Ya Gotta Believe

I was young in ‘93. We all were.

I stumbled across a memory last week and it stayed with me.

I have this app called Time Hop and each day it reminds you of events and photos from your past.
It’s pretty cool.
Well last week, an old column I had written for the Delray Beach Times resurfaced. It was from 1993 and it was in the immediate aftermath of Delray winning its first All America City Award in Tampa.
I wrote about how the city planned to capitalize on the win with a marketing blitz that would hopefully capture the eyes of investors looking to build in Delray and companies that may want to move to Delray.

What followed were All America city buttons, bumper stickers, license plates, key chains etc.
The effort may have seemed hokey but it was effective and the results produced positive press and civic pride.
Let’s spend a minute on those two things: positive press and civic pride. They are often linked together—and it makes sense. Positive press creates civic pride.
So in 1993, when residents saw their city make the cover of Florida Trend, they felt good about their city. The headline on the magazine: Florida’s Best Run City.
It doesn’t get better than that.
Only it did—for awhile at least.
Delray in the 90s and early 2000s seemed to to be a magical place.  Every year seemed to be better than the last.
There was a confidence about the town, a sense that by working together the community could accomplish anything it set its mind too.
Want to lower the crime rate?
Ok, let’s commit to community policing.
Want to create a vibrant downtown?
Let’s invest in a streetscape (Decade of Excellence) and innovative policy (Downtown Master Plan) and events and  sure enough—with a ton of hard work— we have the “it” downtown in the region and beyond.

There were some amazing civic projects too: Old School Square, the Sandoway House, the Cason Cottage and the Spady Museum.
There were true collaborations with the Achievement Center for Children and Families, the Beach Property Owners Association, the formation of the West Settlers Historic District, the opening of the Youth Enrichment Vocational Center, successful bids for the Davis and Fed Cups, model beach renourishment projects, the founding of the county’s first land trust, the introduction of public art, dozens of citizen engagement initiatives and landmark programs designed to help Delray Beach schools.
Looking back, civic pride and confidence may be the key factor in success.
As Tug McGraw, the great reliever for the Mets once said: “Ya gotta believe.”
And we did.
We believed.
We acted.
We experimented.
We were entrepreneurial and we took calculated risks. We didn’t fear precedents; we wanted to set them.
I recently watched an ESPN documentary that examined last year’s Wimbledon match up between Delray’s Coco Gauff and Venus Williams, who also played a lot of tennis over the years in Delray.
Two things struck me.
One was Coco’s confidence that she could play with Venus. She believed that she belonged.
You don’t win without that belief.
Second, as ESPN’s Chris Fowler interviewed Coco at our downtown tennis center, I recalled the decision made to keep the center downtown and add a stadium court. That took confidence. It was a prescient decision.
And because of it, a young champion was able to walk to the courts and dream. A generation later, she’s talking from the veranda of the pro shop with ESPN about what it was like to beat a legend on centre court at Wimbledon. Very cool.
Anyway, this is a riff on confidence, civic pride, dreams, aspiration and accomplishment.
Wouldn’t it be nice to do/have all of those things again?
As we sit home enduring this awful pandemic, we ought to spend some of our time dreaming about a better future and taking some steps to make those dreams come true.
We are going to need bold new ideas to survive the post coronavirus world, which will surely be different.
The first order of business is to survive. The second is to recover and thrive. The cities that dream and act will be the ones that thrive.
The ones that wallow in despair and enable dysfunction will sink.
Let’s be the former.
Ya gotta believe.

Love, Delray

Dear Delray,

 

This year, you will celebrate your 108th birthday.

What a milestone for you and citizens like me who love you so much.  So often people talk about you and focus on your challenges and problems—political division, crime, drugs, parking issues etc.

But, you can’t let the naysayers get you down – you’re still the precious gem that your founders saw all those years ago.

Sure, I know you have some blemishes after all this time, but I also know about your boundless potential.

I’ve always known about your boundless potential.

Last week, on Valentine’s Day, the National League of Cities sent out a series of love letters like the one above from mayors, city council members and others to their cities. I read beautiful notes to places like Portland, Maine, Lexington, Kentucky and Ames, Iowa and I thought they were heartfelt and wonderful.

None of the love letters glossed over problems—they mentioned crime, vacant buildings, heroin overdoses, homelessness and inequality but they also found so much to love about their hometowns.

