A Cautionary Tale

I read an interview with Kenosha, Wisconsin Mayor John Antaramian that I found very interesting.

Mayor Antaramian has been in the national news lately after his city erupted in protest after the shooting of Jacob Blake.

Blake, 29, a Black man, was left paralyzed after an encounter with local police.

In my experience—which I’ll get to in a minute—the level of unrest that cities experience in the wake of violence is directly correlated to the relationships and work that has been done years before.

If your police department and city government connects to the community,  your odds of finding a positive way forward increase exponentially.

Former Delray Beach Police Chief Rick Overman—who was a remarkable chief—used to say that in his line of work trouble was inevitable. You did all you could to avoid it—you train your officers, you create rigorous standards for hiring, you embrace community policing—but at some point something bad was bound to happen. You will face a challenge, it’s the nature of the profession.

Policing is dangerous and important work.

While I can’t pretend to know what it’s really like, I’ve had a glimpse by spending lots of hours in the back of cruisers as a journalist and a policymaker. I’ve met and gotten to know scores of officers over the years.

I’ve had many late night conversations with officers who confided in me about what it’s like to put on a gun and a vest and head out to work not knowing what you are going to encounter. Those conversations have deepened my appreciation for the special people who choose that profession.

Chief Overman used to talk about something he called the “reservoir of goodwill.” Overman knew that there would come a day when something tragic would happen—he felt it was inevitable in his line of work—and his department would have to draw on that reservoir. So he and his officers worked every day to fill the reservoir by building trust and relationships citywide. Community policing was not a PR stunt or a photo op, it was a governing philosophy. Officers were urged to get out of their cruisers and to find ways to get to know the people and businesses in their zones.

We have seen incredible examples of this—officers past and present—who have connected in truly wonderful ways with the communities they serve. It makes all the difference in the world.

But police departments—as important and essential as they are—cannot do it all.

Again, Chief Overman recognized this fact. He needed the community to volunteer. He needed the community to tell his officers what was really happening on the street and he needed city government to care about all parts of our city.

Now many cities talk the talk.

They issue proclamations and mouth the words about investing in underserved communities. But too few cities walk the walk.

And those cities get in trouble when something happens and they realize that the reservoir has run dry or doesn’t exist at all.

Which leads me back to Mayor Antaramian in Kenosha.

He has been mayor of that town off and on for 20 years. When he was asked what he regrets the most, one mistake sticks out in his mind.

In 2000, the mayor formed a committee to address what he described as “racial issues.”

In Kenosha, the committee focused on housing and homeownership and according to the mayor they developed policies to address the issues identified.

“We spent about a year working on different issues,” he told USA Today. “We actually came to some solutions on those issues. My mistake was I didn’t keep that committee together. I’m refusing to make that mistake a second time. I’m getting too old to make too many mistakes. We thought we solved the problem and we didn’t.”

The last sentence is a key one.

A mistake many cities and mayors make is they think that once they address something it’s done.

The truth is, in this line of work—community building—you are never done. Never.

You must constantly be working to strengthen what you’ve built and you must be constantly be thinking about what’s not working and why.

Delray Beach has made this common mistake.

We think our downtown is done—it’s not.

We think our beach has been re-nourished and is safe, but we better maintain our dunes or they will wash away.

When I was mayor, the commission identified race relations as an issue we wanted to work on.

So we did.

We had study circles that encouraged people from different backgrounds to share their stories and learn from each other. We had neighborhood dinners in which people from different neighborhoods would gather to meet and share their hopes and dreams and we did our best to invest in neighborhoods that were neglected.

There were successes and there were disappointments. But there were no failures because making the effort yields dividends.

You learn.

You grow and you adjust—as a community. You do the work together.

Was it enough?
Unquestionably, the answer is no.

But the effort was never meant to end. It was designed to be an ongoing discussion and effort—long after me and my crew left.

Sadly, politics got in the way—as it often does. Personalities clash. Grudges develop and if not addressed—and they weren’t—they fester and eventually those feuds crowd out just about every initiative.

An old friend asked me recently whether it was possible to succeed if your government is dysfunctional or downright wacky.

My guess is—it’s not really possible.

Oh, there will be bright spots—non-profits doing good work and people who shine.

But think about how much more success you’d have if government was engaged and rowing in the same direction as the people they are supposed to serve.

Today, I worry about my city.

I fear that the reservoir is dangerously low.

Our Police Department is terrific and enjoys a great reputation. It remains an amazing asset.

But I sense anger and frustration out there—a lot of people are feeling marginalized and there is a huge concern over the poor treatment of several high ranking Black city employees whose careers were derailed in Delray.

I could be wrong.

I’m no barometer and I live behind a gate (when it’s working) in a lovely (mostly white) neighborhood. But I see stuff on social media and I still talk to a range of neighborhood leaders and I hear, see and feel the frustration out there.

We ignore it our peril.

We have got to get back to the work. We can’t make the mistake Kenosha did.

 

 

 

The Future of Policing: Relationships


Our national dialogue is fraught.

It’s like a game of gotcha.
And it leads absolutely nowhere.
Endless circular arguments that leave us angry and frustrated.
The latest example is the so-called debate over the term “Defund The Police.”
We don’t need too. Nor should we.
But we do need to invest in neglected communities. It’s not a zero sum game. We can have good police departments and we can set aside money for communities that need our help. This is not an either or choice. We can do both. And we can help our police departments by re-imagining their role in society.
 Perhaps, we are asking our police departments to do too much.
A few years ago, the Dallas Police Chief touched on this notion in a now famous video in which he lamented that every single societal issue ended up at his doorstep.
If you have a stray dog problem, ask the cops to deal with it.
Homelessness, opioid addiction, mental health issues ,domestic violence—-just put the cops on it.
Well, perhaps that’s not the best approach.
First, we never do get at the root cause of these problems and secondly when things escalate it can get end badly for everyone.

