Late last year I was on a call with a Councilman from West Virginia as he told me all the struggles his community was facing. Sadly, it was the usual litany of challenges, blight, addiction, depression, crime, and so on. He explained that he felt compelled to run for office so he could try and change the trajectory of his town. He got involved so he could make a difference. Which is such a noble endeavor and one I applaud to no end. I have the pleasure of meeting these civic-minded people frequently in my work and I am so incredibly fortunate to do so.
Unfortunately, these conversations usually follow the same course. The person gets involved in their community because they know something is wrong, they see their fellow residents struggling and they want to do something to help. They spend their time, money, and effort to get into a position to do something about it and when they arrive at their new position, they need advice. Now they need answers, they want to know what help looks like. How do they go about fixing these problems? What are the steps to fix a broken town?
The standard wisdom for the past few decades has been economic development. If a community can just add jobs and increase investment, things will get better, people will be happier, the town will begin to heal. It isn’t working and everyone should be able to see this. Because jobs don’t fix the real problem, because they can’t address rampant civic apathy. As we have shifted our community priorities away from investing in things that matter, to building more sprawl and inviting in more national chains, people find it harder and harder to care about the place they call home.
This particular councilman explained to me that his community was in the midst of wrapping up a $60,000 comprehensive plan. This plan, he told me, should lift up his town. This should be what makes the difference. I have to say, it was hard for me to hear. I want to be clear because I have made the mistake of speaking in broad generalities too often and gotten myself in trouble. I am not suggesting all plans are bad or all planning firms are either, but also don’t think they are the solution for every community. Plans are perceived as a cure-all and they have become the de-facto fix for every town.
Plans are great for many communities, they provide direction for the cities that can utilize them. Typically, these are not the towns I am talking to. I think about it like a fitness plan, some people need a specialized plan because they are already in great shape and they are looking to take the next steps. They need something customized specifically for them. There are a lot of people that don’t need any custom plan, they already know what needs to be done, they just need a little push to do it.
It’s this issue that has been eating at me for some time. How do we assist the communities that aren’t ready for a plan? How do we help the towns that need the most help? What do we do when a place just needs a little push? What advice do we give to the person who ran for office because they just wanted to help their friends and neighbors live in a healthier and happier community?
These are the questions Justin Copenhaver of Urality and I have been kicking back and forth for the past couple of years. We have thought long and hard about how we could provide an alternative answer to all the passionate people desperate to make a difference. We spent the entire of this year coming up with what we think is a good solution. We decided that we have to provide community leaders with a tool that dispenses of the talking part and gets right to the doing part.
We decided we definitely didn’t want to play the RFP game, which just drives up costs for everyone as each plan carries the cost of the RFPs a firm didn’t land. We also decided that we were not going to pretend that each town needs unique solutions. So much money is wasted trying to make every community feel like a plan is customized just for them, but these problems are not unique and the solutions are not special. Finally, we decided that action is what stirs people’s blood. Too much time is spent asking questions, too many hours spent talking. There is just way too much deliberation, which only leads to inaction and more apathy. I have worked in this field long enough and heard from enough residents to feel comfortable in stating, that we have a pretty good idea of what people want from their community.
After a year of tinkering, this week we are very excited to launch The Downtown Playbook. I don’t think of it as a replacement to the traditional plan, but an alternative for communities that are struggling with more basic issues. It’s a tool for those city leaders that know something needs to be done, but aren’t sure what to do.
The Downtown Playbook is less like a comprehensive fitness plan and much more like a series of workouts, specifically detailing what needs to be done and when. Because it is when we take action that we begin to change trajectories and shift momentum. The Playbook is also entirely dependent on the efforts of residents to complete the work because no one from outside can fix what’s wrong. And more importantly, we all experience a sense of pride when we contribute to a cause greater than ourselves.
The Downtown Playbook is not for every community. It requires a yearlong commitment and a significant amount of work. It requires the courage of a town to try something new that might be criticized for not being status quo. And the most important and hardest requirement of all will be admitting that something is wrong, that something isn’t working and your current efforts are not making a dent in the problem.
It is with those requirements in mind that we decided to create an intake form for interested communities. This way, interested parties can determine in advance if this is really a fit for their town and also, we can determine if a community is a fit for this program. We want to make sure we are working with partners who are committed to the process and understand all that it entails. We also realize that we have limited capacity and have to be selective with the communities we decide to take on.
With that all being said, Justin and I are super duper jazzed up to launch The Downtown Playbook service! If you are interested, you can find out more HERE