Building Strong Communities

Kate Porsche, our Urban Renewal Manager, stopped by my office earlier today and could not find a graceful way to avoid one of my monologues about economic and community development. I have a number of pet theories about this subject; and, apparently, my need to express them wasn’t satisfied by an audience of one.

I have believed for a long time that the best development strategy for a city is to make the community a great place to live. Communities that are always looking to improve themselves do better than those that are committed to maintaining the status quo. City government plays an important role in looking for ways to improve, but the key to success is partnership. Those cities that learn to work through their differences constructively devote their energy to accomplishments rather than to destructive personal fights and vendettas.

I am not attracted to one-size-fits-all development plans or theories that claim to be “the” way to do economic development. Many of these ideas are useful and may be broadly applicable; however, the fact that someone has enjoyed success with a tourism strategy, an industrial park, a business incubator, incentive programs, or small business assistance does not necessarily mean the experience can be replicated everywhere else. Every community has its unique blend of assets and liabilities that should be the first consideration when developing a plan for the future.

The economic development industry is a highly competitive place where communities can get drawn into expensive investments without any guarantee of a reasonable return. A few years ago, a company running call centers approached desperate rural communities and offered to locate there if the community would forego property taxes and give them the land and building they needed, plus a cash incentive. Remarkably, at least two Oregon communities agreed to this deal only to watch the call center leave after a few years to locate in the developing world. The company did not even have the grace to give back the property it was given.

Expensive marketing efforts can also take large sums of money without delivering results. I know of a number of communities who would send representatives to trade shows in distant places or put ads in national newspapers to no effect. Imagining that a well-placed ad will attract a major employer is a little like planning to get rich by purchasing a lottery ticket. Anything can happen, but the odds are not very good.

Albany has, in my opinion, taken a good approach to these issues over the years. The community has focused on investing locally through tools like urban renewal, while insuring that there is available land and infrastructure for new industry. The Small Business Development Center at Linn-Benton Community College is also an important resource, and the partnerships among local governments and the private sector have led to some notable successes. Recent discussions with Corvallis and Benton County and good relations with Linn County, Millersburg, and Lebanon offer promise for more regional cooperation. Stronger, sustainable, more prosperous communities will be the result of effective collaboration and continuing efforts to make things better.

Working for the Common Good

The fireworks on the 4th of July this year will remind me of how fortunate I have been during a long career working as a public servant.  We are celebrating and honoring the creation of an ideal that survives only by virtue of countless sacrifices and hard effort over the past 233 years.  Much of that effort is carried on today by people who work for government.

 

We sometimes forget that our military forces are public employees, just as most of our fire fighters, police officers, and other people who routinely risk their lives for others and work for some level of government.  I think most people who choose government service do so because they believe they can earn a living wage while doing meaningful work.  I know that’s why I chose city management after working in the private sector for about ten years.  I have friends with comparable education who have made much more money in business, but I have no regrets about the choice I made.

 

At the same time, I do not find government work to be any more or less noble than employment in manufacturing, retail, or other private business.  Anyone who works hard at honest labor is engaged in an important enterprise.  My family’s income is dependent on people who work in the private sector.  I’ve never liked the notion that one profession or occupation is somehow more worthy of admiration than another.  I’ve even learned to stop telling lawyer jokes, other than an occasional jab at the City Attorney.

 

The idea that there is some inherent distinction between people who work for government and those who don’t, doesn’t make much sense to me.  I have heard the term “double-dipper” used to describe people who retire from one government job and then go on to work in another.  My father fit that description.  He retired after more than 20 years as a U.S. Navy officer before going to work as a parole and probation officer for the state of Oregon.  During his Navy career, he served in two wars and earned distinction as a brave and capable officer.  My father gave no less to the demanding job of supervising parolees and those on probation in his second career.  He earned a generally comfortable income throughout his adult life, but our family lived in modest homes, rarely took vacations, and drove Buicks or other equally unassuming cars.  My uncle who worked on an assembly line at a GM subsidiary in Ohio made more than my father ever earned in public service.

 

We are having another big family gathering this 4th of July where we will be able to show off our newest grandson, Porter Owen Hare, who was born June 29.  I don’t know where Porter will choose to work when he becomes an adult, but my hope for him is that he will find a career that has been as rewarding as mine.  His ancestors and relatives have farmed, built dams, served in the military, worked in factories, constructed buildings, and done missionary work.  Whatever Porter chooses, he has some good examples to follow.