Instead, we can invest in mental health professionals, case workers, counselors and others who can assist the police in keeping our communities from descending into places of hopelessness and despair.

A few years back, the Delray Beach Police Department hired a social worker to help with a raging opioid crisis among other issues. I would argue we need more of that.
We don’t have to look far to see an example of how a department can reform and make a lasting difference. We can look to our very own police department.

Thirty years ago, the biggest issue in town was the poor relationship between citizens of neglected neighborhoods and their police department.
Things began to turn around with the introduction of community policing first introduced by interim Police Chief Rick Lincoln and taken to an amazing level by Chief Rick Overman who was hired in 1991 and given the mandate to turn things around.
Chief Overman came from Orlando and he was a change agent.
He was also a charismatic visionary who talked a good game, but played a better one.
He rolled out a blizzard of programs: Citizen Police Academies, outreach to the large Haitian community, problem oriented policing projects to get at the root of issues and a volunteer program that at its zenith numbered over 1,000 residents who acted as the departments eyes and ears.

He broke the city into zones and tasked officers to get out of their cars and into the neighborhoods where they could develop relationships and trust.
The department worked with MAD DADS, a grassroots organization that walked the streets to reclaim neighborhoods from drug dealers.
Chief Overman initiated bike patrols, opened police substations and invited citizens into the department to see how it worked.
There were efforts to have officers mentor local kids, there were midnight basketball leagues, barbecues, self defense classes, toy drives, DARE classes in local schools to keep kids away from drugs and much more.
Some of it lasted. Some of it went away.
But all of it was good.
Because the focus was relationship and community building.
The emphasis was on communication and building trust.
Chief Overman knew that in his line of work it wasn’t a matter of if something would go wrong during one of the thousands of police/community interactions that occur every year in a complex city such as Delray ,it was a matter of when.
He wanted his city and his department to be ready. He built capital. He built relationships.
He built a reservoir of good will.
He also raised standards for hiring officers insisting on a college degree, controversial at the time. But he believed that the more education an officer had, the less likely he or she was to make mistakes—especially violent ones. It was a position backed by research.
Within a relatively short amount of time, the police department went from being perceived as a huge liability to being arguably the city’s biggest strength.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again. The Delray Beach Police Department made it possible for our city to have a renaissance.
People won’t invest—their time or their money—unless they feel safe.
The example set by the police flowed to every department in the city.
The whole city became oriented toward community building. That meant town hall meetings, visioning exercises, resident academies, youth councils, community dinners, summer programs, after school “Beacon” programs, partnerships with non-profits and much more.
And guess what? It worked.
It’s expensive and time consuming. But…failing to engage your community is a lot more expensive.

A few years back, it became fashionable to trash the past history of this town.
It was a foolish decision driven by petty personal feuds and ego.
But that ruinous mindset  has sure done a lot of damage. It has led to the dysfunction and turnover at City Hall, which ought to alarm and concern us all because it leaves this community weaker and vulnerable.
We stopped doing many of the things mentioned above. We abandoned strategies that built a city and could have done a lot more had that ethos continued.
We even had senior city staff question the investment in some of the programs mentioned above. That’s their right.
But their conclusions were so wrong.
Those investments were not wasted, they enriched lives, created opportunities and built something of value—a community.
I am grateful that our Police Department has maintained good relations with our community.
Chief Javaro Sims has led admirably during this difficult time. We have some  very special officers.
Personally, I’d like to see a recommitment to community policing complete with a plan and a budget. It’s money well spent.
Officers need to know the people they protect and serve. Our city’s children need to know and trust officers.
I’d also like to see efforts made to grow the capacity of local leaders and organizations. We need more leaders and we need to support those we have.
Local government can play an important role in these efforts.
Bring back visioning. Bring back Charettes. Bring back community dinners. Bring back the effort to improve race relations.
Get serious about economic development and capacity building so when development occurs—locals benefit.
We had the playbook. Then we tossed it. For what?
But my friends that play book—well it still works. Dust it off, freshen it up and you’ll see magic happen.

When The Reservoir Runs Dry

“Generations of pain are manifesting itself in front of the world.” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.

Like the rest of America, I watched with horror as George Floyd died beneath the knee of a police officer last week as three other now former officers looked on ignoring Mr. Floyd’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe.
It saddened me. But sadly, the tragedy didn’t shock me because we have seen this scene play out time and time again across our country.
I watched, like the rest of the country, the scenes of violence and unrest that the murder of George Floyd sparked, in cities ranging from Minneapolis and Detroit to New York, Denver and Atlanta.
We watched as incendiary devices were hurled at police officers guarding the CNN headquarters and we were saddened by the scenes of looting and destruction.
It’s no small thing when the National Guard deploys in a major American city. And it’s no small thing when a man’s life is snuffed out under the knee of another man sworn to serve and protect.
The footage made me sick. Physically sick.
America is struggling right now.
Struggling with a virus. Struggling with racism. Struggling with anti-semitism and struggling with deep economic wounds caused by the pandemic.
But as daunting as those issues are—our biggest challenge is division.
It seems like half this country doesn’t like the other half very much.
We are seeing and experiencing hatred between Americans. One side sees the other as an existential threat to their way of life and a danger to the country and the world.
It’s hard to remember a time of such deep seated division.
It’s hard to remember a time when we’ve written each other off and when there doesn’t even seem to be an attempt to bring us together.  In fact, our so-called leaders seem to enjoy throwing gas on the fire.
We  each  seem to have our own set of facts and beliefs. You have your experts and I have mine.
We can’t seem to tolerate each other, so working together and compromise  seems impossible.
At the core of this division is race—America’s original sin.
We seem to make strides only to fall back again and again.
While racism manifests itself in so many ways the biggest flash points seem to happen when officers take the lives of black men.
Whenever this happens,—all to frequently I’m afraid—I’m reminded of what happened right here in Delray when Jerrod Miller lost his life outside the Delray Full Service Center.
If you weren’t around  15 years ago , Jerrod, 15, was shot by an off-duty officer outside a school dance. You can google the details.
I was mayor of Delray back then and Jerrod’s death tested this community in ways I’ve not seen before or since and I’ve lived here since 1987.

