Last week over beers in Panama City, friend and colleague, Allan Branch, put it to me this way, “Whenever I’m traveling, I always wonder, why are some towns doing better than others?”
He posed a simple question- one that I’ve overlooked in my blog posts. To me it seems pretty straightforward, but to have him ask it of me, made me reconsider the point. Why is one town doing better than any another? What is going on in different places? What changes? And finally, what can a struggling community do?
I always think of cities like people, each one is different, but they all share similar qualities and values. The problems tend to be the same, even when the names and locations are different. So one city might not be as successful another just as one person might not be as successful as another. What brings about the differences then?
Well…what makes an individual successful, or a business for that matter, or a non-profit? The answers are the same. Success has a formula and when subscribed to, results are inevitable.
Want to get smarter? Read more books. Want to get stronger? Lift more weights. Want to learn piano? Practice piano every day. Want to learn Spanish? Take Spanish lessons every day. Want to have more money? Save money by spending less than you earn.
The answer is always the same.
See the pattern here? Want to lose weight? Can you guess the strategy yet? Well, it just so happens that Allan lost more than a 100 lbs. in the last year. Want to know his secret? He explains that he made it a point to burn more calories than he consumed, every day. Not quite the game-changing epiphany you were expecting? Of course not, turns out what works is the answer everyone already knew. No gimmicks, no subscriptions and no secrets. Just math and prolonged effort. Allan summed up his findings perfectly, “It’s simple, just not easy.”
This is “the secret” to pretty much every endeavor. Want to go somewhere? Pick the place and then start moving in that direction until you arrive. Losing weight or mastering the guitar isn’t complicated. It’s the simplest thing in the world, it just requires the commitment to sustain a prolonged effort.
We seek out secrets and gimmicks in hopes to shortcut the prolonged effort part, because that’s the bit thats trips us up- but sadly, with success- there are no shortcuts. This is why the lottery looms large in our society, it may be the only instance where someone can bypass the “putting in the work” part and have it all at once. But everyone knows not to bank on the lottery for retirement and probably why the winners all end up on TV three years later broke AF.
Revitalization efforts have their own lottery equivalent. These are the moonshots, the “get it all at once” and skip the “putting in the work” propositions. So many downtowns are littered with these silver bullet failures. It’s the civic center, the arena/ballpark, the parking deck, the museum and visitors center. Someone once guaranteed that each one of these would revitalize the community all at once. Each one of them failed to deliver for the same reason. Because there is no secret when it comes to improvement. Forty years of neglect won’t be forgiven with four floors of covered parking.
To achieve anything, you first have to decide on a goal. This is the part most cities seem to overlook. If you don’t first decide your destination, you can be sure you will never arrive. Cities often forget this critical step. They must decide what they are trying to achieve. Improvement has to be moving towards a goal, there must be a vision or end in mind, lest there is no direction, just movement. The idea of simply wanting to get better is not enough, you must decide in which way you want to get better.
A city must decide what it is trying to achieve. Does your city want to become the best place to call home? Is it striving to have the most visitors? Does your town want to be home to a Fortune 500 company? These are very different goals and would require very different actions. If an individual wrote their New Year’s resolution was to “get better”, how would they mark their improvements? How would they quantify success? It’s too subjective, and too opaque to have meaning. This could lead to fiddle lessons one day and French lessons the next with no meaningful progress ever being realized. A lack of the clear goal would lead to a lack of supporting action. You can’t arrive if you don’t decide where you are going.
Cities, like people, are on a continuum between order and chaos, some are stagnant, content with how things are. Some are not doing the required basic maintenance and find themselves backsliding into chaos. And others have set out a vision and are working relentlessly towards order. This is what sets some people apart from others and what sets some cities apart from others. This is why some towns are doing better.
Improvement is simple, not easy. The process to get better requires having specific goals and working towards them. There are no shortcuts and no gimmicks. At the end of the day, for a city to get better, it has to decide what it wants to be and work relentlessly towards that end.
Residents have a major role to play. They can start by making their block better, and invite all your neighbors to participate. Make the block the best it can be- the prettiest, closest-knit, friendliest, etc. Then work towards making the neighborhood the best it can be and then your downtown. Let the momentum spread like wildfire. Start somewhere small, get it right and move on from there.
Decide what you want your city to be and then do it. But understand this, it will require a sustained commitment. If you want to realize an epic improvement, understand that you are going to have to put in the steps to get there. You have to show up every damn day, pulling weeds, picking up trash, speaking up at council, making calls, writing letters. Whatever it is that you decide to do, understand you may not see results for sometime, but trust in the process. Know that if you keep putting in the effort, you will arrive. You will achieve. You will make a difference. You will get there, you just have to decide where you want to go and put one foot in front of the other. Like Allan said, “It’s simple, not easy.”