Which is a good thing, because far too often, we are fussy and overly critical about where we live.

Recently, I ran into an urban planner who consults in cities all over the country. He made it a point to tell me how he thought Delray was “so hard on itself.” And I agreed.

At a recent, Urban Land Institute meeting, Delray was mentioned as a role model for other cities in South Florida. Not that cities want to be Delray, just that they admire who we are and where we’ve come from. It was good to hear this, but I have to be honest, my first thought was “well, they ought to talk to the people who live here because wow are they critical.”

But you know what?

I was wrong.

Most people who live here do love Delray, they just get drowned out sometimes by some of the…ahem… loud voices who tend to tilt a little toward the negative.

If you didn’t know better (and we do) and if your view of Delray was limited to social media here’s what you’d find. This is a sampling from a two minute cruise down the rabbit hole last week. Excuse the syntax…

“What happened to this beautiful Village By The Sea charm?! It’s a large metropolitan greed city!”

“Traffic is getting worse every day at some point I will not go to in town Delray !!”

“The only reason for me to go to downtown Delray is the Elks Lodge and the bank.”

It is so tempting to respond….but it really wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Right after my 2-minute dive into the negative— as if through some divine intervention –I got a notice through “Next Door” about a group called Love Delray.

Love Delray is a quarterly volunteer initiative that seeks to unite our community through collaboration and service. Here’s a link https://lovedelray.com/

The group meets and fans out to serve local non-profits such as the Delray Children’s Garden or CityHouse Delray. Sometimes they’ll just go and clean the beach. Isn’t that cool?

My strong hunch is that there are more lovers than complainers in Delray Beach.

As for the critics, the Elks Lodge is amazing but there’s some pretty good restaurants and shops too. Nobody likes traffic, but it beats the alternative which is a place that’s dead and buried and there’s plenty of charm if you would just open your eyes….how many cities have an Elvis impersonator, a professional tennis event and a really great Wine and Seafood Festival?

Answer: not many.

Last week, I took a left turn and within a few minutes I was sitting in the Crest Theatre listening to John Lennon’s sister introduce a truly amazing Beatles tribute band. People were dancing in the aisles…and the list goes on and on. Last night, I sat and watched the fourth best tennis player in the world and a rising American star play beautifully.

Sorry I couldn’t help myself. I answered the naysayers.

So Dear Delray, stay positive. You are a pretty cool little city. And we love you.

 

 

 

Help Wanted: Leaders Who Can Provide Stability

Stability provides a great foundation for progress.

It may be hard to believe, but there was a time—not too long ago– where working for the City of Delray Beach was an appealing prospect.

Delray was the city on the cutting edge.

A city of vision, promise and innovation.

We were known for being collaborative—a place where City Hall played well with non-profits, the business community, sister agencies and neighborhood associations.

Delray.

Got.

Things.

Done.

A lot of things.

To be sure, it was never nirvana.

Delray has always had its challenges and problems—all cities do. And we have had our share of big ones—from schools that need a ton of help, to crime, drugs, irresponsible sober home operators, civic bullies, poverty and racial tension. And that’s only a partial list. Many of these issues have proven to be stubborn and they have frustrated all sorts of efforts. But there were gains as well.

This was a place where you could see visible progress—on projects large and small. This was a place where many challenges were overcome and as a result opportunities were created.

It was a place where city leadership—staff, uniformed personnel, elected officials, citizens, business owners and volunteers — believed that by working together you could create a better, stronger, more resilient and caring community.

Consequently, it was a pretty good place to work.

Mayors and commissioners—for the most part—were kind and respectful to city staff. Delray became known for its stability—especially among department heads many of whom lived here and were deeply committed to the betterment of this city.

Like all large organizations, we had some clunkers.

Like all complex entities—and cities are very complex—mistakes were made.

But progress was made as well.

Giant strides. Things that make your heart swell and give you a sense of civic pride.

What happened in Delray Beach did not happen by accident.

It was envisioned. It was planned. And there was execution across the board.

Now some people don’t like what happened here and I respect that opinion.

I have a business acquaintance who moved to Hobe Sound because it just got too busy here for his tastes. Nevertheless, he finds that he drifts back here often to eat or catch a show at Old School Square. He won’t miss the Delray Open because he loves tennis under the stars. He also invests here from time to time and encourages others to do so.

