Pre-Election Thoughts

One day, I hope the arena will be safer. We will all benefit.

In my fantasy world, election cycles would be uplifting events in which we debate issues, weigh competing visions and cast ballots for candidates that we admire.

Sadly, the reality often doesn’t quite live up to the fantasy.

Our national scene is a toxic cesspool in which billions of dollars are spent to convince a very thin slice of undecided voters to turnout for candidates who almost always leave us scratching our heads and asking the question: “is this really the best we can do?”

It has been that way for a long time now. But there was a time when local politics was an exception. There was a time when local candidates ran on the merits of their ideas and their civic and career track records.

Sadly, those days are in the rear view mirror. Too often, local contests become mud-slinging exercises instead of a debate over vision, voting records and performance.

I hope someday that we can return to a more civil discourse and create an atmosphere that may attract our best and brightest because as we have noted on many occasions— leadership is important. And local leadership is especially important because city government touches so many aspects of our lives.

When I moved to Delray Beach in the 80s, our politics were very reminiscent of today. If the past is prologue, then we can look forward to a golden age in Delray because the strife of the 80s was followed by the 90s “Decade of Excellence.”

By that, I mean that the turnover we saw in the 1980s in the city manager’s office and staff ranks was followed by a long run of stability and progress.

But there was a difference back then—citizens as a whole stood up and said “no more.” No more infighting. No more intrigue. No more factions. No more nonsense.

Today, we seem to tolerate division. It’s not healthy or productive—citizens get lost in the muck.

Back in the 90s, our leaders heard the call and they stepped up and made things happen.

A series of solid candidates took a risk and entered the arena. They promised and delivered on a wide range of policy proposals that surfaced during visioning exercises held in the 80s and again in the early 2000s.

The benefits of those community driven efforts gave us today’s Delray Beach.

We are far from perfect and far from a finished product (city building is never done) but we have a lot to be proud of: a rocking downtown, historic districts, cultural facilities, parking infrastructure, a tennis stadium, public art, a land trust, a healthy beach and other amenities. These accomplishments and more are a direct result of local leadership that enabled city staff to execute on the community’s dreams and aspirations.

It’s not a difficult formula.

Ask the community to share their aspirations, prioritize and budget for those ideas so they can come to life, task the staff with getting it done, hold them accountable and get out of the way. This isn’t exactly nuclear fusion my friends.

But yet, from my vantage point, we begin 2021 with a lot of challenges to address.

Our politics have grown ever more toxic and vastly more personal over the years.

This poisonous “culture” doesn’t serve our community. Problems go unsolved, opportunities vanish and over time the sense of community we treasure gets eroded.

As a longtime observer and one time participant in all things Delray, I can state with certainty that culture is the killer app. If you have a great culture there are no limits to what you can achieve and no problem that you cannot solve or at least improve greatly. But if you lack a healthy culture—well let’s just say you’ll experience symptoms like lawsuits, investigations, rampant turnover and an inability to figure what do to with your sea grapes. (Sea grapes, for goodness sakes!)

There is so much for us to do in Delray—a partial list includes:

-Congress Avenue

-North Federal Highway

-The Old School Square Park

-Infrastructure

-Getting to work on the issues raised by The Set Implementation Plan

–Creating opportunities for our children

–Helping businesses and families recover from the Covid pandemic.

And the list goes on and on.

We have so much to build on—thanks to the hard work of generations of stakeholders— but whether we thrive or slide depends a lot on the men and women who bravely step into the arena and run for public office.

I have a long list of traits that I look for in candidates but ultimately my choice is limited to those who decide to run and qualify for the ballot. There’s an old political saying—don’t judge me against the almighty, judge me against the alternative and that is true.

So what am I looking for in the March 2021 election?

Initiative—does the candidate have ideas? Are they viable and interesting?

Kindness—can they get along well with others or will they polarize and divide?

Work ethic—will they show up and do their homework? P.S. Someone can be a hard worker but if they work hard at undermining people and good ideas they’ve lost me. I want to see candidates who will roll up their sleeves, get out in the community and make something good happen.

An open mind—do they automatically vote no or yes? Are they glued to the hip to one group or another elected official or are they independent and able to make decisions for the long term good of the city?

Consequently, I will not support candidates who are civic bullies or who are backed by civic bullies. I won’t support people who consider only the impacts not the benefits of projects, events, ideas or the like. It’s easy to say no to everything but yes opens the door to possibility.

I’m also looking for courage.

It’s easy to bend to the noisy mob but I want someone willing to risk it all to do what’s right for our town.

Sometimes the loud voices are right and sometimes they’re wrong. Also, sometimes the noisiest citizens aren’t representative of the will of the community. It’s not about counting heads at a commission meeting—there are plenty of people who can’t come to meetings and sit for hours waiting for an item.

Those folks—and they are the overwhelming majority–rely on their elected representatives to do the right thing—not just count noses at a meeting held during working hours which might exclude many who would love to be there but have to work or have child obligations.

 

After the last few years of lawsuits, dizzying turnover, longtime employees dragged through the mud and of being the punchline to jokes, I’m looking for kindness, empathy and an entrepreneurial spirit.