So what did we learn?
We learned that when violence occurs leaders need to de-escalate tensions not throw gas on the fire.
We learned that you have to amplify communications, admit mistakes and share your humanity.
We learned that you have to show up—in church halls, living rooms, community meetings etc.
We learned that you can’t begin to care after the fact, you have to build a reservoir of goodwill before bad things happen. You have to do the hard work of community building, you have to invest in relationships and you have to be in it for the right reasons and for the long haul not just to make friends before an election only to disappear until the next one.
You have to want it and you have to mean it.
If you’re a leader you can’t introduce yourself to the community after tragedy strikes. They better know who you are before hand and that relationship better be a good one.

America’s issues will not be solved by the feds or the tweeter in chief. If problems are to be solved and opportunity to be seized it will happen on the local level with neighborhood leaders working with their local elected officials to build better towns and cities.
It starts at the neighborhood level. You have to be on the ground every day.  You have to share your heart and your soul and you have to listen before you can help. You have to listen and learn before you can lead.

I have to say, we used to do that kind of stuff pretty well here in Delray. Oh we were never perfect and we never quite got there but here’s the secret: you never do. You have to keep at it.
In my opinion, based on 33 years of observation from inside and outside, I think we’ve stopped.
Sure there are some great initiatives and programs, but at one point our whole local government was built around engagement and community building. Somewhere along the way we got off track. One step up, two steps back……

Alongside George Floyd, social media was in the news last week.
And while I love sharing pictures of pets, movie and restaurant reviews on Facebook, I think the platform has driven wedges in our community.
For years now, I’ve seen fights break out between neighbors over development, community driven transformation plans, other important stuff and some nonsense too.
And I wonder where it all leads. I worry about a spark. I worry about the anger I see and sense.
People don’t react well when they feel marginalized and when they feel they aren’t heard.
You can only poke at people so long before you risk an eruption.
That doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything or that elected officials have to compromise their values. It does mean that we have to find a way to disagree respectfully.
I’ve seen people marginalized, organizations bullied or ignored, long time employees thrown out with the trash and denied benefits they’ve earned. I’ve seen people and groups targeted too.
This kind of culture erodes community. It drains the reservoir of goodwill.
We saw last week what can happen when people feel that our societal contract doesn’t work for them.
It seems to me we have two choices: ignore it or address it.
Ignorance is dangerous; addressing it is hard work but it’s the only way forward. Failure to do so means we all fail.
And we can’t afford that can we?

On Being A Citizen

Armand Mouw

Ernie Simon

Last week, author/blogger/marketing guru Seth Godin wrote about “choosing” to be a citizen.

It was a short piece, but impactful.

Check it out:

“Citizens aren’t profit-seeking agents who are simply constrained by rules. Citizens behave even if there isn’t a rule about it.

 

Citizens aren’t craven partisans, voting for party over fact. Citizens do the right thing because they can, even if the short-term cost is high.

 

Citizens live by the rule of community: If everyone did what I’m about to do, would it lead to a useful outcome?

 

Sometimes we call citizens heroes, which is a shame, because their actions should be commonplace, not rare. The myth of success based on short-term self-interest has been disproven again and again. It seems obvious that leaving things better than you found them is a powerful step forward, because you’ll probably be back this way again one day soon.

 

Every successful community, every organization, every family has citizens. It’s the citizens who define the future, because their commitment to the long-term matters.”

 

I loved this piece, because in recent weeks we lost two amazing “citizens” who embodied that word and were devoted long term players who made a tremendous positive difference over a long period of time.

Armand Mouw was a city commissioner in the 90s, a critical time in Delray’s history. He brought gravitas and business acumen to the dais. He was a military veteran, a construction executive who founded Mouw Associates, a terrific local firm and spoke with a no nonsense common sense rationality that seems so rare today. He passed recently and although I hadn’t seen him around town lately, he was a fixture for decades and left a lasting impact. He was a really good citizen.

Same for our friend Ernie Simon, who passed last week.

Ernie was a pillar of the community for decades, a member of a pioneer family, a judge, an attorney, a devoted Rotarian and someone who deeply loved the Delray Playhouse, which is an unsung jewel in our community.

Ernie always wore a smile. He loved Delray Beach and the people in his community loved him back. He was very special.

Mr. Simon was a citizen who was rooted here, dedicated to this place and someone who made a lasting impact as a result of that dedication.

 

A frequent topic of this little blog is this concept of what it really means to be a village; what it takes to build a community, to put down roots, make friends, give something back, invest yourself in a place.

There are many ways to describe this concept but it can be boiled down to a single word. And that word is love.

Making a decision to serve, truly serve is an act of love. Giving your heart to a place for decades is a labor of love. Mr. Mouw did it. Mr. Simon did it and thankfully we have many examples to guide us, inspire us and if we choose— inform us too.

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about the concept of statesmanship which is defined as “skill in managing public affairs.”

It seems so rare these days.

To paraphrase a song: Where have all the lions and lionesses gone?