Still, I’m sure others despise the hustle and bustle and long for the days when we were a sleepy village.

I’ll be honest, I don’t.

My frame of reference goes back 30 years and while I’ve always loved Delray, I wouldn’t trade the 1980s version for today’s city even with our warts and challenges.

I think most people feel the same way. That’s my hunch anyway. We have a good city, not a perfect city, but a good city.

In fact, we are such an interesting place that you would think top tier talent would flock here.

They don’t. Not anymore.

We are about to choose a city manager from what everyone seems to think was a pretty thin list of candidates. There were three finalists out of a small pool of applicants and on October 10 commissioners may move forward and choose a manager. That list is now down to two applicants, with one dropping out. You can go to the golf course this evening and mingle with the finalists—that’s what passes for public input these days—a cocktail party. I attended the last cattle call party at 32 East which produced Don Cooper. It’s hard to learn much about someone in such an environment.

When the head hunter was asked why a city like Delray was not attracting interest, the recruiter answered honestly. Delray is considered a challenging environment these days. It’s not the salary being offered—which is competitive, it’s the toxic political atmosphere and the commission’s reputation for infighting and micromanagement. To quote the Palm Beach Post: “Delray Beach has a ‘reputation’ for micromanagement and ‘other negative things’, according to the consultant for the Mercer Group which was hired to find candidates.

That’s sad, because they should be turned on because this should be one of the best jobs in America.

Hopefully, commissioners will make the right choice this time and hopefully whoever they choose will succeed. We need the next manager to be successful, because so many others have fallen short in recent years.

Since longtime manager David Harden left in 2012 we have seen five managers/acting managers come and go. We have seen a truckload of assistant managers/department heads/middle managers/city attorneys, rank and file and others leave as well.

This is not the sign of a healthy organization.

But the sun still shines. The property values still climb and Atlantic Avenue is still busy. You can flush a toilet (without a generator), call 911 and get great service and your trash gets picked up twice a week. So why should you care? Here are a few reasons why:

If you’ve run a business of any size, you know that turnover is costly. So if you pay taxes you should care.

If you run a business in town or want to build a home or add a new kitchen you should care too, because if your City Hall has issues you may find that efficiency suffers and over time that will cost you.

This is NOT A SLAP at city workers. This is a plea to make their lives better and get out of their way. Hold them accountable, but let them do their jobs.  I happen to know many and we have still quite a few talented people on staff.

But I worry that talent is being stifled. I worry that our best minds at City Hall are frightened. I am concerned that rather than rely on staff, we are hiring expensive consultants and then often ignoring their advice as well. I am worried that other cities are catching and passing us—and that impacts everything from quality of life and home values to job prospects and our sense of community and civic pride.

When government organizations get frightened, they seize up like an engine without oil. It’s safer to keep your head down than to rock the boat. The best minds—if situations permit—will leave as soon as they can. We are losing talent to Lake Worth, Boynton Beach and other cities. That hardly ever happened.

Many are taking lateral positions too—so it’s not as if they are leaving us for traditional reasons such as career advancement.

In July, I was the guest speaker at an event called “Bourbon Sprawl.” It’s a great group of urbanists, business people, planners, architects and others who care about community. They talk about issues impacting cities and they have a few drinks. It’s a fun group.

A few Delray Beach employees attended that event. I won’t name them, because I don’t want to expose anyone. I didn’t know most of them—and I hadn’t worked with any of them. But after the talk, I was told that city staff could get in trouble for talking to elected officials or if they made recommendations without being invited to do so.

And I left that event wondering how an elected official can do their job if they are not allowed to learn from the subject area experts that work for our city. Notably, one of the people I spoke to that night is gone. Too bad, because I sensed a bright mind who could have done great things for our community. I don’t know what the specific policy is, frankly I don’t care. Because if your staff feels stifled and frightened something is amiss. And we the people, lose out on their knowledge, talent and expertise.

I get the desire of a City Manager to control the flow of information, but I remember learning an immense amount from listening to and reading the work of our planning, financial, engineering, parks and public safety personnel. There is a middle ground which always includes the manager, but also enables policymakers to glean knowledge from subject area experts so they can make good decisions.

I was a young reporter here in the 1980s when we last suffered from instability at City Hall caused by strife on the dais. City Hall was a revolving door in those days. Then we had a landmark election that saw Tom Lynch, Jay Alperin and David Randolph sweep into office and we enjoyed a long run of stability, innovation, achievement, civic pride, community unity and problem solving. They set an example for future leaders.