The stakes are huge my friends. We have a lot or repair work to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Leaders Deliver Happiness

Tony Hsieh’s philosophy was summed up in the book “Delivering Happiness.” Zappos’ legendary customer service made Zappos a $1.2 billion company.

There was shocking news over the Thanksgiving weekend for those of us who are fans of great entrepreneurs.

Tony Hsieh, (pronounced shay) the visionary founder of Zappos and the driving force behind The Downtown Project in Las Vegas, was dead at the young age of 46. Mr. Hsieh succumbed to injuries suffered in a house fire.

Zappos was an early e-commerce success story selling shoes by the truckloads until Amazon came along and scooped up the company for $1.2 billion in 2009.

Hsieh took his fortune and wrote one of the best business books ever “Delivering Happiness” which preached the Zappos philosophy of exceptional customer service. His book and business model influenced scores of entrepreneurs then he pivoted to Las Vegas where he bought a slew of real estate in the old moribund downtown and set about trying to transform the place.

I’ve been following those efforts for years and while the results have met with mixed reviews I deeply admired his vision and audacity.

Transformation is a risky venture. Efforts often fall short but without these special people willing to take risks and buck conventional wisdom change won’t happen.

Within reason, we ought to be encouraging and where possible helping these pioneers who see potential where others see blight.

Hsieh took a boring category (shoes) and created a culture that revolutionized customer service and how to buy a product.

When it came to downtown revitalization, he spent his money and time trying to lure talent and enterprise to a part of Las Vegas long ago written off.  The Downtown Project is a $350 million investment: $200 million for real estate, $50 million for tech startups, $50 million for small businesses and $50 million for education, arts and culture.

Noted urban journalist Aaron Renn was a fan of the ambitious effort.

“While I had some critiques of the downtown project, his vision to remake the unbelievably bleak downtown Las Vegas into a hub of creativity was audacity on steroids,” Renn wrote.  “ Again, most cities could only dream of having someone with that kind of vision and willingness to attempt the impossible.”

Those “someone’s” are developer/entrepreneurs and I think we make a big mistake when we paint with a broad brush and write them all off as rapacious enemies we must instinctively fight.

As has been noted many times in this space, there are good developers and there are bad ones. We benefit when we can distinguish between the two.

Good developers transform communities. They create places and jobs and they generate vibrancy while growing the tax base.

If we engage them early, we can shape development and make sure projects respect the style and aesthetics of the community. It can be done. But only if we elevate the conversation and work with people not on them.

 

Attracting good developers to your city is critical of you want to succeed. Avoiding bad ones is equally important.

As for Hsieh, his model called for investing in tech companies in exchange for their promise to relocate to Las Vegas.

He also recruited restaurants, coffee shops and other cool businesses to downtown Las Vegas so that the tech workers who moved there would enjoy a good quality of life.

I thought his approach was fascinating because it tried to be holistic.

He didn’t just build, lease to anyone who showed up and then abandon the place. He curated and stayed around.

He took a long term view and did a huge amount of marketing to promote the vision. He was an evangelist for an old part of Vegas that had been written off as the focus shifted to The Strip.

In more than 30 years of watching local development trends I’ve seen a wide range of development philosophies.

There were those who settled in and did multiple projects while making it a point to give back to the community through service and philanthropy and there were those who acted like strip miners extracting value with little regard to giving back. We make a mistake if we conflate the two types. The former is what you want to attract and nurture, the latter is what you want to avoid.

It’s easy to distinguish who’s who.

Tony Hsieh was the kind of investor you want to attract. Losing him at a young age is tragic.

But he sets an example for those of us who care about our local communities and economies.

There is an opportunity to find and or encourage developers to act as curators to bring desirable uses to our cities.

There is also an opportunity to elevate the conversation around development. The current discourse doesn’t serve anyone and will chase away the visionaries we need to keep our cities vibrant and healthy.

 

Notes: 

Delray Beach lost two community leaders in recent days who will be long remembered for their contributions.

Nadine Hart was a long time community leader, educator and former chair of the TED Center, a local business incubator. She was a guiding light for generations of Delray residents. She was also known for having mentored hundreds of young women in Delray.  She will be greatly missed.

John Ingles was a legendary local tennis coach who quietly added immense value to Delray’s  tennis community. “Jingles” as he was affectionately known, was a kind man and a trusted advisor for anyone interested in learning about tennis’ potential in Delray. Rest In Peace my friend.

On a happier note, congratulations to Jeffrey Costello who left for the U.S. Marine Corps over the weekend. Jeffrey grew up next store to us in Delray Lakes and has always been a great young man. He was in Junior ROTC at Atlantic High School and has been focused on a military career for quite some time. He’s the pride of our neighborhood and we will be praying for his safety and success.

 

 

Go Celsius! From Humble Beginnings….

The line-up.

Wall Street is giddy over a local stock that has been on a tear of late.

Celsius, born in Delray and based in Boca, is a beverage company that is delighting consumers, investors and those of us who love a good story of a small company slaying the giants.

