Community Development tradeoffs
by Michael Smith
(Weldon, NC, U.S.)
Visitor Question: What happens when conflicts arise between the policy makers and some of the community members, such as the community thinking jobs is more important than cleaning up the city and improving its decor to attract businesses and new families?
And what suggestions do you have on how to overcome these types of conflicts?
Our town hall meeting allows residents to voice their issues but there's a ruling that does not allow the mayor and commissioners to address the issues at the time of the meeting.
But if the resident wants to pursue the issue, she/he must fill-out an application and wait for a date for the issue to be addressed by the mayor and commissioners at a future scheduled town hall meeting.
Overcoming community conflict requires someone to be the adult and set the tone for the others in being respectful of differing opinions and in seeking solutions that will please most people.
Often when one person really makes an effort to talk to both sides and discover common ground, you can turn the community’s attention away from conflict and toward solutions.
If we understand your example correctly, one side is saying that jobs are the most important topic. Another side is saying that making your town more attractive so people and businesses will move in is more important.
From an outside perspective (which of course might not be valid!), I don't think jobs versus making your town more attractive is a community development tradeoff at all. It's just that cleanup and attracting new residents is a medium-term to long-term strategy for jobs.
Someone may have to educate the town about how important community appearance and community attachment are to attracting new business, which of course creates jobs.
Any individual employer may or may not care what the town looks like, of course, but often a judgment about the town's cleanliness and general orderliness translates subconsciously into something like "a nice town," which is very important to most business location decisions.
So unless those who want jobs above all else just want to rely on economic development incentives and giveaways, such as tax increment financing to "buy" jobs in the rather short term, they are going to have to make the environment pleasant and understand that quality of life is near the top of every employer's list of site selection criteria.
Every town wants jobs, so making your town clean and sharp looking can be an important tie-breaker in the competition for jobs.
Regarding your town hall process, be aware that it's not completely unusual that the decision makers aren't willing to speak out on the spur of the moment about any topic that the public brings up in a public meeting for the first time.
I'd like to see less reluctance on the part of elected officials to make comments back to the audience, but then with the press and social media enthusiasts eager to exploit any little mistake, it's hard to blame them for being a little cautious.
So you'll have to live with the system, at least for the time being, but do continue to insist that they take up any comments at a future meeting. Ask that a topic be placed on a future agenda and that interested groups be notified of when that discussion will occur.
Almost all policy makers eventually will give in to public pressure not to sweep a certain matter under the carpet if there is enough public comment about it at the meetings.
So just organize and keep up a steady rhythm of polite but firm arguments about why a particular matter is important.
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