At the time, staff remarked at how civil the Mayor and commission were—respectful of their professional acumen while still able to hold people accountable. I went to every meeting in those days. And I can tell you the mayor and commissioners questioned staff vigorously, but always respectfully. Assumptions were challenged and decisions were made. Not all were correct, but the batting average was really good and so we had progress. Lots and lots of progress.

 

We need to get back to those days. Before we give it all back. And if you think we’re bullet proof, let me assure you we are not.

A follow up story in the Post covering Commissioner Shelly Petrolia’s run for Mayor noted the “chaos” and turnover at City Hall. That’s a good story—but the Post enabled Commissioner Petrolia too artfully—but falsely—shift the blame to Mayor Glickstein. People all over town had a good laugh over that spin.

Sorry, but you own your fair share of the chaos after 5 years. Readers of this blog know I am no fan of Mr. Glickstein. But in fairness, he can’t be blamed for all of the chaos, dysfunction and lack of progress on everything ranging from Congress Avenue to the Old School Parks Plan. It takes three elected officials to tango.

Coincidentally, that’s how many seats are up this March.

 

Discovering and Protecting the Secret Sauce

We've all experienced it: same ingredients, but different taste.

We’ve all experienced it: same ingredients, but different taste.

Most cities share similar assets.

In Florida, the cities may have beaches. In Colorado, they may be ringed by mountains. In Arizona, you may see red rock and cactus.
But we all know that special places are different. They have a different feel and special ingredients.
Just like your favorite pizzeria. Most use dough, tomatoes and sauce but the great pizza places stand out. Somehow the same ingredients just seem to taste better.

What drives the demand that’s responsible for success?

The one true advantage we all have at our fingertips is how we make people feel, and the stories we tell about our community.

I think it’s a combination of history, character (and characters), a sense of place, personality, civic pride and values–yes communities can have and should have values.

Mix it all together and you end up with a community feeling and hopefully a sense of community.

To my mind, that’s a city’s biggest asset. A feeling of community builds pride and confidence. It enables you to fall in love with a place and love leads to commitment and when people commit they make things happen.

A sense of community allows you to celebrate good news and just as important it enables you to deal with the bad stuff: tragedy, challenges and disasters –natural and man made.

I have thinking about this secret batch of ingredients as a new civic engagement boot camp kicks off this week at the Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce.

I think 15-20 folks have signed up for a four week program that touches on history, leadership, redevelopment, planning and how individuals can make a positive difference right here in Delray Beach.

I’m hoping the program goes well. And I’m hoping many more sessions are scheduled.

The first session features several Delray icons including Old School Square founder Frances Bourque, influential former CRA Director Chris Brown, longtime and now retired Chamber President Bill Wood and two fine police officers from a golden era Vincent Mintus and Tom Whatley.

In a follow up post, I will let you know what they talked about.

The first class is designed to set the stage by sharing where we came from as a community. Follow up sessions will cover economic development and the most important topic of all: leadership.

Stay tuned and we’ll share the trip. It’s a compelling story. If it’s forgotten we will surely lose our way. If we honor and learn from our past we can find answers for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges and ensure that we don’t miss opportunities.

More Adventures…Book Excerpt

Available at Amazon and Barnes & Nobles.com

Available at Amazon and Barnes & Nobles.com

Some of you may know that I published a book last year. “Adventures in Local Politics” is available on Amazon. A portion of the proceeds are donated to local charities.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Instead of merely livable, I think we need to start thinking about how we make our cities more lovable. When we love something, we cherish it; we protect it; we do extraordinary things for it.”—author Peter Kageyama

 

Great cities find a way to invest and re-invest in the future.

They understand that even when success hits you can never rest. A great city knows that complacency is a killer.

My father and others taught me that in business you have to wake up a little scared each and every day, even when things—especially when things—are going well.

When you achieve some success, there is sure to be a chorus of those who will tell you that you are done—just declare victory and go home. Well… you are never done.

You must constantly innovate, experiment, iterate and scan the horizon for threats and opportunities.

In the public realm, it is important to invest and re-invest. It sends a signal to the private sector that you are serious about progress and growth.

We live in an era where public spending is considered wrong. While wasting taxpayer dollars is indeed wrong, not all public spending should be lumped together. Public investment should be treated as such—an investment that should yield returns.