When Celsius (CELH on Nasdaq) released record results last week, the stock soared continuing a run up in price that has caught the attention of CNBC’s Jim Cramer of “Mad Money” fame and lucky investors who remembered a time, not too long ago, when the stock traded under a dollar Over the Counter.

While the results reported were stupendous, nearly $37 million for the quarter an 80 percent increase over last year’s results, Celsius is far from an overnight success story. The team, both past and present, has been hard at work building a brand for more than a decade.

Celsius is a tale of belief, commitment, hard work, love, passion, sweat, a few tears and a whole lot of investment— especially from a local entrepreneurial legend who discovered the drink while dining on Atlantic Avenue.

I would venture to say that if you look closely at most successful brands you will find a familiar tale of perseverance. Each company is unique in their journey but there are commonalities including a bedrock belief that you have something special.

In Celsius’ case, there was a unique selling proposition. The energy drink burned calories—up to 100 per can. The claim was clinically proven by more than a half dozen university studies.

That’s pretty unique.

But the beverage business is brutal and capital intensive. The competition includes huge conglomerates and hundreds if not thousands of upstarts all vying for our taste buds.

But my friend and business partner Carl DeSantis knows a little something about picking winners.

He built Rexall Sundown into the world’s largest vitamin company launching hit product after hit product from its headquarters in Boca.

After selling the company for $1.8 billion in 2000 he went back into business running a vast array of enterprises ranging from hotels and restaurants to clothing companies and an up and coming hot sauce company called Tabanero. Keep your eye on Tabanero; friends it’s the next big hit.

My friend Carl has what you might call an eye for what will work and what won’t. He believed in Celsius and never wavered in his conviction that the  healthy energy drink, with the clean label (no sugar, low sodium, vitamin infused and delicious) would be a winner. It just took a while.

Successful brands are built  brick by brick, sometimes you take two steps forward and three back but you keep going because you believe and failure is not an option.

Carl recruited me to be Celsius’ COO in 2008. I was a year removed from being mayor of Delray and while I knew of Carl, I didn’t know him personally. But he saw something in me and we became friendly.

Carl is kind, generous, gentle and sensitive. There’s also more than a bit of magic in his personality.

He has a sixth sense about products, people and places. His instincts tend to prove true. So all of us who work with Carl listen closely when he has a feeling about something.

I’ve seen him predict hurricanes,  whether businesses will work and he even assured me I would survive COVID.

Over the years, Celsius hit more than its fair share of rough patches. As I’ve noted, the beverage business is brutal. Even Coca Cola failed when it released a calorie burner beverage a few years back.

But when you deploy a great team behind a great product you will break through–eventually.

Celsius has been blessed with a tremendous array of sales, marketing, management and board talent currently led by CEO John Fieldly who is a terrific young leader. He had a terrific predecessor in a gentleman named Gerry David.

Gerry and I sit on the board of Hyperponic, a promising startup which provides technology to the cannabis industry. Keep an eye on that company too. We are doing some groundbreaking work in Michigan and Oklahoma.

Still, the business world is a tough place.

Entrepreneurship can be thrilling and terrifying sometimes all in the same day.

All of us associated with Celsius have enjoyed watching this company grow.

There’s a thrill when you walk into Publix and see an end cap. It’s fun to see someone at the gym drink a Celsius and yes it’s very cool to see a company you care about listed on a major league stock exchange and sold at 74,000 stores domestically and across the world.

Those of us who know the story know that none of this would have been possible without Carl’s foresight and fortitude; without his good natured belief in a little beverage brand that occupied a small warehouse space on Fourth Avenue near the tracks in downtown Delray.

Back then, we were excited to see the cans on the shelf at the local gas station. Today, we have a market value of over $2.3 billion and are loved by thousands of consumers who enjoy a healthy energy drink with no corn syrup, preservatives or aspartame.

The Celsius story story is truly inspiring. It’s about the power of belief, commitment, vision and hard work. That’s what it takes to succeed in any endeavor.

Thanks Carl. Your belief in this amazing company has touched a lot of lives.

We can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

 

 

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.

Planning Is Great; Action Is Better

Don’t let your plans gather dust. If you do, you burn public trust which is the most valuable currency.

 

It happened a long time ago, so I guess it’s safe to tell the story.

It was the early 2000s and Delray Beach was still reeling from a bruising battle over Worthing Place—the apartment building that also houses Park Tavern and Salt 7.
The city commission agreed to a Downtown Master Plan process and we got some funding from the MacArthur Foundation to hire a slew of planning and design consultants.
A large cross section of the community turned out for meetings that surfaced a bunch of cool ideas.
It was a true community building experience.
We felt  a lot of civic pride, it was exciting and we felt as if we could do anything we set our minds too. It was a special time.
Then the plan was sent to the commission for adoption with a list of priority projects.
But despite the enthusiasm and effort, the commission never adopted the plan. They ignored years of advocacy from residents pleading for the plan to be adopted. And nothing happened.

