Something’s Missing

May 21, 2019

The historical society, convention and visitors bureaus, chambers of commerce, Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions Club, Masons, The United Way, local foundations, economic development organizations… you know them well, their emblems populate that weird entrance sign to your city. It’s a pretty typical list of the organizations that operate in most towns, full of opportunities to get involved. A great deal of meaningful work is accomplished by these organizations and the people that dedicate their time to them, yet I cannot help but notice…something is missing.

There is no shortage of organizations working to make a difference in our cities and towns, but we are missing the one we need the most. The city itself is responsible for administering taxes and allocating those dollars towards the services needed to keep it running. Service organizations, like Kiwanis and Rotary, are benevolent in nature and bring people together around charitable causes. Historical societies work to preserve historic assets and make people aware of their local heritage. Chambers of commerce are charged with furthering the interests of businesses. Economic Development entities are concerned with growing the economy. Tourism organizations seek to bring more people into the community from outside. In addition, there are multiple other organization serving various roles in nearly every community. These organizations all have their part to play and certainly do help improve the community, but not a single one of them is solely responsible for making a community a better place to live. This is a glaring omission and so many places are paying the price for it.

The organization we need the most is the one charged with making our communities better places to live. Because with all the above functions mentioned, no one is tending to quality of life issues. It’s kind of shock when you consider it. The area of most concern for our cities, is going undone, and much to our peril. How can this be? How can we overlook the fact that if a city is not a great place to live, all of the other functions mentioned above suffer? After all, a city is full of people and those people matter. They are of the utmost importance and often don’t seem to get much consideration. The people that make up a city are more important than the people that visit the city and even more important than the businesses located there. The well-being and happiness of residents is tantamount to the success and vibrancy of a city. In 2019, this must be our focus, this must be our priority, this is the way forward.

Every single organization, business and institution is affected by the overall health of the place in which they are located. They say a rising tide lifts all boats and an improved community improves every institution within the community. No entity is immune to the ups and downs of their location. The university has to recruit students. The hospital has to recruit surgeons.  The manufacturer has to recruit executives. All of these entities will struggle to find and retain good people when the town they are located in struggles. All of them will have an easier time of finding and retaining talent when their location thrives. The success of every organization is tied to the place it calls home.

We have to give serious consideration to where we allocate our resources. I would not be surprised if a community of 50,000 people dedicates more than $1,000,000 annually for the functions of tourism and business development. This is a lot of money NOT going towards making a community a better place to live. Increasing visitors matters and expanding the economy matters, but are those functions more important than improving the overall quality of life for residents? Again, I understand that these organizations have an important role to play in strengthening a community, but I think we should give some consideration as to whether or not another approach would be more effective and provide a greater return on investment.  I just have to wonder if currently we are maximizing the scarce resources of time, leadership, effort and money. And I am not placing blame on these entities either, they are confined by their outdated mission. I am sure they are more frustrated by these trends and issues of relevancy than anyone. I also understand that organizations are not using public funds, so they are free to do what they like, but they ARE community organizations and if a shift in mission could help them be more effective, shouldn’t we consider it.

I have seen firsthand how these organizations are struggling with issues of relevancy across the country. They were born out of a different need at a different time. They had a critical role to play in improving the local economy and they were effectively able to meet their mission for decades. There was room to grow business and tourism and the amount invested in these areas created a healthy return. But we are living in a different time and may need to make adjustments that reflect today’s economy and landscape. It would benefit everyone to place a greater focus on livability issues as we know how it will boost tourism and strengthen local business.

We have to give serious consideration as to how to best move forward in revitalizing our cities. Thousands of communities have been devastated by our changing economy and have not made the necessary adjustments. The best and brightest keep leaving for places that offer a high quality of life. Our community institutions were created for a place that no longer exists.  Chambers were built around the concept of strengthening local businesses, but the local business community has been devastated by the proliferation of national chains and assisting national chains can come at the expense of local business. Tourism pamphlets can’t compete with social media and the amount of information we have available to us today. If a community isn’t attractive and exciting, you just can’t sell it. Many economic development efforts are still incentive driven when talent retention and attraction is the name of the game. No longer are the days where talented people seek out employers, today, employers seek out talented people and the talented have the means to make a home wherever they like.

Tourism, chambers and economic development offices can only be as successful as the place in which they are doing business. In the end, they are all in the sales business and they are selling their place. Like the hospital and university, their success is limited by the place in which they are located. This is why it is paramount that cities have an organization whose mission it is, to improve their place. Whether they realize it or not, Main Street and downtown organizations, by and large, fill much of this role. By making the center of the city more attractive, fostering local ownership, bringing people together and boosting locally owned business, they are, without a doubt, making their communities better places. Certainly there is work to be done outside of the downtown, like improving parks, enhancing walkability and bikeability, and strengthening neighborhoods, but the downtown is the focal point of any effort to make a city better. This is why cities with such organizations are outperforming their counterparts. They are creating a substantial return on investment and in-turn, making the efforts of tourism, chambers and economic development that much more successful. Most of these organizations are having a deep and lasting impact on a shoe-string budget.

I have been fortunate enough to work with a few communities that understand this. In working with a mid-size city in Central Ohio, I had the opportunity to help city leaders create such an organization. We developed a new mission around the idea of making this city a great place to live. When considering board members, we had to pick from anyone that would benefit from making the community more livable, so we had the entire population to pick from. When developing board member roles and responsibilities, we were rigorous and set our standards extremely high, because we needed the best. We did not recruit, we put out a call for applications and were explicit with our high expectations. This was not a board for resume builders, but for those that understood the dedication and commitment it would take. We were seeking out proven community leaders and were NOT going to accept less. We conducted interviews to ensure they understood what this commitment entailed and to make sure it was a fit for both sides. By setting standards high, we were able to attract those that hold themselves to a high standard. By being explicit about expectations, no one was surprised when a lot was asked of them. They understood the value of this endeavor. This board kicks so much ass. By bringing together the community’s  strongest leaders around the issue of livability, this city has improved in nearly every facet, and I can promise you their tourism, chamber and economic development efforts have never been more successful.

It’s not too late, but every day we wait to address these issues, they grow more difficult. Ask yourself, who is responsible for making your community a better place to live? If you don’t have an answer, you have a major problem. This is not a function that any city can continue to ignore. The issue of livability isn’t going anywhere either. People are more mobile than ever and are increasingly not tethered to their work. Those with means and ability are continuously leaving the towns that need them the most and migrating towards cities that can offer them the quality of life they want. This trend is having devastating consequences. Big cities and small towns are growing more disparate and the residents of each are becoming more polarized. We desperately need vibrant and healthy small to mid-size towns. Parents should not have to send their kids off to the big city to seek out opportunity. We have to take the business of revitalization far more serious than we currently are. We have to be willing to throw out the old model if it’s no longer working and try something new. We have to give serious consideration to changing the mission of existing organizations so they can be relevant and impactful today. We have to give as much consideration to livability as we do tourism and business. We must place a higher priority on the wants and needs of residents. We have to make our cities worthy of the people that call them home.

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