Some of the returns can be directly measured. Were jobs created? Did the tax base grow? Did crime rates fall?

But sometimes ROI is intangible. Sometimes public investment is made to improve the quality of life in the community, a much tougher concept to measure. Sometimes investments are made with an eye on trying to make people fall in love with their city. Still, we all know that times have changed and spending needs to be prudent—dollars are not infinite.

After decades of abundance, we now live in an era of austerity.

Budgets have shrunk. Wages and benefits are flat or declining. Revenues are down and despite a prolonged funk we still face an awful lot of economic headwinds. In other words, this may be the new normal folks.

And yet, the challenge for cities is to somehow find a way to invest in things that make people love where they live.

Progressive hospitals learned a long time ago that amenities such as gardens; plants; brightly painted walls and murals play a helpful role in their patients’ recovery time and overall health outcomes.

But when it comes to cities, politicians are criticized every time they spend on something “frivolous”—whether it’s public art, a new park, a festival or culture.

Yet research shows that the very things that make cities fun and lovable also make a big difference economically by spurring private investment and increasing the value of homes and commercial properties.

This poses a dilemma because in a time of diminishing resources, politicians cannot be seen as spending unwisely and for good reason. But that doesn’t mean that spending on all the things that get residents emotionally involved in their cities has to stop.

It does mean that expenses such as festivals, sporting events, public art installations, cultural venues etc., have to be looked at carefully.

If special events are tired, then they either have to be revamped as to be valuable again or retired. If new events are to be added, they need to meet a very high threshold; therefore the return on investment must be clear and worthwhile. Still, to say cut it all and just fill the potholes is not the wisest strategy for a city.

Money must be still be set aside for the things that make your city different.

A good tactic might be to take a close look at “lazy assets” and see what can be done to activate them and make them valuable and vibrant.

Regardless, of where you stand on the sensitive issue of spending; one thing is certain—money still flows into city coffers.

Maybe not as much as before, but often times enough to run a great city as long as the spending is highly scrutinized, smartly prioritized and tied to a larger strategy—i.e. building toward a common vision.

In Delray Beach, the city’s renaissance started with public investment tied to community goals gathered through a detailed grassroots visioning process.

Once the public money was committed, the private sector stepped in because they knew the city was serious about getting things done.

As a result, while never formally quantified, it is safe to say that the public’s investment was leveraged many-fold by private dollars.

Simply put, businesses opened and residents flocked to the city as a direct result of public investment.

But that investment must be an ongoing commitment. Which is why it is important to not only just keep up on maintenance and filling pot holes but to keep planning and talking to your citizens about the future.

Your conversation with the community about the future should never cease.

 

Delray Beach came out of its decades-long funk by finding an inclusive way to invest in the community.

In the late 1980s, a cross-section of community leaders gathered for a community-wide visioning process that led to the successful passage of the 1989 Decade of Excellence Bond Issue.

The $21.5 million bond funded a variety of projects in the city’s blighted eastern core and sent a signal that the city was serious about redevelopment. As a reporter covering Delray at the time, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the diversity of the civic team assembled to pass the bond. Black and white, east and west, lifelong residents and newcomers all came together around a common vision of restoration.

Chief among the city’s reclamation projects was Old School Square, an abandoned school surrounded by a rusted chain link fence that sat smack dab in the middle of the city’s downtown.

A visionary leader named Frances Bourque sold the city’s leadership on restoring the old school rather than demolish the 1920s era buildings. She saw charm where others saw blight and that kind of vision and investment can’t help but make waves—in a positive way.

When I reflect back on Frances Bourque’s vision (her genius) really, I realized that in one catalytic project she hit upon a magic formula for cities.

In the 80s, I’m not sure that Delray was certain about what it would take to turn things around. Sure, we had to clean up neighborhoods, fight crime, improve schools and turn some lights on downtown. Every city with those problems knows you have to cover the basics. But even when most or all of those things happened, the city still needed an identity; a reason to fall in love with the place.

One of the most important factors that often get overlooked is the need for a narrative. People love stories; they fall in love with them. And cities that have narratives are often the ones that we remember and that thrive. Austin got a huge narrative boost when South by Southwest and the notion of being the live music capital of the world took root. Santa Cruz’ weirdness—as strange as it sounds—makes it a lovable place. Where there’s success, look for a narrative.