The gateway wasn’t built. None of the downtown garages were ever built, and we never got Old School Square Park.
All of the innovative policy ideas that enabled restaurants to thrive, the grid system to flow and events to take root vanished along with our hopes.
Northwest/Southwest Fifth Avenue which we had hoped would include public art, small businesses and interesting streetscapes never happened.
Downtown housing, which we had wanted so that we could add vibrancy and support for local businesses didn’t happen either. The plan was placed on a shelf where it gathered dust.
And all of the participants who gave their time and energy to our town went back home disappointed. Some moved away. Many never participated in anything “civic” related ever again.
Instead, we watched neighboring towns flower and attract investment and entrepreneurial energy.

Eventually, our talented staff began to send their resumes out hoping to catch on in a place where they could make something happen and feel that their careers were meaningful.

Property values stagnated. The momentum we started to feel in the late 80s and 90s faded away like so many other things we hoped to do.

At this point in the story, I can share that all of this is bunk.
The plan was not only adopted it was largely implemented in a blizzard of civic projects and investment that helped our town blossom.
Oh some people didn’t like what happened. One guy referred to our vibrant downtown as a “concrete jungle.”  I’m not sure what he was referring to, it is a downtown of course. We have concrete. We also have open space, art, culture, sports,
music.  restaurants and nightlife that cities all over the country envy.

But hey, you can’t please them all.
The downtown master plan was the first to expand the boundaries of our downtown from the ocean to I-95, an important symbolic step.
But it wasn’t just symbolism.
We added an attractive “gateway” feature just East of 95 because the citizens who participated in the process felt it was important to send the world a message. When you exited the Interstate at Atlantic Avenue you were entering a special place. We wanted people to know it.
Some criticized the art work and lighting that decorated our gateway. It was too expensive they said. They always say that by the way. And they are always wrong.
My friends cities work when you invest in them.
You get a return on that investment in the form of increased property values and civic pride. If you fail to invest, you fail your citizens in ways that you can measure and in ways that you cannot.
Atlantic Grove got built—“they” said it couldn’t be done. Nobody would build market rate housing in “that neighborhood.”
Once again, they were wrong. The market rate and the affordable housing sold.
So did the commercial portion of the project and for the first time in a long time—maybe ever—we saw people from all parts of Delray mingling at places like Ziree, a wonderful Thai restaurant.
The streetscape that made East Atlantic so trendy was extended all the way out to 95, a new library was built where it was needed —again despite some people coming up to the microphone and saying you can’t put the library “out there” because people will be afraid to go. Once again they were wrong. Lots of people use the library.

There were other plans that were implemented too.
The southwest plan called for infrastructure  upgrades that were funded and done. The plan called for an expansion of The Village Academy and that was done too.

The parks plan added a splash park named after our first female mayor Catherine Strong, becoming the first park in the long neglected Southwest neighborhood.

A community land trust was formed, I think it was the first in the county, and they built some adorable homes for first time buyers.
We had an independent CRA back then, and by the way it was independent in name only because it worked collaboratively with the City Commission. The agency won a ton of awards and was recognized as one of the very best in the state before a mayor came along a few years back and used it as a punching bag.
That was shameful. Truly was.

How smart is it to take your best economic development tool and put cheese in the engine? Answer: not very.
Oh well, thankfully so much got done before the dysfunction set in.
Which is a good segue I suppose.
Last week, after four years of trying, a neighborhood calling itself “The Set” finally got their plan on the Commission agenda thanks to Vice Mayor Ryan Boylston. The neighborhood, which used to be called the southwest and northwest sections of the city, came together to work on  “The Set Transformation Plan.”

Of course, you might not know that because when it hit the agenda the word “Set” was removed. Kind of like when the Egyptians removed the name Moses from their history books when they discovered he was Jewish.
It struck me as odd, petty, political, small and disrespectful.
It struck others that way too.
Anyway, it’s a good plan. I’ve read a bunch over the years and this is solid. But it needs to be adopted, funded and implemented. Otherwise, it’s just platitudes on paper.
Unfortunately last week, after four years and after many a campaign promise to get moving, the adoption of the plan was postponed so it can be workshopped.
Interesting.
The decision or lack thereof, smells.
It just does. And it smells worse considering where we are as a nation right now wrestling with issues of equity and racism.
There are some players tied to the plan who are controversial.
So what?
One of the guys spews a lot on social media as is his right. He gets some things right and he is way way way off on other things. For example, he’s wrong when he says nothing has ever been accomplished by the city or CRA in or for his community. A whole lot has been done. And nobody has ever said that things were finished.

But it’s really not about him or his friends. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
Is the plan worthy? Is it supported by the neighborhood it aspires to help? Is it good for Delray?
If the answer is yes, it ought to be adopted and put into action not put on a shelf.
If the answer is no, well then we need another plan and leadership ought to make that happen. But they better be able to explain why the plan falls short. And the answer can’t be because a few people who run their mouths on Facebook are behind it.
We are at an inflection point in this City and this country.
I don’t watch city meetings but my phone sure blew up when the plan’s adoption was postponed.
I’m not a bellwether. I’m just a middle aged white guy sitting at home watching Netflix riding out the pandemic.
But I’m feeling something and it ain’t COVID. People want change. They want progress. They want to be heard and respected. Those are not unreasonable demands.
Many are not feeling like they are being heard.
That’s not healthy.
It’s time for the plan to be adopted, funded and implemented.
It’s past time really.
As Sam Cooke sang, “a change is gonna come.”
Even in sleepy ole Delray.