The great ones know how to lead, serve, compromise, take the long term view and commit to a cause. They don’t take their ball and go home if things don’t go their way. They understand that in life we win some and we lose some. They are good at building consensus and very good at explaining why sometimes tough decisions—not necessarily popular in the moment—need to be made.

They are grounded. They are future focused willing to build for a tomorrow they may not see. They are the adults in the room.

We’ve had a slew of those types of people in our community: Libby Wesley, H. Ruth and C. Spencer Pompey, Nancy Hurd, Frances Bourque, Barbara Smith, Bob Costin, Bob Currie, Bob Victorin, Kerry Koen, Bob Barcinski, Rick Overman, Vera Farrington, Chip Stokes, Bump Mitchell, Dorothy Ellington, Lula Butler, Joe Gillie, Susan Ruby, Bill Wood and a woman I have gotten to know and love with all my heart Diane Colonna. This list can go on and on and on—mayors, commissioners, police officers, firefighters, city staff, volunteers, business leaders, religious leaders and non-profit directors etc. etc.

Please don’t be offended if you weren’t mentioned on this list—I’m far from finished telling local stories.

I see more than a few bright young leaders coming up who are making some noise on a grassroots level. So I have hope for our future.

We need more citizens and it is something we choose to be; because it is the Armand Mouw’s and Ernie Simon’s who have made this a special place—unlike any other place. Progress is not accidental—sometimes you get lucky but it never lasts. Real, sustainable progress requires citizens—check that Citizens—with a capital C. It’s the Citizens who move the needle and change the game.

We should embrace them, celebrate them and build around them. We have so much more to do.

Thanks Armand and thanks Ernie for a job well done.

It’s our turn now.

It Takes Leadership to Keep A Village

Last February, journalist Timothy P. Carney published a provocative book entitled “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.”

It’s a hard hitting book that examines whether the American dream is alive, on life support, or dead.

The conclusion: it’s alive in places like Chevy Chase Village, Maryland where the author lives and dead in places across America where the jobs have disappeared along with the social ties that bind us as Americans.

I’m reading the book and it’s riveting.

Mr. Carney is a well-known conservative writer and I’m decidedly not conservative—still it’s good to expose your mind to other perspectives, especially intelligent ones.

Carney’s hypothesis is that the American dream dies in places that lose their sense of community. When the ties that bind no longer apply—be they church, service organizations, sports leagues, book clubs, neighborhood associations etc.—pretty soon the dream dies with it.

Humans are not meant to be unmoored.

We are social creatures and we are fragile.

Things happen to us.

Accidents, job losses, debt, fires, violence, addiction.

Cancer.

We are vulnerable beings. We grow old and frail, or we are young and unable to fend for ourselves. Sometimes we get sick and sometimes we lose our jobs and fall on hard times.

That’s when we rely on our family, friends, jobs, church, synagogue, service club and neighbors to step in and cushion the pain.

But, Carney argues, those things are fraying in America these days– at least in many places hard hit by economic hardship.

I saw a recent stat that floored me—1 in 7 children in America are growing up in households where one or more parents suffer from addiction. That piece of information was part of a story on what social scientists are now calling “deaths from despair.” There’s actually a category describing those who die from suicide, opioid abuse and alcohol poisoning.

Despair sets in when you lose hope; when there does not seem to be a viable alternative to the pain that engulfs your life.

There are whole towns and regions in America that feel this way. Hence, the divide in this country.

Sometimes I feel like we don’t live in the real world here in South Florida.

Nobody blinks when a Ferrari roars past, nobody thinks it’s odd to see homes in the Lake Ida neighborhood sell for $2 million plus, we take investment for granted as if its business as usual that someone can drop $40 million for the Sundy House and $28 million for a few old buildings on Atlantic Avenue.

We ring our hands over the silliest things but you don’t have to travel very far in our All America City to see poverty. There are families who can’t afford school lunches for their kids. We are no strangers to substance abuse and the ravages of the opioid epidemic. We have homelessness and plenty of despair in our community.

Still, I wonder about our focus and priorities.

Sometimes, at the end of a long day I will sit back on my couch mindlessly watching some reality show trying to quiet my brain until 9 p.m. comes and I can crawl up to bed only to get up at 5 a.m. and do it all over again.

I have a good life, so that’s not a complaint. I’ve been fortunate, lucky even. And for that I am grateful.

But there are times when I take a look at social media and watch the armchair trolls duke it out on all things Delray and it makes me aware of how far we’ve strayed from the place I discovered by happenstance in 1987.

We were a poor city back then, with no reserves, a weak tax base, high crime, dangerous racial divisions, a dead downtown, distressed neighborhoods and……a ton of potential.

Rather than succumb to despair, the community worked together and put in place a plan to revitalize the city. We were circling the drain but we would not be flushed away.

It was something to watch and thrilling to write about and experience.

Reading Tim Carney’s book and his description of Chevy Chase Village reminded me of that long ago Delray.

Chevy Chase has a senior committee, a speaker series, neighborhood parties, a strong volunteer base and a resilient network of organizations that bind the community together. It’s hard to get tickets to the annual school Christmas concert because the whole town wants to go to see “their kids.”

The African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” is a truism.

We talk often about being a village but I wonder if we truly know what it takes to act like one. Just what we are doing to make this a kinder, more inclusive place?

Usually discussions about being “village like” focuses on development and yes the quality, design and scale of development is very important.

But….

But there is more.

A whole lot more.

Building and maintaining a sense of community requires commitment and a constant effort to engage stakeholders and seek ways to bring people together.

What does that look like?