Frances managed to find a civic project that touched on Delray’s past, present and future. Old School Square whose buildings dated almost back to the founding of the city tugged on those who loved Delray’s rich history. It also perfectly matched the city’s appetite in the 80s for renewal and revitalization and it spoke to a bright future, i.e. a place for the town to gather. Absolutely, brilliant; a great narrative.

What emerged was a cultural arts center with a 300 seat theater, a restored gym for community events, and a museum and classroom space for arts classes. The grounds became the city’s gathering place for a diverse brew of festivals, performances and holiday festivities including a 100-foot Christmas tree that draws tens of thousands each season.

Old School Square became the catalyst for the first wave of investment downtown. It would take more than a decade for the downtown to fully flower, but an array of pioneering businesses were lured downtown by the city’s investment in streetscape, paver bricks, decorative lighting etc.

Public investment, coupled with political will and community unity sends a very strong message to entrepreneurs and developers. Consequently, political dysfunction or weakness coupled with community fragmentation sends a very bad message.

Fortunately for Delray Beach, the city was able to string together two solid decades of relative unity on all fronts. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t debate or dissension, only that on the big things—downtown redevelopment, beach re-nourishment, fixing blighted neighborhoods—there was remarkable unity and focus.

When this rare cohesion comes about you can really build traction, unlike communities that start and stop, progress takes off when leadership is aligned. The key is to keep it going because creating a great city takes years.

But progress in turn leads to trust in local government’s ability to deliver. And that is a very powerful intangible. When taxpayers trust their local government they are often willing to fund the things that make people feel in love with a place.

 

 

The Power Of Civic Pride: In the Name Of Love

An image used in Memphis to foster civic pride

An image used in Memphis to foster civic pride

A few years ago, the documentary “My Tale of Two Cities” was released.

The film focused on the revival of Pittsburgh, which hit the skids in a serious way when the steel industry collapsed.

At its heart, the documentary is a love story that chronicles the passion that so many people have for the “Steel City.” But it was also a reminder that emotion plays a huge role in economic development. If people are excited about their community, you can feel it in the air; and that vibe attracts others who want to be a part of things.

Dreams can be contagious, but they only take root if you care enough about your community to dream about it.

If you love a place, your heart soars when it succeeds and it aches when it falls on hard times.

As bad as things got in Pittsburgh, conditions were even worse in Detroit. But a group of passionate people are working wonders to bring that great American city back from the brink just as Pittsburgh has reinvented itself around medicine, education and robotics.

The “Made in Detroit” movement, the amazing efforts of Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert to revive the downtown and the work of artists and entrepreneurs to breathe new life into derelict buildings is nothing short of an act of love.

And of faith.

People love Detroit too much to let it go. So it will come back, maybe not the same as it was, but strong nonetheless.

Yes, emotion plays a huge role in economic development and community building.

Leaders who “get it” try to encourage that love because they know when passion is applied mountains can be moved. When you love something you commit to it, whether it’s a business, a business district, a community garden, a cause, a street, a cultural center or a neighborhood.

We have seen it happen in Delray Beach and in Boca Raton.

I remember when entire sections of Delray were open air drug markets. I remember when you could bowl down Atlantic Avenue at 5 p.m. and not hit anything. Then it changed—it changed the moment people committed to taking back their neighborhoods and rebuilding their downtown. To be sure, physical change can take years, but when the emotional switch is flipped, the energy of a city changes. You’re building…you’re working together…you’re making things happen. It’s electric. And it’s essential.

In Boca, I remember the old mall, the one on US 1 back before they built Mizner Park. It was depressing. It seemed like the all the growth and investment were sprawling west to places beyond 441. But today, east Boca is alive.

The most valuable assets cities have can’t be measured and that’s leadership, love and a sense of community.

If you have those you will see rapid progress, you will be able to handle adversity and you will seize opportunity. If you’re lacking, you’re doomed.

If you can’t find leaders who can build community and inspire people to fall in love, you’re going to struggle and you are going to drift. Sorry, that’s the law. There’s no skirting it.

But, if you do find those special leaders then look out, because now anything and everything possible.

Once a group of people starts believing and dreaming and converting others to their cause, social movements take root and transformational change is not only possible it’s inevitable.

It often starts with a monomaniac on a mission; someone so passionate that you can’t help but buy into their vision.