Bricks & Mortar

Bricks and mortar is changing retail , but retail is not dying.

We’ve seen the headlines.

Macy’s closing stores.

Bed, Bath and Beyond closing stores.

Forever 21 going bankrupt (but being revamped).

It’s a “retail apocalypse” screams the headlines caused by Amazon and the big bad world of e-commerce.

Yes, the numbers look tough for brick and mortar retailers. More than 9,000 stores closed in 2019 which was more than 2018 and more than 2017—all record years.

Ugh…

But there’s a deeper story here.

My eyes were opened recently after reading a report by University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee. And as we plan our local cities and lament the lack of retail in places such as downtown Delray and Boca Raton we need to pay attention to societal trends and adjust our expectations and maybe our codes accordingly.

First, there is no doubt that e-commerce is growing by leaps and bounds. Twenty years ago, about $5 billion worth of goods were purchased each quarter online. Today, that number is about $155 billion per quarter.

But while that’s an impressive number it still represents only 11 percent of the entire retail sales total.

So almost 90 percent of goods are still purchased in a brick and mortar store and of that percentage, more than 70 percent of retail spending in America is in categories that are fairly well insulated from the internet due to the nature of the product or because of laws governing distribution.

These categories include cars, gas, food, beverage, drugs, home improvement and garden supplies.

So what’s going on out there?
Why is it so difficult for physical retailers to make it in the 2020s?

Goolsbee puts forth three societal trends as causes.

The rise of Big Box Stores—super centers and warehouse stores such as Costco actually ring up more sales than Amazon.

Income Inequality—as the middle class has been hollowed out, stores that cater to them have suffered or died. Retailers aiming at the high and low end of the income scale have found some success. So “dollar” stores have grown along with some high end designer retailers while retailers serving the once vast middle class— J.C. Penney and Sears have suffered.

Services Have Grown, Things Have Not—According to Goolsbee, with every passing decade Americans have spent less of their income on things and more on services and experiences. We are spending more on our health, more on restaurants, education, entertainment and business services than we used to and less on products sold in stores.

Here’s a cool stat: In 1920, Americans spent 38 percent of their income on food and 17 percent on clothing—almost all through traditional stores. Today, 10 percent of our income is spent on food and clothing eats up just 2.4 percent of our incomes.

So how does this affect our local communities?

Well, it might explain why Atlantic Avenue has become more of a food and entertainment destination than a traditional downtown where people go to shop for things like clothing and decorations.

The issue becomes more acute when property values sky rocket alongside rents. It’s hard for traditional retailers to pay high rents per square foot, especially since we still have a seasonal economy.

While we all (well some of us) love mixed-use development, it’s challenging to make retail work due to economic and societal trends. Of course, mixed-used does not have to be exclusively housing and retail, it can also include food and beverage, co-working, an educational use or something in the health or fitness space.

I have some very smart friends who have succeeded in real estate and they are having a hard time imagining what will happen to all the retail space we have built in Boca, Delray and Boynton Beach.

We definitely have a need for more housing, especially attainable housing and some of the overbuilt retail space can surely be used to add to our stock.

But that’s going to require some deft planning and a whole lot of political courage/hard work to convince residents who already live here why we need to make room for more people. P.S. if we do want our existing mom and pop retailers and family owned eateries to survive, density cannot be a dirty word. Let’s repeat: density done right is not a dirty word.

There was a time in Delray when density was encouraged in our codes and plans . And guess what?

It brought the town back to life.

Al Gore would call that an inconvenient truth, candidates running for local office would sooner break out in hives than embrace the concept but density designed properly and used strategically can do much to support the mom and pops and independent merchants we say we cherish. It’s also better for the environment than traffic-inducing sprawl like development.

Events too play a role too, by bringing people to town where they might stop and shop or come back to check out stores they might see while attending an arts show or festival.

As the son of an independent pharmacist, I have a deep appreciation for how hard it is to make it in retail and how important good retail is to a vibrant and vital central business district.

As we sift through the barrage of campaign attack ads already hitting our mailboxes and inboxes, it would be useful to see if any candidate offers ideas on how to grow the local economy in a high rent, seasonal environment with tons of competition from nearby cities, without an Office of Economic Development (the two member team resigned and have not been replaced) in a changing world being disrupted by technology and things we can never anticipate such as coronavirus.

It’s not an easy challenge, but real leaders…effective leaders…. ask the questions that matter and focus their communities on issues of substance. Or we can continue to accept vapid statements saying we are against crime, for good schools and against development.

Give me substance over tired canards.

It’s time.

We live in changing and complicated times. We need ideas and leadership.

The Roads Not Taken

Neal Peirce

Neal Peirce died over the holidays and we shouldn’t let his passing go without a look back at his life and his influence.

Mr. Peirce was a journalist and researcher who studied cities, regions and states—not exactly a sexy beat but an important one because communities change or stagnate on the local level far from the gaze of Cable TV pundits and national media.

