A North Star Is Essential

As a close observer–and one time participant in city government– the biggest lesson I have learned is that cities get in trouble when they don’t have a ‘North Star’ to chase.

A North Star is another term for vision—an overarching set of goals that is compelling enough to include and excite just about everyone.

The vision should be citizen -driven, i.e. it must originate from a cross section of people in your city and it must be big enough to inspire as many stakeholders as possible.

The North Star must appeal to young and old, black and white, retiree and young professional.

Again, it can’t come from on high (elected officials or senior staff) it must come from the grass roots.

But it’s up to the grass tops (elected officials and senior staff) to deliver results. Elected leaders can lead the effort, they just can’t dominate it. If it’s going to last, it can’t be about them. It has to be about the community.

Having a compelling vision is your best economic development incentive and the best marketing possible for your city. If you sell the vision and that vision makes sense, it will attract investment, draw residents to your city and spark civic involvement.

How do I know this?
Because I saw it happen in Delray Beach.

There are several Delray examples of North Stars and if we value history and we should, now is a good time to take a look back so that we can find a way forward past division, dysfunction and inertia.

The Mayor’s 1984 Atlantic Avenue Task Force focused Delray on the potential of its historic downtown and on the threat of a DOT plan to convert the avenue into a high speed hurricane evacuation route.

The Mayor and Commission at the time wisely knew that a high speed road would ruin any chance of redeveloping the avenue into a pedestrian friendly warm and inviting place.  As a result, it was a hugely valuable effort—that warded off the state’s plans and gave our downtown a chance to succeed.

But, it was Visions 2000 that would prove transformational.

A cross section of citizens came together in the late 1980s to envision a better future for all of Delray Beach.

At roughly the same time, a citizen driven movement—launched by a home builder/developer but quickly joined by a large coalition of the willing—focused the city on the need to upgrade local schools.  The North Star spoke to the need and the potential: Delray schools needed help if we were ever going to attract families and businesses and if we worked together and partnered with the School Board we could make things happen.

“Sharing for Excellence”—spearheaded by Tom Fleming but embraced by citizens and the city’s leadership–gave us magnet programs such as the Montessori at Spady, a new Carver Middle School and a range of other upgrades. It positioned Delray as an active participant in local schools and we became the first city to hire an Education Coordinator and form an Education Advisory Board. I still remember a fateful lunch at the old Annex in Pineapple Grove when Janet Meeks, then a planner, presented her ideas to be our first ever Education Coordinator. We made the move and Janet has delivered remarkable results, including a third All America City thanks to the success of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading that she has led.

We had the confidence to experiment because of Sharing for Excellence’s vison and the momentum and culture it created.

The spirit of the times and the excitement of the possibilities spurred the Chamber of Commerce to raise money for schools through an Education Foundation and created inspiration for building a new high school with career academies, including a Criminal Justice Academy staffed by local police officers. And the list goes on; including a vocational charter school created by our two employees of our Police Department (first ever in the state to do so I believe) and programs such as Eagle’s Nest, in which students in Atlantic’s High School Construction Career Academy built affordable homes on lots donated by the city and financed by the CRA. That’s cool stuff. And it changes lives—students found careers and productive lives as a result of these programs.

Creating a citizen driven North Star provides a clarion call for involvement and also inspires people to get off the sidelines and get involved in the community.

Visions 2000 had an even more profound impact leading to the Decade of Excellence bond—a huge investment that taxpayers overwhelmingly approved. Imagine that: taxpayers voting to go into debt and raise their taxes so that they can improve their city. Those types of votes go down in flames if they are driven by elected leaders and staff without public involvement and buy-in.

While the investment was huge–$21.5 million for infrastructure and beautification, the equivalent of $42.7 million in today’s dollars—the city successfully implemented the list of projects giving citizens’ confidence in their local government’s ability to deliver. That’s invaluable, because it allowed future commission’s to make other big bets and it’s the big bets that distinguished Delray as a great place to live, work, play and invest.

