Whether you like it or not and whether you realize it or not, you are in a relationship with your city. Everyone has a relationship with the place they live. Such a substantial part of the way you lead your life is predicated on the place where it occurs.
You are in a relationship with your city, but it’s not a healthy one. Your city just doesn’t love you back. Unfortunately, you are not the apple of your city’s eye.
Your city is in love with someone new, someone different. Your city is tired of you and the lasagna recipe you think is so special. Your city was into you once, like decades ago, but you are old and tired and boring. You live in town and your city gets to see you every day. What is fun about that?
But you know who isn’t boring? The person from two towns over. Mmmhmm. Look at them over in their other town, with all that good money to spend. That’s where it’s at. You could never be new and interesting like the person from some other town. You just don’t have what it takes.
So many cities have turned their attention away from the people that matter most and spend so much time and money fawning over outsiders. This has become such an ingrained part of a communities economic development strategy, but it’s beyond time someone called this strategy into question. Is it really producing any ROI?
You, as a resident, should be the priority of your city. Your life, your happiness, your well-being, should be your city’s main concern. After all, YOU LIVE THERE. You call your city home, you pay your taxes, you are one of the reasons your city even exists. Yet your city is OBSESSED with out of towners. Your city is always looking for something new and better down the road. Your city might be a real dirtbag.
In one of my favorite lines of one of my favorite songs, First Day of My Life by Bright Eyes, he drops this gem, “I’d rather be working for a paycheck than waiting to win the lottery.” Working every day to improve is always going to produce better results than waiting for some big payday.
A couple of years ago, I had an individual from Jamestown, New York reach out to me about this very issue. In an email, she explained that Jamestown, a city with a poverty rate around 30%, had recently voted not to fund the library, but was working on opening a $50 million Comedy Museum.
Jamestown was the home of Lucille Ball and someone tossed this idea out as a way to increase tourism and help improve the economy and apparently no one ever stopped to point out what a terrible idea this was.
I sort of see the logic. Jamestown was struggling with unemployment and poverty, so community leaders decided that drawing in tourists will help improve this dire situation. This sort of mistake is repeated time and time again. There is just no proof that these sort of moon shot projects make any difference, but there is plenty of evidence they don’t. It’s the same with the ballpark and the convention center and the parking deck.
Jamestown didn’t think about what it could do to improve its relationship with its existing partner, the residents, but instead wanted to get all sexy and try and attract new visitors.
What are visitors going to do to fix a 30% poverty rate? Why are cities so obsessed with trying to win over the affections of others, while completely failing to do anything for the people that already call it home?
A city should be putting its efforts towards its residents. Its concerns should be making the people that call it home happier. The function of a municipality should be a consistent effort to improve the lives of the people that make up the city. Sadly, this is so often an afterthought. Most cities are hellbent on trying to attract new people and new corporations while ignoring those people and businesses that already call it home.
Businessey type folks say it costs 5 times as much to attract a new client as it does to retain an existing one. This same logic is applicable to cities. Your city should be appealing to you. You should be the apple of your city’s eye. You should be its greatest concern. You already live there and stand to benefit the most if it improves. You have the greatest vested interest in its success.
The idea that tourism is the solution to your town’s problems is deep seated and appears to be unshakable. Somehow, someone from far away, coming to your town and dropping off their dimes is more valuable than the person that already calls it home. I know the old CVB argument. The idea being that tourists are good for the economy because they spend money in the city and they don’t cost the city anything. A city doesn’t have to pay for a tourist’s schooling, police and fire protection and so on, so everyone that pops by, is an economic gain. It is a reasonable argument, but it still doesn’t make sense.
There are benefits to tourism, without a doubt. Bringing in new revenue helps, but the cost is high and the benefit is not as great as putting that money towards locals. It is easier to win over someone that has a highly vested interest in your success already. I don’t care if the next town over gets better, I care a great deal if mine does. Yet cities are always trying to woo the new guy, even though you have been together for years.
It is insulting to locals when they are ignored and so much attention is paid to someone who has no vested interest in the community. It is insulting and doesn’t make much sense either. A tourist will treat your community like a rental car. Fun for a weekend maybe, but they are not about to get it washed. At the end of a visit, they head back home to be ignored by their own city, but you have to stick around and walk the kids to school past their trash.
If your city paid you as much attention as the tourists, you might love your city back in full. Maybe your relationship would blossom. You are going to be far more likely to express love and affection for your city if you felt like you mattered. When we care for something, we also take care of it. A local who feels loved is going to pick up trash, take care of their yard or building and speak up when standards begin to drop. An engaged local will protest a senseless demolition or speak up at council when something is going down. A resident who cares will volunteer their time with a local non-profit or donate to the local foundation.
No one should have to travel to experience a place that makes them feel special and a community full of people that feel loved and appreciated by their city will kick a tourist town’s ass every time in everything that matters.
*An excerpt from the book Your City is Sick