As a result, if you were a policymaker in the 80s, 90s and 2000s with a burning desire to make your time in  office count, you were most likely aware of Mr. Peirce and influenced by his work.

As an elected official in Delray Beach from 2000-07, I read every word he wrote, subscribed to his column and poured over his reports seeking ideas, insights and wisdom.

He was a hero of mine. And he inspired many other mayors I go to know through the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Florida League of Cities.

In addition to a syndicated column, Mr. Peirce was a partner in a firm called Citistates.

Cities, states and regions would hire the firm to study their communities and make recommendations on how to solve problems or take advantage of opportunities, some of them hidden.

About 20 years ago, business, non-profit and civic leaders in South Florida engaged Citistates in a unique effort that also included major regional newspapers which agreed to publish Mr. Peirce’s “think” pieces so that stakeholders could be educated on some of the opportunities and challenges we faced.

When Mr. Peirce passed during the holidays, I went back and read a few of the old newspaper columns including a wonderful piece on U.S. 1 that included recommendations to turn the auto-oriented highway into more of a neighborhood.

Peirce envisioned U.S. 1 becoming a new “Main Street” linking South Florida from the Treasure Coast to South Dade. He recommended that the Florida Department of Transportation reclassify U.S. 1 as a “local access road”, not a thoroughfare for moving traffic as a rapidly as possible.

“High speed traffic is the job of I-95 and other such arterials,” he wrote.

And he was right.

Delray took that advice and I was a policymaker at the time the decision was made to narrow Federal Highway. It was not an easy or obvious decision and the opposition to the plan was formidable—as were the proponents who wanted to make the road safer (there was a high incidence of accidents) and more picturesque. They argued that it made no sense to have a high speed freeway bisecting a pedestrian oriented downtown. We studied the issue for a year, studying speeds, looking at accident history and traffic volume before ultimately deciding to proceed with the project.

In my mind, it turned U.S. 1 in Delray from a highway into a neighborhood and gave the area a host of economic and placemaking opportunities.

Reading Mr. Peirce’s column on U.S. 1 I have no doubt that his thinking had an effect.

Peirce and his partner Curtis Johnson published a series of articles in 2000 in local newspapers on topics ranging from sustainability and traffic to New Urbanism and the difficulties of getting things done in a sprawling region with a vast variety of governments and players to navigate.

If you want to check out the articles that ran in the Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald here’s a link. http://www.floridacdc.org/roundtable/index.html

If you read the pieces, you are struck by their continuing relevance and also by what wasn’t done.

Twenty years have gone by and we still haven’t addressed sprawl, environmental issues and affordable housing.

With Mr. Peirce’s passing, I can’t think of another journalist covering the urban beat that measures up. Governing Magazine had the great Otis White some years back and he did two major pieces on Delray Beach but he left the magazine and now that wonderful publication is going away too.

The newspapers that partnered with key non-profits to produce the Citistates project are a shell of their former selves. As a result, we no longer have a regional or community water cooler; a place to share ideas and create momentum for positive change.

Back in 2000, New Urbanism seemed like a logical solution to traffic, sprawl and environmental degradation and a chance to return some charm to what can be a cookie cutter landscape of bland design.

But in 2020, we see the same tired arguments against New Urban style development despite growing traffic and a lack of affordable housing and walkability. I cringe when I get vapid campaign emails from candidates decrying density in one sentence and vowing to save the environment in the next breath. Folks, sprawl like development is not good for the environment. It creates traffic, uses more water and will never create the amount of housing we need to help teachers, police officers and firefighters be able to live in our communities.

All of this may sound like the work of people like Neal Peirce doesn’t matter. That’s not what I believe.

I think crusading journalists and thinkers like Neil Peirce make a difference.

In 2000, Peirce wrote passionately about highway gridlock and the dangers of sprawl. If only we had listened and acted as a region, but I would argue Delray did listen and did act and that we need to continue with smart growth and community engagement practices.

Mr. Peirce had a prescription to address sprawl: utilize planning and community engagement to design a better future. He called for “mega charrettes” to bring the community to the table.

“Consider the 1.8-million-by-2020-population projection (I think he meant additional residents moving in not total population) and debate honestly, openly where the new growth ought to go. Even if a consensus wasn’t reached — and it might not be — the true, region wide issues would be a lot clearer.

 

How can the emerging technologies, starting with neighborhood planning programs, be made available to ordinary citizens, businesses, people interested in new development possibilities and futures? One solution: walk-in urban design centers in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, designed to marry the worlds of professional design and grassroots activism.

 

Ideally, architecture or planning departments from local universities would run these centers. Information on the whole gamut of planning challenges — from single transit stops or suburban neighborhood centers to growth corridors, waterfronts and affordable housing — would be available.

 

Such centers are already open and operating in such varied places as Chattanooga, Birmingham, Little Rock and Portland, Ore., with very favorable reports on their performance. For democratized development in South Florida, they might represent a dramatic breakthrough.”

Alas, it didn’t happen. But it’s not too late. Or is it?

