Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Local leaders need to wake up

Every organization needs a big hairy project. Organizations without one tend to fracture and drift.

Local governments are a prime example. Their big hairy project used to be managing development and population growth in a narrow, fragile valley. 

Their mission was clear and indisputable, although the means of management were nearly always debated.

Cities in the Sun Valley area had to deal with managing water supplies in the face of growing demand; building sewer treatment plants to handle waste and protect waterways; building professional firefighting and police units; building parks, paths and recreation facilities; increasing workforce housing; improving roads and sidewalks; reviewing and inspecting new buildings; analyzing proposed developments, applying zoning laws and investing in economic development.

Those responsibilities required a lot of time from leaders who set policies and expert city employees who put policies on the ground. Since the growth bubble burst, the cities’ missions have changed dramatically, but the cities themselves have not.

The need for managing population growth and new building and development has very nearly disappeared. The challenges facing local governments today are how to keep businesses in business, how to keep property values from falling any further, how to fill up empty retail spaces and how to breathe life into a largely stagnant economy.

Dealing with the changed reality requires different skill sets from leaders and public employees than the old one, but local governments have yet to acknowledge this. Instead, they have held their breath, seemingly waiting for the old normal to return.

Local leaders need to exhale and recognize the deeply changed economic and government landscape in which all of us will be forced to live for decades to come. Instead of clinging to the past or filling their time engaging in petty personal spats, city and county leaders need to forge a realistic new vision for the area.

That vision needs to embrace vibrant tourism and economic diversification. Its goals need to include filling every commercial building with independent businesses and every hotel room with paying customers. In pursuit of those goals, local governments need to establish a potent partnership with existing businesses.

They need to avoid becoming adversaries of business. They need to avoid frittering away the energies of the public purse and public employees on minor or irrelevant projects while major initiatives go begging or never make it to the drawing board. Otherwise, they risk becoming mere custodians of shrinking towns that won’t need much.

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