It means we have strong faith communities, town hall meetings, charrettes, engaged non-profits, a vibrant arts scene, involvement in our schools, community projects we take pride in, active neighborhood associations and events that draw the community. We have public spaces that are inviting and a wide variety of activities. We also take care of our own when bad things happen—as they inevitably do.

It also means that when we disagree we can do so civilly. We can let go if we lose a vote or if things don’t go our way. We don’t beat people up because we can. We don’t disparage their character or question their motives just because we disagree on one or a hundred issues.

None of this of course is rocket science. But all of it takes an effort. It requires leadership—true leadership which is not a position or a title but how you treat people and how you serve.

It requires dedication and a rock solid commitment to be there for the long haul.

There was a time when local government led these community building efforts.

We had a Community Improvement Department that helped to form and strengthen neighborhood associations. That amazing department conducted Citizen Academies, sponsored neighborhood leaders to attend national conferences so they could come back and help Delray and worked with local schools.

The Commission hosted community pot luck dinners and city government worked closely with non-profits.

And it made a difference.

It felt like a village.

To break bread with neighbors, to literally draw the future at a visioning session, to volunteer for a favorite non-profit, to enjoy seeing friends and neighbors at a festival builds community. And the list of community building/trust building activities goes on and on.

It feel like home.

Kind of the opposite of Facebook.

To be sure, there are plenty of great efforts happening now—the Delray Beach Initiative, EJS Project, Old School Square, Roots and Wings, Knights of Pythagoras,  the wonderful work being done at the library, Historic Society and Milagro Center, the hard work being done by our Chamber of Commerce and much more.

But, I don’t know too many people who would argue that the public square isn’t more toxic than it used to be.

The impact of that toxicity limits the pool of people willing to serve in public office. Oh, they may serve on a board or two, but they stop short of running.

Not that the public square has ever been safe.  It has always required thick skin—I can show you more than a few bruises myself. But this looks and feels different.

It has become more personal.

If I were running today—I’d make this election about culture.

What kind of village do we want to live in?
It’s a fundamental and important choice and it goes way, way beyond the latest development project.

And more important than any other decision we can make. If we choose right, we can meet any challenge and seize any opportunity. Choose wrong and it will be a long, ugly slide. I’d argue that we’ve been on that slide for a long time now. It is time for a reset. Before we squander the lead that we worked so hard to achieve.

Passion & Belief

“You need more to eyes to see, more brains to think, and more legs to act in order to accelerate. You need additional people with their own particular windows on the world and with their additional good working relationships with others, in order to truly innovate. More people need to be able to have the latitude to initiate—not just carry out someone else’s directives.”—John P. Kotter

Want to build a great team?

You need passion and you need to believe in the mission.

Passion and belief are what move people.

Always have, always will.

And moving people is what organizational success is all about.

I’ve been thinking a lot about culture these days.

Workplace culture, community culture and national culture.

I’m not talking about music or art, but culture in the sense of what it feels like to be part of a company, an organization, a neighborhood, a city, a state and a nation.

There’s a saying that culture eats strategy for lunch and I believe it.

Heck, I’ve seen it.

But if you marry the two—a good culture with a sound strategy—you’ve got magic.

I’ve seen that too.

Culture trumps good fortune, it overcomes money issues and it will get you over just about any obstacle.

I’ve been thinking about these things in the context of a recent panel discussion I attended at the Boca Raton Innovation Campus in which CEOs and executives from four local companies Celsius, MDVIP, Vitacost/Kroger and Body Details talked about the importance of engagement, culture, flexibility and pleasant work environments and how those things grow business by attracting and keeping talent.

Of course, they also talked about Artificial Intelligence, growth strategies and automation, but the executives—representing a beverage company, a laser hair removal company, an e-commerce platform and a health care company– all talked about the importance of the human touch—of developing a brand and value proposition that cares about people.

I can speak with a bit of knowledge about Celsius, which is one of the companies in our portfolio where I work.

We are proud of the company and the team and have invested heavily—both emotionally and financially– in Celsius because we believe in the brand’s mission which is to provide products (beverages, powders and coming soon—drum roll please…. protein bars) to help people “live fit.”

It has been a long and winding road to NASDAQ and to widespread international and national distribution with more than its share of peaks and valleys. But when you believe in the mission and the team—and we always have—you don’t give up and you will find success. It may take some time, you will suffer setbacks but you will make progress and we have.

Celsius CEO John Fieldly is a young guy and I often think about the pressures that are on him as the leader of a publicly held company that does business across the globe and with some of the world’s largest retailers.

As an insider/outsider at Celsius I’ve glimpsed their culture and the team is tight-knit and passionate about the mission. You have to be because the beverage biz is incredibly competitive and crowded too. Celsius has always been able to punch above its weight because the team is bought in to the mission which is creating products that help people live healthier lives.

Vitacost has a similar mission and Marketing VP Guy Burgstahler says the company has benefitted greatly by relocating to attractive space at BRIC.

Body Details CEO Claudio Sorrentino understands that social media is ubiquitous these days so he doesn’t sweat his employees indulging as long as the work gets done. The company also has Champagne Tuesdays where for the cost of a bottle of bubbly they celebrate things large and small. It helps to build camaraderie.

Andrea Klemes, Chief Medical Officer for MDVIP, says her company lets people work from home one day a week which has boosted morale and retention. The company was started to improve the experience patients have with their doctors—and as an MDVIP client I can personally attest that it would be hard to go back to a “regular” practice once you’ve experienced the VIP experience.

I have long believed that cities have cultures and values and if they are frayed or violated you pay a heavy price.

The new city manager in Delray—George Gretsas—has a wonderful opportunity to rebuild the culture at City Hall. Employees need to be empowered, staff needs to be feel valued and the community as a whole has to feel like it’s working on building a better city if that is to occur.

