Cut the Fat. Repair the Heart.

November 11, 2021

Cut the fat, repair the heart. That was the advice that came to mind.

Last week, a colleague of mine was elected mayor of his town in central Pennsylvania. He and I have been talking regularly over the last year about what he could do to improve his city if he was lucky enough to serve it. Fortunately now, he will be. 

A mayor has a tremendous ability to improve a town. While they can’t pass legislation, they set the budget, dictate the projects that different departments take-on and where the man-hours are spent. These factors alone can have a huge impact on the shape of a city. In essence, the mayor sets the tone and a city will begin to reflect that tone. 

I started working with Mayor Jeff Hall shortly after he was elected in Newark, Ohio. In his first term he was able to secure grant money for infrastructure repairs on the courthouse square and while he had the streets ripped up, took the opportunity to completely change the entire square. He did away with the one way streets, widened the sidewalks, added more crosswalks and made them more pronounced, slowed traffic and made it all much more attractive. The center of town became more pedestrian friendly by tenfold and changed how people felt about the heart of their community. As he often joked, he was re-elected by a landslide while there were ten foot craters all around downtown. 

Equally as significant for revitalization of town, Mayor Hall overhauled the building department. The one he inherited had no interest in working with the historic infrastructure. They had grown accustom to suburban development and this is what they focused on. It was easy to get approval to build new and cheap because the previous city leaders made sure of it. Economic development money was directed towards sprawl development and the building department was good at getting new construction completed. The tradeoff was that the department no longer knew how to handle historic renovations.  

We have all seen this tiresome story play out. Local building departments get good at getting pole barns built, but when someone wants to renovate the second story of their mixed-use buildings, the department glitches, restarts, then crashes. These departments lost their ability to work with old buildings. I’ve had a hundred historic property owners tell me the same tale, they wanted to do a renovation project and the local department told them they couldn’t. In every case, the project was feasible and would have been successful if the local department knew more about working with older buildings. 

Despite the cities sprawl focus, downtown property owners were ready to make improvements and the building department was getting in the way. Mayor Hall heard these complaints and took action. The city was contracted with the county for building department services. The Mayor was unhappy with the service the city was getting and told the County Commissioners that if the department didn’t learn to work with historic renovations, the city would abandoned the contract and hire their own officials. The county was not too happy, but eventually Mayor Hall get his way and the building department changed shape. 

What a profound difference it made. When a downtown property owner approached the department about a project, instead of “it can’t be done” they were told, “lets work together to make sure this gets done.” There must have been considerable pent up demand because the number of projects in the downtown skyrocketed. Millions were invested in historic building renovations in just a couple of years. The downtown began its renaissance. 

I witnessed the same in Wooster and Delaware, Ohio. Getting the right building code officials on the job was they key to unlocking investment. The demand was there, but bad departments were keeping it at bay. When officials came on board knowledgeable of historic renovations and with a customer service attitude, the number of projects went through the roof. Downtown building owners became partners with the city and not adversaries. Millions of dollars in construction poured in and dozens of new businesses opened. Residents began to feel differently about the place they called home. 

For decades, Newark got bigger, uglier, and broker, because of its sprawl focus. While the city got fat around the edges, the heart grew riddled with disease. Historic buildings deteriorated, businesses closed, fewer people went downtown and when they did, they become depressed with what they saw. Property values in the downtown dropped, property values in the surrounding neighborhoods followed suit. Crime increased. The heart of the city, which once made people proud and brought them together, had been allowed to turn into a source of shame and divisiveness. Growing up, I always heard Newark referred to as the armpit of Ohio. 

This is the tradeoff of sprawl. To the old city officials, any investment still was an investment, but this is dated and detrimental thinking. That is the problem with economic development, there is not much conversation about what constitutes a good investment. I could put vinyl siding on my home and it would be an investment, but because it would cover up the stone, it would be a stupid one. Sure, I could spend money, but it would make the house less appealing and damage its value. This is sprawl – spending money to make things worse. Good mayors know better. 

Mayor Dennis Hanwell in Medina, Ohio understood how the heart of the community effected everyone. He never stopped improving the town square. Every year, the city invested in making it more functional and more attractive. More on events and more on flowers. People dismissed it as frivolous, but the Mayor knew what he was doing. As the square improved, more people were drawn to it. In seeing a pretty place, you feel compelled to experience it. The square itself and the events it held started drawing hundreds of thousands of people annually. This made all the first floor space on the square the most valuable in the county. The best shop owners in the region relocated their businesses to take advantage of the foot traffic and the value of the buildings increased. The square had become the pride of the community. People grew more attached to their town and as more people shared the square, they grew more attached to one another. The neighborhoods around the square jumped in value. The ripple effect was startling, all from making a piece of land pretty. 

This is what repair the heart means. People get their civic identity from the center of town, for better or for worse. No one uses a strip mall or a highway interchange as their city logo. No one posts social media photos of the subdivision. These places don’t matter, they weren’t meant to matter and they do that spectacularly. The heart of the city was built to matter, that’s why it was built that way. It was supposed to stand the test of time, it was supposed to make people proud and bring them together. It was meant to be the most desirable place to locate your business and its proximity the most desirable to locate your home. The heart of a city was built with intention. The town founders knew exactly what they were doing. 

The heart of a community is so much more than just a commercial district. It is where we draw our sense of identity. It is a small business incubator. It is the best chance we have to experience a sense of community. A rundown downtown will make people feel like hell and degrade civic self-confidence. A dilapidated downtown will make people hate their place and feel a sense of shame. It will make the best and brightest want to move somewhere that makes them feel good. It will make people question anyone that wants to try and do something positive. A blighted downtown is the surest path to rampant civic apathy. 

But a healthy heart repairs the rest of the body. It’s the engine that all your other muscles rely on. If you want to get in shape, you can’t start with foot exercises. Sprawl will never make a community healthier, it’s just more fat that places more stress on the rest of the body. Sprawl is the equivalent to eating big macs. Yes, you are eating, but each bite is making you less healthy, each bite is making you fatter and stressing your heart. Each bite is making you worse off. Sprawl is just a lot of fat around the midsection. A wise mayor understands that when you make the heart healthier, the rest of the body will follow suit. It has no choice. 

So when I think about all the mayors coming into office this winter, I implore them to cut the fat and repair the heart. Start with the center. Think about where people derive their sense of identity, what lifts people’s confidence and roots them to their place. Remember that not all investments are good investments and begin to focus on those that will have the greatest impact. Make people proud of the part of town that gives them their identity and you will start to find you are the mayor of a town full of proud residents. 

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