 

 

A Peak Into Our Crystal Ball

Casey Stengel said never make predictions, especially about the future. Sorry, Casey.

Can you believe it’s 2020?

Didn’t it seem like only yesterday when we were sweating Y2K?

Well not only did our computers survive the millennium, they have become ever more ingrained in our lives.

The beginning of a decade is a good time to dream and to take out our imaginary crystal ball.

So here are some predictions and prognostications for the 20s…

Boca Raton:
Boca Raton will continue to flourish driven by the power of FAU and Lynn universities, the growth of the Boca Raton Innovation Campus, the successful execution of the Brightline deal and a refresh of Mizner Park with several new tenants.

Fueled by new investment, the Boca Raton Resort and Club will solidify its place as one of the world’s premier resorts hosting important conferences and attracting titans of industry who will fly into an ever busier  Boca Airport.

Boca’s decade will be marked by its strengths in health care, education and technology. It will become known not only for excellent health care, but also for medical research and education.

It’s “A” rated public schools, excellent parks system, great hospital and corporate base will continue to fuel the city’s growth and success.

Yes, we are very bullish on Boca.

Headwinds: traffic and affordability. Nothing new there. But big challenges nonetheless.
Opportunities: leveraging Brightline and bringing a pedestrian orientation to the downtown. Not easy but worth a try.
Stretch prediction: By 2030 FAU will play in a major bowl game and go deep in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Delray Beach: 

Delray can achieve whatever it wants to—or it can squander the decade. Sounds harsh…maybe. Still, history has taught us that this city works best when it has a North Star and goes after it. But only when it engages the community. There has been no large scale effort to do so since the Downtown Master Plan in the early 2000s. We are long overdue and deeply in need of a unifying vision.

Delray will squander the decade if the focus remains on petty politics and settling personal vendettas and if the grass tops ignore the grassroots.

Opportunities:
Getting something going on North Federal Highway.
Getting something going on Congress Avenue.
Attract private investment to West Atlantic East of 95.
Fix City Hall.
Empower city staff.
Build on the city’s many strengths-vibrancy, a strong brand, events, culture and restaurants.

Fix an aging infrastructure while interest rates are historically low.

Engage citizens.

Build on the city’s tennis heritage to create economic opportunities.

Headwinds and land mines:
There is a pressing need to focus on Delray’s public schools.
The city needs to ramp up economic development which is virtually non-existent.

There is a need to raise the level of discourse on important issues ranging from development and investment to how downtown can survive rising rents and the changing retail environment.

Stretch prediction:
Delray’s culinary scene will get national attention. We have some exceptional culinary talents in the city.
But we need to diversify and add some strong ethnic offerings.
Regardless, the future is not yet written. So if you don’t like what you see, or if you want to see something happen, get involved.

 

The Art & Importance Of Stories

Stories are leadership tools and build community.

“Everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”–Patrick Rothfuss, author

“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” — Sue Monk Kidd, author

“Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.”–Dr. Howard Gardner, professor Harvard University.

 

I really like those three quotes about storytelling.

I think there is a lot of truth in all three.

The story inside our heads does have a lot to do with our identity. I think the same goes for cities. The stories cities tell about themselves create an identity and paint a portrait of that community in our minds.

For example:

Dayton Strong and Boston Strong.

Hershey, PA the “sweetest place on earth.”

And maybe my favorite: Cleveland Rocks which is sure better than ‘the mistake by the lake.’

What stories do we tell about our communities?

Do we tell good stories about Delray Beach and Boca Raton?

It’s important to know those stories because they define us and we do “build ourselves” out of the stories we tell.

As for Sue Monk Kidd’s quote—well it’s very true. And it’s one of the reasons I write this blog which is a small (very small) effort to keep some of the old stories alive. I figure if you live here and really care, you ought to know about some of the special people and events that brought us to the present day.

Newspapers used to fulfill this important mission and our newspaper (Delray Newspaper and Boca Newspaper)  does yeoman’s work with limited resources. But the community water cooler is long gone or maybe it has moved to social media; which can be a very challenging place to try and find the truth. It can however, be a great source of misinformation, half-truths, conspiracy theories and vitriol.

But I use it anyway—to stay in touch with old friends and distant relatives. Oh and to post innumerable photos of my pets and view others pets. I think that’s what Facebook is best for.

But I digress.

This post is about storytelling and the importance of storytelling if you are leader. (See the third quote by Howard Gardner).

There’s a new book out by Paul Smith, a former Procter & Gamble executive, about the 10 types of stories leaders tell and how important they are.

While Smith focuses on business, his list translates to community work.

For reference, here they are:

ONE: Where we came from (our founding story) – Nobody ever quit their job and started a company for a boring reason. Find that reason for your company’s founder and tell that story. It will infect everyone with the same sense of purpose and passion. Same goes for our communities and the key initiatives and projects that make our cities different and distinct. Knowing where you come from is critical.

 

TWO: Why we can’t stay here (a case-for-change story) – Human beings are creatures of habit. Change is an unwelcome visitor. This story provides the rationale for why change is needed and a real human reason to care. Good civic leaders frame the important issues facing their cities and make the case for change.