You have to stop majoring in the minor for good things to happen. The community has to come first and you have to be willing to think about doing what’s right versus doing the expedient. And you have to create a culture where it feels safe for people to invest their hearts, minds, time and emotion.

Is it easy?
No.

But it’s not impossible either and this is one area of life where trying scores you points.

Make it safe to fail. Make it safe to have an idea and say it out loud.

Celebrate success. Share credit. Give credit.

Be thankful. Be kind. The little stuff matters—a whole lot.

Creating and protecting a great culture makes all the difference.

Passion and belief are what move people.

Always have, always will.

Boca Lead Is A Revelation

Pastor Bill Mitchell traded a successful career in real estate for a spiritual mission. Boca is benefitting from his wisdom.

I’ve become a huge fan of Boca Lead, the monthly speaker series hosted by Pastor Bill Mitchell at Boca Raton Community Church.

Every month, 400 plus people gather to hear a positive message designed to help them live a better life, run a better business and build a better Boca. The demand is so strong that Boca Lead added a dinner series with a debut last week that attracted more than 200 people.

It’s an inclusive group—all faiths are made to feel welcome—and the message is not only smart it’s extremely relevant. My good friend Karen Granger turned me onto the series when she invited me to sit with her colleagues at 4 Kids. I owe her a debt of gratitude, because Boca Lead has become an important part of my month.

As a result of Karen’s intro, our company is buying a table most months so we can be inspired to lead, mentor and build a better community. We all have a role in making that happen.

In its 5 year existence, Boca Lead has attracted over 5,500 different people to the monthly talks and now with dinner sessions the audience is sure to grow and deservedly so, because in a word it’s awesome. And we desperately need to apply the lessons being taught every month.

I’ve gotten to know Pastor Mitchell since attending my first Boca Lead and I’m incredibly impressed by his insights, devotion to the community and his work across the globe. He and his wife, Elizabeth, are remarkable people and talented communicators. The ability to command a room month after month—to inspire, motivate and get us to stop our busy lives so that we may focus on what’s really important is truly something special to witness.

Every month, I don’t think he can top the prior month, but he seems to do so.

This month was no exception.

The title of the talk was “Drifting” which will soon be an e-book. I just finished “Shifting” another e-book by Pastor Mitchell that I found riveting. Again, the message is universal and this Jewish guy from New York can relate to the insights and better yet, can apply the principles to my life and business.

Drifting talked about how distractions, a lack of integrity and another assorted noise lead us astray.

The talk ended with four suggestions for building community—a subject I have been passionate about for as long as I can remember. A sense of community attracted me to Delray Beach, pushed me into a stint in public service and has kept me engaged since moving to Florida in 1987.

Pastor Mitchell posited that in order to build community you need four elements:

Proximity—you can’t build community from afar, people need to be brought together. But that’s just a start. We can all live in the same neighborhood, work at the same company or attend the same school but if we don’t mix we can’t build community. So proximity is a must, but it’s just a start.

Hospitality—is necessary to build community. We need to break bread with people, extend them courtesies, and invite them into our homes and lives if we are to grow close.

Relationship—we need to work on building relationships with our neighbors in order to build community. It’s not enough to just wave hello, we need to work on forging real relationships.

Peacemaking—this one fascinating. It’s not peacekeeping, it’s the ability to make peace not the ability to keep people from hurting each other. This is so important in a community. It struck me that we are lacking peacemakers in our world today and in our local communities too.

As Pastor Mitchell walked us through the list, a thought crossed my mind.

Social media—which pretends to build community does not possess any of the four community building blocks.

It’s not proximate, you can sit in your pajamas and spew venom on Twitter without ever having to face the target of your wrath, there’s no means of providing real hospitality other than maybe sending an emoji, social media doesn’t really foster real relationships beyond a post here and a reply there and finally social media does not seem to have any mechanism for peacemaking. People start a lot of wars on Facebook, but I have yet to see them make peace.

Now admittedly, I am a social media user. I enjoy Facebook for allowing me to share photos of my dogs and stay in touch with old friends and classmates. But I don’t enjoy seeing the posts about my town that seek to divide, label and malign. There are a whole lot of them, entire pages devoted to ripping the town apart.

Truth be told, I think it has harmed our sense of community and nearly destroyed civic pride. That’s a lot of damage to overcome.

We are not the only city that has suffered this fate and the fact is America is incredibly and maybe hopelessly divided at this point in our history. It’s a sad time, it really is.

I don’t see how this ends or how we can magically unwind some of the abhorrent behavior we’ve all witnessed.

But there was a time, it now seems so long ago, when I and many others viewed Delray Beach as an oasis in a desert. A place where you always felt the best was yet to come and that every problem could be solved.

Please don’t tell me it didn’t exist, because I experienced it and so have others. I have witnesses and these days most of them shake their heads when you mention the current state of affairs.

That doesn’t mean that we were conflict free, we surely weren’t.

Worthing Place, Atlantic Plaza part 1, the Jerrod Miller shooting—and on and on the list goes. There was a time when African Americans could not safely cross Swinton and couldn’t use the public beach but….despite those serious challenges there was this feeling that we could work things out, that we could and would somehow find a way forward even in the face of tragedy.

When I think back on how past controversies resolved themselves, I see Pastor Mitchell’s four pillars of community building come to life. Differences were solved because people got together, built relationships, extended hospitality and made peace.

C. Spencer Pompey was a peacemaker extraordinaire.

He knew the power of relationships and hospitality and so he got people together and eventually we opened up our beaches.

We were bitterly divided over development after Worthing Place so we got together and worked on a Downtown Master Plan.