The successful implementation of the Decade of Excellence bond allowed a commission that I served on to move forward with an ambitious Downtown Master Plan, Cultural Plan, Southwest Plan, Congress Avenue Plan etc. Every one of those efforts included and were driven by grassroots involvement and passion, especially the Downtown Master Plan and Southwest Plan—the grassroots telling the grasstops what to do.

As a policymaker, it’s wonderful to have a North Star—a vision plan that you can follow.

First, it helps you prioritize spending/investment and it helps you make hard decisions. For example, when faced with a tough vote— on say a development project —it helps if you can tie the decision to the vision. It also helps you say no to things that just don’t fit.

Elected officials get in trouble when they fly without a net—and often times you see them lean on personal preferences, their own pet peeves, personal agendas etc. in the absence of an agreed upon vision. You also see them begin to squabble, because it’s hard to be a “team” if you don’t have a playbook. Commission tension leads to dysfunction, inefficiencies, wasteful spending and a dispirited staff. When scared, bureaucracies freeze. It’s safer to do nothing than to make a decision that may upset a faction on the commission. This type of culture is not a recipe for progress or problem solving.

The worst officials use their positions to exert retribution—which leads to all sorts of issues including a form of ‘pay to play’ in which individuals and business owners feel they have to spread money around at election time or risk seeing their projects killed as payback for failing to pony up. Cities without an adopted vision or North Star create vacuums that are often filled by political bosses who lurk in the shadows to reward friends and punish enemies. Serious investors shun these types of cities because the risk is just too large and the price of playing ball is too high—both financially and ethically.

 

Still, even if you are in service to a vision there is ample room for personal judgment and discretion if you are a mayor or council member. And it doesn’t mean you can’t pursue some of your own ideas if you are talented enough to convince your colleagues and lead the public to a new understanding on issues. That’s called leadership.

It’s also important to note that North Stars and vision plans –even when created by lots of people –are not immune to political opposition.

The Downtown Master Plan is a case in point. We had hundreds of participants involved in the plan from all parts of the city but when it came time to vote on projects that supported the plan, we still had vocal opposition, typically from people who didn’t bother to show up at the variety of charrettes, workshops and presentations held throughout the community.

That’s OK. But it’s also a test of leadership.

Do you abandon the plan at the first sign of opposition?
Or do you use the occasion as a “teachable moment” to defend the plan, explain why it works and vote accordingly?
Delray was known as the city that stuck to its plans and didn’t let them gather dust on some shelf in the back corner of the Planning Department.

That’s why we came from where we were in the 80s—blighted and desolate—to where we are today.

I know that modern day Delray is not everyone’s idea of a good place. But what we see is largely what was planned (by citizens and implemented by staff and elected officials over a long period of time).

Sure not everything turned out the way we thought it would—and that is inevitable too. Economic conditions, changing trends, private property rights and the free market play a major role too. For example, I don’t think anyone anticipated rents on the avenue that in some cases exceed $100 per square foot or commercial properties selling for over $1,300 a foot. In the 80s, we had a high vacancy rate and rents were $6-$8 a foot.

Still, by and large, we envisioned, planned and worked to create a vibrant small city—and we got one.

I happen to love it. So do many, many others.

But all cities are works in progress and visions and North Stars need to be renewed.

My friends Chris Brown and Kim Briesemeister wrote a book about just that called “Reinventing Your City”. Their theory is that cities have to be reinvented every 20-25 years.

If you reinvent and find a North Star to strive for, you’ll thrive. If you fail to do so, you’ll drift…dangerously I venture to say.

We are overdo. We need a North Star, a unifying vision that can bring a divided community together.

We also need citizens to participate and leadership to defend the people’s vision. That’s the formula for a happy and successful community. Easy to articulate, hard to attain. But it has been done and we can do it again.

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