 

THREE: Where we’re going (a vision story) – A vision is a picture of the future so compelling, people want to go there with you. And the best way to paint that picture is with a story about what that future will look like when you achieve it.

 

FOUR: How we’re going to get there (a strategy story) – Strategy is how you’ll get from where you are now to where you want to be. In other words, strategy is a journey. And what better way to describe a journey than a story? Think about our local journey, how we went from Dull Ray to the most fun city in America is an interesting strategy story.

 

FIVE: What we believe (a corporate-values story) – Values are only words on a piece of paper until they’re tested. This is a story of one of those awkward or uncomfortable moments when one of your company values was put to the test. Cities have values too. What do we stand for? What do we want to be? What do we value?

 

SIX: Who we serve (a customer story) – There’s no substitute for getting out of the office and meeting your customer face-to-face. A great mantra for those in public service. Citizens, businesses and other stakeholders are a city’s customers. City officials need to be visible, accessible and transparent.

 

SEVEN: What we do for our customers (a sales story) – A story about what you did for one of your customers that’s so impressive other people will want to buy what you’re selling as well.

What;s our unique value proposition as a community? If you move here, how will you feel? What will happen? What will you experience?

 

EIGHT: How we’re different from our competitors (a marketing story) – You probably have a list of reasons why your product or service is better than your competition. Well, guess what? Nobody remembers your list. But they will remember the story you tell them that shows them those differences as they play out in a story. A great economic development philosophy. What makes Boca and Delray different than West Palm, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano and Lake Worth Beach?

 

 

NINE: Why I lead the way I do (a leadership-philosophy story) – No series of buzzwords on a piece of paper could ever articulate the subtle, human, and complex nature of your personal leadership philosophy. If you want people to understand how to expect you to lead, you need to tell them a story about what shaped the leader you’ve become.

 

TEN: Why you should want to work here (a recruiting story) – Every company claims they offer competitive pay and benefits, challenging work, and great advancement opportunities. If you really want to attract the best talent, you need real stories about why it’s so awesome to work there.

Good advice for Delray’s next City Manager.

 

 

Wanted: A Great Manager Who Can Lead

“Managers watch over our numbers, our time and our results. Leaders watch over us.” Simon Sinek

 

Delray Beach finds itself in the market for a city manager these days.

Again.

They may not have to look too far, as City Commissioner Ryan Boylston has suggested lifting the “acting” tag in front of Neal DeJesus’ name and giving him the permanent position.

We may see where that idea goes this week. Stay tuned.

But this blog isn’t about that idea and it’s not about the continuing instability at City Hall although that should concern everyone who cares about Delray Beach. Instability is costly; in many many ways.

But rather than dig into that subject, this post is about what we should be looking for in our next City Manager. Get that piece right and a lot of other pieces fall into place.

First, let’s just outline some givens: having a stand out city manager in a council manager system is critical.

The CM is the government equivalent of a CEO and sets the tone for the entire organization.

A good CM can attract and motivate talented people. And once you get the people equation right anything is possible.

I think the next city manager will need to succeed in three distinct worlds: the political, the external and the internal.

Let’s look at all three:

Ideally, you want an apolitical City Manager who will leave the policy making to the elected officials, as the charter mandates. The job is to implement commission policy, goals and community visions and to do so efficiently and cost effectively.

While this may seem basic, in the real world it can be complicated. Delray is a complicated city and the job of City Manager is a hard one.

While policy makers are responsible for coming up with coherent and innovative policy and goals, the manager does have a role as a coordinator of that policy and to encourage the development of goals and visions.

A neighboring community’s city manager once told me this.

“Look at me as your driver. You tell me where you want to go and give me the resources to get there. If I don’t think I have enough gas, I will tell you before we embark on the trip. Once you give me the destination, hop in the back.  My job is to get you there, on time and within budget. If I crash, run out of gas, drive erratically and get tickets along the way get a new driver. But please let me drive.”

I thought that was a pretty good explanation.

To navigate effectively in the political arena, it’s incumbent on the manager to develop relationships with all elected officials while also understanding the myriad of constituencies in Delray: business community, neighborhoods etc.

City Managers who play favorites, don’t communicate equality with all of their bosses and spend too much time with politicos and gadflies are at risk and won’t survive.

The best defense against politics is performance. Do the job. Do it well and stay in your lane. That’s good advice for both elected officials and senior staff.

As for the external, I think good city managers are accessible (with limits because if you scratch every itch the big stuff doesn’t get done), responsive to citizens and have an ability to build and empower a good team that will make him or her look good.

We leaves us with the internal world.

A great city manager will have both formidable managerial skills and solid leadership credentials. They will be able to hire well, develop talent once they are on board and motivate and inspire. They are team builders who understand the importance of accountability but who score well in the areas of communication and emotional intelligence.

It’s a tough, tough job and this isn’t the easiest town in which to succeed as we have seen. But it’s important that we get someone who can succeed. It’s important that we find and support someone who can be a great CEO.

Of course, nobody has all the skills necessary to succeed. But the great ones know what they don’t know and surround themselves with a capable team.

It’s difficult but it can be done.