Make Community Planning Great Again

The American Planning Association (APA), the organization that employs me as the manager of its Hazards Planning Center, made me proud last week. It took a rare step: It announced its opposition to President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal.

It is not that APA has never taken a position on a budgetary issue before, or never DSC00244spoken for or against new or existing programs or regulatory regimes. In representing nearly 37,000 members of the planning community in the United States, most of whom work as professional planners in local or regional government, APA has a responsibility to promote the best ways in which planning can help create healthy, prosperous, more resilient communities and has long done so. It’s just that seldom has a new administration in the White House produced a budget document that so obviously undercuts that mission. APA would be doing a serious disservice to its members by not speaking up on behalf of their core values, which aim at creating a high quality of life in communities of lasting value. That quest leads APA to embrace diversity, educational quality, environmental protection, and economic opportunity. Making all that happen, of course, is a very complex task and the reason that young planners are now largely emerging from graduate programs with complex skill sets that include the use of geographic information systems, demographic and statistical knowledge, public finance, and, increasingly, awareness of the environmental and hazard reduction needs of the communities they will serve. They understand what their communities need and what makes them prosper.

The Fiscal Year 2018 White House budget proposal, somewhat ironically titled America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, is in essential ways very short-sighted about just what will sustain America’s communities and make them great. Making America great seems in this document to center on a military buildup and resources to pursue illegal immigrants while eliminating resources for planning and community development. The proposal would eliminate funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, the HOME Investment Partnerships program, and the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. It also eliminates the Low-Income Heating Energy Assistance Program, which was created under President Ronald Reagan, as well as the Department of Energy’s weatherization assistance program.

It also eliminates the Appalachian Regional Commission, which supports job training in the very areas where Trump irresponsibly promised to restore mining jobs. There is no doubt that hard-hit areas like West Virginia and eastern Kentucky are in serious need of economic development support. Trump’s promise, however, was hollow and reflected a lack of study of the real issues because environmental regulation, which the budget proposal also targets, is not the primary reason for the loss of mining jobs. The mines of a century ago were dangerous places supported by heavy manual labor, but automation reduced many of those jobs long before environmental protection became a factor. Competition from cheap natural gas, a byproduct of the hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) revolution in that industry, has further weakened the coal industry.

No rollback of clean air or climate programs will change all that. What is clearly needed is a shift in the focus of education and job training programs, and in the focus of economic development, to move the entire region in new directions. To come to terms with the complexity of the region’s socioeconomic challenges, I would suggest that the President read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which deals compassionately but firmly with the deterioration of the social fabric in Appalachian communities. If anything, it will take a beefed up Appalachian Regional Commission and similar efforts to help turn things around for these folks who placed so much faith in Trump’s largely empty promises.

The March 9 issue of USA Today carried a poignant example of the realities that must be faced in producing economic opportunity in the region. The headline story, “West Virginia Won’t Forget,” highlights the problem of uncompleted highways in an area where a lack of modern transportation access impedes growth, focusing specifically on McDowell County, one of the nation’s most impoverished areas. It is hard for outsiders to grasp the realities. In the Midwest, if one route is closed, there are often parallel routes crossing largely flat or rolling land that maintain access between communities. In much of West Virginia, narrow mountain passes pose serious obstacles when roads no longer meet modern needs. It is the difference between the life and death of struggling communities, with those left behind often mired in desperate poverty. When I see a budget and programs from any White House that address these questions, I will know that someone wants to make Appalachia great again.

I say that in the context of a much larger question that also seems to drive much of the Trump budget. You must read the budget blueprint in its entirety, with an eye to questions of community and coastal resilience and climate change, to absorb fully the fact that the Trump administration is at war with any efforts to recognize the realities of climate change or facilitate climate change adaptation. The proposal zeroes out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s coastal mapping and resilience grant programs. I will grant in full disclosure that APA, in partnership with the Association of State Floodplain Managers, is the recipient of a Regional Coastal Resilience Grant. For good reason: Our three-year project works with pilot communities in Georgia and Ohio to test and implement means of incorporating the best climate science into planning for local capital improvements. Communities invest billions of dollars yearly in transportation and environmental infrastructure and related improvements, and in coastal areas, ensuring that those investments account for resilience in the face of future climate conditions will save far more money for this nation than the $705,00 investment (plus a 50% match from ASFPM and APA) that NOAA is making in the project. The problem is that you have to respect the voluminous climatological science that has demonstrated that the climate is changing and that a serious long-term problem exists. And it is not just the focus of our singular project that matters. Today’s Chicago Tribune contains an Associated Press article about the race by scientists to halt the death of coral reefs due to ocean warming. The article notes that the world has lost half of its coral reefs in the last 30 years and that those reefs produce some of the oxygen we breathe.