When a developer wanted to put 10 pounds of you know what in a five pound bag on Atlantic Plaza, the city commission brought in designers and the community to try and find a plan that everyone could embrace.

Sometimes the efforts produce solutions (Mr. Pompey succeeded) and sometimes they fall short (the developer walked away from the plan the designers and community produced) but the effort always seemed to matter. You were extended credit for trying. You built relationships by coming to the table and working on issues large and small.

This kind of peacemaking doesn’t seem to be happening online and it’s destroying us—rapidly.

I’ve been going through old files in a sometimes futile effort to de-clutter my life.

I recently stumbled across a flier called the Atlantic Gazette that absolutely ripped me and some of my friends to shreds. It was anonymous and really ugly. You get these things when you are in public life or even if you just venture an opinion or an idea. I guess it comes with the territory.

When I was young and new to the game, I would cringe at this stuff. But I learned that despite the best efforts of critics, most people never saw the fliers, email blasts or in one case the banner flown over the beach.

Life went on, the people who know you laugh it off, the critics tell their friends “see, I told you so” and soon it’s on to the next subject.

But today, social media is ubiquitous. It’s hard to avoid the toxicity.

Joni Mitchell urged us to get “back to the garden” in her classic song Woodstock.

Pastor Mitchell reminds us that we need to get back to proximity, relationships, hospitality and peacemaking before it is too late.

Can we?
Will we?
What if we don’t?

For more information on Boca Lead. To view past talks (highly recommended) and for ticket information please visit http://www.bocalead.com

Rewards For Those Who Study

Do you remember when bus tours used to come to Delray to see how we did things?”

That was the question I was asked recently by a friend who also happens to work for the city.
Yes, I do. And I also remember when we took trips to other cities to see how they did things and to share strategies around subjects such as neighborhood revitalization, economic development, historic preservation, public safety, arts, culture and creating a great downtown.
Daytona Beach, GreenCove Springs, Punta Gorda, Winnipeg, Cape Coral, Miami Shores and  a few towns in Alabama,
Massachussetts and South Carolina were among the cities that made the trip here to look at Old School Square, Atlantic Avenue, Pineapple Grove, the Police Department, Fire Department, CRA and City Hall.
Organizations came here too: The Florida Preservation Trust, chambers of commerce from near and far, the Congress for New Urbanism, Florida Planning and Zoning Association, Florida Redevelopment Association, LISC and the list goes on and on.
And we went places too: Transforming Local Government conferences, to Greenville, Neighborhood USA conferences etc.
Now some would say they were junkets. But they would  be wrong.
Those trips, which many times included community partners and residents, built relationships, knowledge and sparked ideas. They were essential to Delray’s redevelopment.
These days I still visit cities and see them through a different lens than before I got involved in local government.
We seek out downtowns, love to walk city streets and try to go off the beaten path where possible.
I find it interesting and inspiring.
I just love cities.
Recently, we wandered downtown Durham, Raleigh and Apex while visiting my daughter Sam in Cary, North Carolina.
I loved seeing the old buildings mixed with the new projects and the adaptive reuse of old tobacco structures.
The Triangle is a dynamic area. Chock full of employment, beautiful neighborhoods, parks, historic districts and teeming with breweries, food halls and cool hotels.
We were wowed.
I was struck by three things: the health of the shopping centers, the abundance of reasonably priced beautiful housing and the sheer amount of employment.
And I thought, this is a good place to study and explore.
A few years ago, a group of business leaders went to Durham to study the area and its business incubation efforts.
I heard a lot about the trip. It’s a good leadership practice to visit other places and to study organizations and businesses.
These trips spark ideas and inspiration.
Similarly, hosting visitors helps you focus on your own success. stories. Sharing those stories are valuable, life affirming and help to build civic pride. Listening to another community’s stories makes us feel—in a small way—a part of things.
I’m still sharing our stories with groups and I still marvel at the work that was done. It makes me appreciate my hometown. And that’s a good thing.

Keep Your Amazon Headquarters; Build Your Own Ecosystem

NY is paying $61,000 per job and Virginia is shelling out $796mm in tax incentives to land Amazon’s second headquarters.

I saw an article in the Tampa Bay Business Journal recently that caught my eye.

The headline was a show stopper for those of us who care about economic development and the use of public dollars: “Incentives are becoming less important than workforce.”

Which is another way of saying that today—maybe more than ever—talent rules. And the cities and regions that develop, nurture and attract talent will be the cities that win.

The Business Journal’s headline may sound funny in the midst of perhaps the biggest incentive gusher ever which was the pursuit of Amazon’s H2 headquarters and its promise of 50,000 jobs and billions in economic impact. Congratulations to our friends in Crystal City and Long Island City: the two winners of the Amazon sweepstakes who will split the prize.

But even amidst the gaggle of mayors who threw incentives Amazon’s way, the smart guess was that Amazon would choose a headquarters where executives believe they can hire from a deep pool of talent. Northern Virginia and New York City are both regions rich in tech talent.

But also playing into the decision was Amazon’s desire to be in a city or region where today’s and tomorrow’s workers will want to live.

I’m a passionate student of economic development and it’s endlessly fascinating to me how cities and regions work or don’t work.

I think the most successful places practice economic “gardening” which is an effort to grow your own companies rather than throw money chasing corporations that oftentimes take advantage of cities by threatening to leave if you don’t ante up.

If you grow your own and create an environment where companies would be foolish to leave, you won’t to have worry that someone else will steal your jobs by waving checks at CEOs.

So how do you create an environment conducive to economic gardening and how do you keep the garden healthy and sustainable?

I like the analogy of threads—you have to knit a fabric and build a community by adding to– not tearing at –the fabric of your city.

