, the world was once again our oyster.

But as a quick check of history will show, the hot button for that election proved to be a remarkably simple slogan and accidental call to arms "it's the economy, stupid." And while it's been some time since James Carville discovered fire and invented the wheel, metaphorically speaking of course, the more things change the more they remain the same.

In Connecticut, the ladies and gentlemen of our upper and lower legislative houses have been in session for about three weeks and are still dancing around the uninvited guest, the state budget deficit and its ever enlarging whirlpool effect that's pulling in, and down, all manner of state and municipal programs as it grows larger on a daily basis.

It's hard for the 168 cities and towns across the Land of Steady Habits to even begin the process of developing next (fiscal year's) budgets when so much of the forecasted state and federal revenues needed to drive all manner of programs could evaporate tomorrow like the snow that won't. The mandates will remain however and those costs will be transferred to those of us who do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.

In recent months, more and more local leaders have spoken about regionalization (to better control costs) but old bugaboos like autonomy and who is really in charge keep rearing their ugly heads and so far all the talk has been that, just talk. More interesting to me (at least) has been watching municipal leaders sort out 'economic development' to both better define it, and then to refine it.

Our local daily newspapers here in New London County took turns in the last seventy-two hours explaining the role of the largest military installation in the New England, Naval Submarine Base New London (which is really in Groton) as an economic stimulus package for the region which causes me to furrow my brow a bit. All ducks are birds, I agree, but not all birds are ducks. It's a bit discomfiting to watch people describe something about which they know very little (objectives, goals and means of national defense), in terms like 'dollars and sense' because the writers think they know something about those concepts.

Which brings me back to my ducks and, with apologies to Holden C, where do they go in the winter (and where do they all come from)? In Norwich, it seems to me (as a non-economist and as someone who did NOT stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night) we have a surfeit of under-utilized commercial buildings, many in downtown but also throughout the city. I suggested to someone last week we needed more ball fields and fewer brown fields and I wasn't joking, though the idea around here seems funny, based on how much sprawl we've created.

One of the downtown structures, the Reid and Hughes building, may finally be awakened from its Sleeping Beauty slumber, as reported yesterday morning in one of the papers but, in re-reading the story, there were sentences that lead me to conclude we're not really wearing our "stupid" message decoder rings (and there's a story in the other paper, too. I almost forgot. Stupid confetti.). The prospective developer, who is risking her cash and well-deserved reputation, reportedly explained to those on the Norwich Redevelopment Agency that she "talked to retail franchise companies and they are not interested in downtown because of the lack of pedestrian traffic. She proposed the apartments, which she said would help bring more residents to downtown. She said no one wants to be the first chain store to come to an area."

A bit later in the story is: "(Thomas) Marien (chairperson of the RDA) said city officials may want to "weigh into" Lam's ideas for redoing the front façade, which now has a modern granite facing....He said an architectural rendering of the façade could be one condition placed in the development agreement." I've only heard the expression as 'weigh in' or as 'wade into' so I applaud the innovative language and the concern (ask residents and businesses in Princeton, New Jersey about appearances and facades) but it's all a piece of my larger disquiet on how we don't know what we don't know so often.

When many of us speak of smart growth in terms of an economic development strategy, what ends up happening in many local instances is developer-driven and piece meal at best. We manage change (across our society) the way horses run--looking no more than one footfall ahead of where we are, which explains why so often, like the cowboys in those old movies, we end up saddle and all, over the cliff.

Not unlike where you live, probably, we have a city with lots of people owning a part of this amorphous concept known as 'economic development'. Sometimes, lots of people are pulling on their respective oars, but in opposite directions so while there's movement, we're not moving forward but going in circles. Other times we argue about whose oar is in the water and who should build the boathouse (which always becomes the central argument: who pays?). We could, I suppose (and believe we should) here in Norwich go back to the basics and look at the operator's manual, the City Charter, a line at a time, and bring it into the 21st Century (maybe kicking and screaming) and then realign a lot of who we are and what we do based on that new road map.

Since the current charter is all we have as we begin a year that will see us elect six alderpersons to our City Council (each is a two year term) as well as a Mayor (to a four-year term) within a City Manager-Council form of government (the Mayor, says our charter, in a less than stellar moment of clarity, 'is responsible for promoting economic development' which means many things to many people, especially when we never define the terms of the debate), we'll have to dance with the ones that brung us.

I was beyond happy when one of the current Council members, Robert Zarnetske, declared his desire to be the next Mayor and offered an economic development plan (if all you get out of the 56 pages is that he likes blue pens, perhaps a career in office supplies is in your future).

I don't pretend to get it all--I'm not even sure I understand as much as I think I do (that old 'don't know what I don't know' bromide back to bite me on the butt; and where the heck is that duck walking to anyway?) but it's a place to start thinking which is much harder to do than to stop thinking, which seems to happen on a routine basis around here. It's full of ideas and not so much ideology and seems to key in more on how to do well than to mean well.

The year is young, and there are a lot of people active in Norwich who will, I hope, consider upping their game and seeking office and enlarging the discussion--but, you ever watch those poker games on TV and there's a minimum bid? Same deal for me. If you're considering a seat on the next Norwich City Council (I was tempted to type that as the Norwich Next City Council, and I guess I just yielded to that temptation) or Mayor, I'm willing to pony up a share of the gas and tolls for the drive, but I have to know if the road map you're offering (and you will need to have one) is taking us to your grandma's house or my grandma's house. Figuring that one out after we pull up to the house and the elderly, white-haired woman at the door starts screaming about burglars, is much too late (especially if she then reaches for a shotgun). And keep your eyes on the road; your hands upon the wheel.
-bill kenny

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