Once upon a time, there were two towns very near one another, Wynarville and Dewarville. It was the best of times in Dewarville. It also could have been the best of times in Wynarville, but some of the townsfolk seemed to do everything in their power to make it the worst of times. Or just grumbly times. A season of discontent. Why was this? Let’s find out…
Dewarville was a town with wonderful amenities, a thriving shopping district, many fine restaurants, wonderful homes and schools, woods, parks, fields and rivers, and plenty of nice office space and commercial buildings where companies set up shop. Dewarville was not immune to the larger economic forces of the outside world, but all of their boats rose and fell together with the changing tides, and they made sure that people would want to live and work there no matter what. Things were good in Dewarville.
Just down the road in Wynarville, they had plenty of places for wonderful town amenities, but they lay fallow. They had great schools, but the facilities needed a lot of work. They had plenty of office space for nice businesses to occupy, but lots of vacancy. They had a nice little downtown with a river running through it, and though it had plenty of retail space, there was lots of vacancy there, too. Wynarville residents even sometimes grumbled that people from nearby didn’t know where this nice downtown with the river was, but they never put up the right signs in the right places or gave people good reasons to come visit. In Wynarville, taxes were high. The townsfolk complained about what it cost to live there, that they weren’t getting enough for their money and that they were spending money on the wrong things. Some of the people were not content. They grumbled. A lot.
In Dewarville, the people took charge of their community. They were deeply involved and cared about its present and future. They knew it was theirs and that they had an obligation to current and future generations to be its stewards and owners until it was time to pass the torch. They built a master plan. They evolved it when conditions warranted. They always showed up to vote on important issues and for town elections, and they ensured that their elected leadership shared their vision and was held accountable. Sometimes people disagreed. About strategy. About zoning. About how and whether to fund a project. When this happened, the people of Dewarville convened committees and task forces. They held open meetings. They leveraged modern technology to publish plans and drawings, conduct surveys and elicit feedback in between public meetings. They listened to the public, and the public showed up to be heard. There was no excuse for being uninformed. When it was time for a vote or a decision, the informed citizens of Dewarville came out in huge numbers to tell their elected representatives what that decision was going to be.
But over in Wynarville, it was a place of unusual contradictions and ambivalence. The people of Wynarville were allowed to vote, but they almost never did. They were allowed to plan and implement the future of their town, but most of them figured that someone else was supposed to be in charge of that. They were generally aware that their town was chock full of committees, boards, volunteer advocacy groups, civic organizations, and more. But most of the people never got involved. It was the same set of faces at all the meetings. And those who were involved knew that they could be more effective if they coordinated their efforts to achieve big things, but for some reason, they chose to work in twenty separate silos and snipe at each other instead. Citizens had ample opportunity to remain informed and make their voices heard, but they chose to keep mostly silent and mostly in the dark until it was too late. When they got really angry and unhelpful, they claimed they were being “sensible.” But mostly they were just being really angry and unhelpful.
And the people of Wynarville loved their social media groups. They discovered that it fit their sensibilities perfectly. It allowed them to gripe to a waiting audience of like-minded commiserators about anything and everything. It allowed them to shout indignities into the wind where no one in a position of authority or accountability would see them or act on them. It provided an illusion of community engagement while accomplishing nothing. When online civility and reasoned debate were not enough, they created other online groups where they could just hurl invective, without even the illusion of doing anything constructive or positive. When realtors, business owners, and others pointed out that the constant stream of complaining was probably not helping the town’s image, they were shouted down. Just as the rising tide lifted all boats in Dewarville, it was everyone-down-with-the-ship in Wynarville.
Why did these two nearby towns find themselves on such different paths? Some engaged citizens of Wynarville started paying attention and here’s what they observed:
The town governmental structures were about the same. The potential – the raw material – was about the same. The demographics were about the same. It came down to how people acted, what they did versus talked about doing, and how they leveraged and capitalized on what they had at their disposal.
It came down to leadership. At all levels. Putting people of vision, action and competence in the right roles in town government. On town boards and commissions. In volunteer and civic groups. As town employees. And not just people who were self-motivated, but people who could motivate others. People who could communicate and sell a vision. People who could work exceedingly well with others and were not angry ideologues. In Dewarville, the wrong people were nicely shown the door fairly quickly. They knew that it made all the difference.
It came down to identity awareness, marketing and sales. In Dewarville, they knew that their town needed a brand identity. They didn’t pretend to be something they couldn’t be but they marketed the hell out of what they were. They knew that in order to maintain and grow a stable tax base, it was largely a business exercise of marketing and sales, to potential homeowners, to potential merchants and restauranteurs, to potential business owners and office space lessees. They could point to the townspeople and town staff who were in charge of their brand, marketing and sales efforts, and they developed a framework in which those people could effectively operate, and a real plan with real marketing dollars budgeted.
It came down to collaboration. In Dewarville, there was no place for little dictators, yellers, silos, or committees working cross purposes. The leadership culture was one of strong collaboration, and it was made clear to all involved that it was always about the town, and never about feathers in people’s caps. Rooting out lack of collaboration and stove-piped committees was a constant theme, driven from the top down and from the bottom up. Committees and commissions were established that comprised homeowners, business owners and landlords, so that all took pride in where they lived and worked, and all were pulling in the same directions, whenever possible. (It wasn’t always possible, but they tried hard, and worked through it. Whenever consensus failed, they put it to a vote and let the community – the stakeholders – decide.)
It came down to action in support of a master plan. In Dewarville, every initiative, big and small, had to contribute to the achievement of a master plan. If something was a “nice” initiative but it couldn’t be reconciled with the direction in which was the town was trying to move, it got shelved, or it got done with private funds, or on private property. After all, living in Dewarville was not inexpensive. Taxes were high, but it was viewed as money well spent, and there was laser focus on ensuring that remained the case. But the Dewarville master plan was living and breathing. It changed and evolved with the times, with the economy, with dawning opportunities to be seized and emerging threats to be avoided.
But mostly, it came down to activism and civic duty. A constant theme in Dewarville was one of town ownership by the citizens and businesses. A participatory democracy. Those who wanted to view themselves solely as residents, stay on the sidelines, and pay their taxes had every right to do so. But there was an overwhelming sense of civic responsibility and a constant refrain of “if you have a home or a business in this town, then you are a shareholder and you have a duty to be involved, make your voice heard in the right forums, and cast your vote at every opportunity.” People got it. They showed up. They voted. They felt that ownership. They saw pretty quickly that it created momentum and change in the places where they focused. It became part of the fabric and culture of the town. Sure, there were significant disagreements at times. It wasn’t all sunshine in Dewarville. But they had mechanisms for making decisions, most importantly the ballot box. And they took their responsibility to be heard via their votes very seriously.
Meanwhile in Wynarville, a huge opportunity was presenting itself. The people were going to have the chance to elect new leadership. There were nascent discussions brewing about where to take the town, and how to get there. There was outright envy of Dewarville, and a sense that if they really had the will to do it, they could run themselves like Dewarville and develop a civic culture like Dewarville without trying to be a clone of Dewarville. Because after all, Wynarville had its own tremendous things going for it – the people just needed to make it happen.
I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seat. Did the people of Wynarville show up to vote and put the right people in the right roles? Did they stop whining and start doing? Did they start pulling together in support of a master plan? Did they figure out how to start marketing and selling their diamond in the rough? Did they assume the mantle of ownership required to make it happen?
Well? Did we…?