Threads include: good schools, a good support network for parents, strong and safe neighborhoods, a clean environment, great parks, recreational opportunities, a range of housing options, good transportation networks, strong and ethical governance, business friendly regulations, a people friendly or tolerant atmosphere, abundant art and culture, a sense of place, efficient and competent local government, great health care and the list goes on.

If you build a strong fabric and create a place that is brimming with opportunities– both economic and social—over time you will create a dynamic and sustainable environment that generates jobs by keeping and attracting talent.

Consequently, if you tear at the fabric by pulling threads, chasing away investment, making it hard to get established and hard to get rooted you will send a message to go elsewhere. In those types of places we send a clear message. We are essentially telling our children that ‘yes we raised you here, but there’s nothing for you here so go elsewhere as soon as you can.’

And we will tell outsiders that their investments are better spent elsewhere.

Growth and change are hot topics around these parts. Recently, the South Florida Business Journal reported that there was $950 million of projects underway in downtown Delray Beach. That’s both a source of angst and pride and I can understand both feelings.

Growth and change can be hard to swallow, especially if it swallows up what we like best about our towns. But growth and change are also inevitable. The best communities find a way to shape and manage growth and change.

The best cities also focus on the opportunities that growth and change can provide: they maximize benefits hopefully for as many people as possible, while minimizing impacts.

They talk through the tough issues, raise the level of discourse and do their best to build for the future.

In many ways, we are all stewards. We are here to leave a better place for those who come next. If we adopt a mindset that we need to be concerned about not only our quality of life but also that of others, we have a chance to create something good. But if we have an “I’m in the boat, pull up the ladder” mentality we ensure that the future either drowns or heads elsewhere and that the boat we’re in will sink.

It’s better to swim than it is to sink.

 

Complacency is a Killer

Wynwood Yards—wow!

Recently, Bisnow Media convened a panel devoted to the remarkable rise of Wynwood, a super cool neighborhood in Miami.

The panel consisted of developers, investors and others who have been instrumental in the revitalization of a tired neighborhood into a hip, tourist draw and arts center.

Their conclusion: zoning was the key to the neighborhood’s success.

According to Bisnow: “Fortis Design+Build Managing partner David Polinsky said when Wynwood started becoming a hot neighborhood with galleries and street art, he had looked at a tract behind Panther Coffee and bought it the next day — only to find there was nothing he could build on it.

 In 2013, he helped write a white paper that laid out three planning and zoning goals: relaxed parking requirements, zoning that would permit flexible uses such as residential and office and increased density for residential development.

 The Wynwood Business Improvement District, which represents more than 400 property owners, worked with the city of Miami and planning firm PlusUrbia and, in 2015, developed a Neighborhood Revitalization Plan, which called for 10-foot-wide sidewalks, the development of studio apartments under 650 SF and the establishment of a design review committee that would consider future projects. Eventually, the city passed eight ordinances that incorporated the changes.”

The changes created value that didn’t exist before. And the magic of those zoning changes is that the value didn’t cost the taxpayers a fortune. Unlike expensive incentives and tax abatements, increasing flexibility (especially for urban infill sites) is the best tool cities have to create value, attract investment and transform neighborhoods. Zoning beats costly incentives my friends.

But success has its challenges too.

While Wynwood has won international acclaim, rents have soared squeezing out the eclectic array of small businesses that made the neighborhood attractive to begin with. Rents are now said to be between $40 and $100 per square foot, that’s very pricey for independents. On nearby Lincoln Road which started losing independents in 1999 rents can be as high as $330 a square foot.

Locally, we have experienced a similar phenomenon.

When I moved to Delray in the late 80s, Atlantic Avenue rents were $6-8 a square foot. Adjusted for inflation that would be the equivalent of $13-$17 a square foot in 2018 numbers. But today rents are $50 to over $100 a square foot downtown. That’s a challenge. Fortunately, the Downtown Development Authority recognizes that there are issues and has engaged Robert Gibbs, a noted expert, to help navigate. The city would be wise to listen to Gibbs’ 43 page analysis which is available on the DDA website. I don’t agree with it all, but it’s fascinating reading.

Urban redevelopment is often the tale of revitalization and then hyper gentrification which ultimately squeezes the charm out of a place. While change is inevitable (even Charleston, S.C. has chain stores up and down its main drag) it doesn’t always have to mean doom and gloom. There are tools—rental assistance (which can be controversial), pop-up store opportunities to test ideas, retail incubators and small liner shops that can help promote authentic and independent uses.

But it isn’t easy. And you’re never done.

That was a mantra back when Atlantic Avenue was making the turn from “Dull Ray” to “America’s Most Fun Town.”

There’s always a chorus of people who will be saying it’s time move on and concentrate elsewhere once you find some success.

 But city building is never a zero sum binary game.

You can do many things at once—and you should: each part of your city deserves its own strategy and investment plan—but you’ll never be totally done. Success is never final and with it comes challenges; many unexpected.

Wynwood is at an inflection point. I would argue that downtown Delray Beach and east Boca is as well. Mind you, these are good problems to have. They certainly beat the alternative which is our “town is dead, what do we do?”

I drove Atlantic Avenue with my dogs on a recent Sunday evening. It was a hot steamy off season night and it was nice to see crowds of pedestrians and diners—people of all ages enjoying the avenue. I noticed some vacancy and I also noticed that our streets could be cleaner. But I also saw vibrancy, hard fought, hard to get and harder to keep vibrancy.

The dogs stuck their heads out the window to check it out and soak it in. It felt good and it’s something we should cherish and work together to keep.

The challenges are not unique, but the opportunities are very unique. Consider me grateful. There’s something cool about never being done. It allows all of us to be part of an ongoing story.