In Delray, there was Nancy Hurd who believed in helping the poorest, most at-risk children in our community. From that kernel grew the Achievement Center.

There was Frances Bourque, who thought an old broken down old school in a very strategic location could become a cultural beacon and community gathering space. She was right and we have Old School Square as a result when some of the powers that be at the time wanted to level the school and build something else.

There was Rick Overman, who came from Orlando and envisioned a police department that would be devoted to building neighborhoods and making our city safe for investment and a better quality of life. Within a year or two, he changed the culture of the department, enlisted over 1,000 (yes that’s correct) volunteers and not only transformed the department but the city itself.

We had Libby Wesley, who launched the Roots Cultural Festival, because she wanted to showcase the talents of children in the northwest and southwest neighborhoods and there was Norman Radin, who believed a derelict section north of Atlantic Avenue could be a cool place named Pineapple Grove. People thought Norman was nuts—Pineapple Grove was marred by vacant lots and vagrants.

The highlight of the street was a tire store and an old  McCrory’s department store. But Norman believed and before long so did others.

Spencer Pompey sought to integrate the public beach in Delray and drew national attention to his efforts. Mr. Pompey and his wife Ruth were dedicated to civil rights and deeply influenced a generation of leaders.

Vera Farrington wanted to preserve the history of the African American community and started a museum in the former home of a legendary black educator named Solomon Spady.

The list goes on…and Boca has had its share of visionaries too.

According to the Palm Beach County History Museum: “Tom Crocker worked with Boca Raton’s Community Development Agency to replace the failed Boca Raton Mall with a 28.7-acre mixed-use project, Mizner Park, completed in phases throughout the 1990s. Today the center includes 272 homes, a public promenade and park, stores and restaurants, 262,000 square feet of office space, a movie theater, the Count de Hoernle Amphitheater, the Centre for the Arts, and the Boca Raton Museum of Art.”

Prior to the creation of Mizner Park, there were 73 housing units downtown and office rents were the lowest in Palm Beach County.

With voter approval, the City of Boca Raton spent $50 million in infrastructure improvements and $68 million in bond financing to make the project feasible.

It wasn’t easy…controversies resulted in new state laws, a restructuring of the city’s government, higher local taxes, lawsuits, and heavy city debt.

But Mizner Park fulfilled its promise as a stimulant for downtown redevelopment. By 2002, there were 689 housing units downtown and 900 more under construction, and office rents were the highest in South Florida. The resulting 14-fold increase in assessed property values from 1990 to 2002 improved the city’s tax base, although the timing initially proved to be poor economically.

After property values rose again in 2005 Mizner Park started paying for itself. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized Mizner Park for removing a blighted property while creating a dynamic meeting place for the community.

Not bad. Sometimes progress takes a while. Sometimes a vision has to struggle before it takes root.

When a community embraces ideas, appreciates passion, works together on a common vision and understands that there is a difference between investment and spending—you begin to see change.

You begin to see value created before your eyes and that momentum builds additional momentum and encourages others to try and create things.

The best leaders I have observed are those who are creators and builders—people who embrace change, but also protect and promote  values and traditions.

It’s not enough to sit on a dais and judge. We need elected officials who seek to understand and build their communities. We need leaders who understand they have a responsibility to create jobs and opportunity and to position their cities for the future.

It’s not enough to sit on your couch and criticize or complain on social media. We need citizens  to organize around positive change. We need citizens who vote, write letters to the editor, blog, join, give, mentor and volunteer.

And most of all, we need citizens to fall in love.

When they fall head over heels— we’ve seen it and experienced it—change becomes easier to digest. It also becomes easier to shape too.

Passion, positivity and vision attract investment—the best kind too.

When investors show up to fund a community’s vision you can actually celebrate your success. Imagine that, feeling good about progress because it advances the dreams, goals and aspirations of citizens.

I see exhaustion in both Delray and Boca—long meetings, campaigns that are negative and development projects met with derision and dread.

Perhaps, it is because we are lacking a unifying vision and so we find ourselves reactive—liking some things, hating others; fixating on numbers—too tall, too dense but neglecting important things like design, affordability and uses that create a sustainable community.

The end result is always division; not consensus, excitement, pride or unity. We set up a system that has winners and losers and whether we win or lose we are exhausted by the fight. And there’s always a fight.

Debates and disagreements are inevitable. Cities are messy places. But I believe—when you are in service to a citizen driven vision—that those disagreements become fewer and your debates more focused.

Just a thought…but it all comes down to leadership and love of community.

 

Can You Fall For Your City? Yes You Can

Peter Kageyama will be in Delray April 30.

Peter Kageyama will be in Delray April 30.

 

Have you ever been to a restaurant that was once a hot spot and now seems tired and old?

The kind of place where you look around think, “Wow, what happened? This used to be amazing. Now it’s dead.”

If restaurants don’t keep up with the times their customer base either ages or moves on, a sad fact of life.

I wonder if cities work the same way. I suspect that they do.

I read a lot about cities in a variety of publications, books and blogs and a common theme seems to be emerging: the notion of what some call a “switched on” city.

Peter Kageyama, who will be speaking 6 p.m. April 30 at the Crest Theatre, talks about this concept in his books and speeches. He focuses on the little things that cities can do that make people fall in love with them.

The concept of loving your community may sound sappy to some, but it’s critically important.

If you love something, you commit to it. And if you commit, you tend to care, invest and protect whatever it is you are passionate about.

Viewed through that lens, it would appear that getting people to fall in love should be the ultimate goal of a city.

Love is another word for engagement and can be measured by voting percentages, volunteer hours, and willingness to show up at community events, whether people speak out on issues and how they talk about their city.

I remember being a young reporter in Delray in the mid to 80s, a volatile time in the city’s history.

There was division on the City Commission, instability at City Hall, concern about crime and the Police Department and huge concerns about vacancy and the lack of traffic downtown.

But despite these significant headwinds there was optimism everywhere you looked. Why? Because people loved their town, cared for it and were willing to do whatever it took to solve problems and make things better.

The political divisions were largely personality driven. There wasn’t a whole lot of arguing over policy or direction in those days.

Wisely, the city’s leaders embarked on a process called “Visions 2000” which provided future city commissioners and mayors with a blueprint for what kind of city stakeholders wanted to see take shape. The Decade of Excellence Bond, CRA, DDA and city investments helped pay for the vision and good leadership and staff ensured progress.

Visions tend to unify. Without a vision, cities, businesses, organizations tend to drift. Drift always creates a vacuum and in that vacuum there is trouble in the form of personal agendas, score settling and other happy stuff. If a community is absorbed in implementing a vision, there’s little room for trivial matters and not a lot of tolerance for pettiness. Majoring in the minor, doesn’t work.

Visions create excitement. And excitement creates momentum. Momentum leads to traction and results.

It also builds confidence among citizens that ideas can come to life and that their precious time is not being wasted in some “check the box” process designed to placate residents and provide politicians good “optics.”

And when change occurs, love and commitment builds. Now you’ve really got something. You’ll have good people run for office, your elections will be about ideas and keeping things going not mindless generic campaigns (I am against crime! John Q. Candidate is a fill-in-the-blank bad guy) you get the picture. Your schools and police department will have volunteers and your non-profits will be supported.

But here’s the rub…you are never done. Even if you reach this nirvana and I think in many ways Delray and Boca Raton have tasted this level of success, you can’t let up. Complacency is a killer.

Like a restaurant, you better add some gluten free items, a delicious vegetarian menu and some local craft beers. You may have to change the decorations too and add some music as well.

For Boca and Delray, I believe a key will be how to create a community that appeals to millennials.

By the end of 2015, millennials are expected to officially outnumber the baby boomers. Marketers estimate that millennials control more than $1.3 trillion in discretionary spending in our consumer market, and this number is sure to grow. It’s their turn and it’s their time.

Do your museums and cultural venues appeal to millennials? Do your neighborhoods and parks provide what they like? Retailers and restaurants will make the shift, or not, at their own peril.

But cities need to be thinking about this generational shift as well.

Not that the boomers are done. Speaking as a boomer (1964 was the last year so I qualify) we will not go quietly into the night. But the world is changing. You can see it on Atlantic Avenue, Mizner Park, Palmetto Park Road and at The Fresh Market on Linton. Look around; there are a lot of young people.

So what do millennials like? According to researchers there are four key millennial pillars: Authenticity, Uniqueness, Meaningfulness and Innovation.

Not a bad list. Boomers and other generations might look those pillars too. Perhaps, cities can embrace that list as well.

Who wouldn’t fall in love with a city that is authentic, unique, meaningful and innovative?