The damage on climate change, however, does not stop with the NOAA budget. The Trump budget also zeroes out U.S. contributions to international programs to address climate change and undermines existing U.S. commitments to international climate agreements.

There is also a failure to take seriously the role of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which would suffer a 31% budget reduction and the loss of 3,200 jobs. Among the programs to be axed is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, ostensibly on grounds that, like the Chesapeake Bay programs, it is a regional and not a national priority and therefore undeserving of federal support. That ignores the fact that four of the five lakes are international waters shared with Canada. It also ignores the history of the agency and its 1970 creation under President Richard Nixon, largely as a result of the serious water pollution problems experienced at the time.

IMG_0256Younger readers may not even be aware of some of this. But I grew up before the EPA existed; I was a college student environmental activist when this came about. When I was in junior high school several years earlier, our class took a field trip aboard the Good Time cruise, which escorted people down the Cuyahoga River to the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland. The river was such an unspeakable industrial cesspool that one classmate asked the tour guide what would happen if someone fell overboard into the river. Matter-of-factly, the guide responded, “They would probably get pneumonia and die.” We have come a long way, and for those of us who understand what a difference the EPA has made, there is no turning back. I am sure that White House staffers would say that is not the point, but to me it is.

I am sure that, as with other agencies, one can find duplicative programs to eliminate, and ways to tweak the budget for greater efficiencies. That should be a goal of any administration. But in the broad sweep of the damage this budget proposes, I find it impossible to discern that motive in the butcher cuts the White House embraces. It is time to contact your Senators and U.S. Representatives. Ultimately, the budget is up to Congress, which must decide whether the new priorities make sense. My personal opinion is that they are short-sighted and ill-informed.

 

Jim Schwab

Beyond Tradition and Empire

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The Republic of Botswana, a paragon of progress in today’s Africa, did not start life with any apparent advantages. In fact, the former British protectorate of Bechuanaland, which became independent Botswana, appeared in the 1950s to have bleak prospects, in no small part because of archaic British colonial policy. Nearly surrounded in the post-World War II period by South Africa, which was in the process of establishing its notorious apartheid policy, the colonial backwater of South-West Africa that later became independent Namibia, and the white-run Rhodesia that morphed into modern Zimbabwe, Bechuanaland was a sparsely populated land of desert and scrub that seemed fated to be swallowed by more powerful neighbors. Yet today it is both one of the most prosperous of African nations and a functioning democracy, although like any nation it has its flaws and shortcomings. But it has maintained an uninterrupted series of democratic elections since independence, a claim few African nations can make.

Seretse Khama. Image from Wikipedia

Seretse Khama. Image from Wikipedia

A curious and stunning piece of personal history lies behind the story of Botswana’s independence, which occurred in 1966. The heir to the chieftainship of the Batswana people, the nation’s predominant ethnic group, was in London in the years after World War II to study law while his uncle ruled the nation as a regent. The British had established their protectorate in 1885 after King Khama III had appealed to them in the face of rising threats from South Africa and other neighbors. With a population at the time of little more than 100,000 (now 2 million), Botswana would have been helpless in the face of invasion. Moreover, Botswana had mineral resources, including diamonds, that made the country a potentially attractive target. In the midst of all this, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the throne of this fragile country, managed to fall in love with an English working woman, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a typist.

A United Kingdom, a movie based on the book Colour Bar by Susan Williams, tells the story that followed from this unlikely romantic adventure. It is a little difficult at first to fathom exactly how these two become so strongly attracted to each other, but the story is based on real life, so we know they did. It’s just that it would be nice if the movie did a somewhat better job of making clear how that happened. It is clear enough that in post-war England, prejudice against black Africans remained widespread. Knowing this makes it important to better understand how Ruth Williams found the courage to face down family disapproval and societal racism to decide that, when Khama proposed to her on a London bridge, she was prepared both to move to a poor rural African nation and to assume the role of an African queen.

The disapproval occurred on both sides. Khama’s uncle, Tshekedi Khama, wanted him to divorce Willliams, and failing that, wanted to send him into exile to spare the country division over the issue. Khama refused to do either and insisted, against the advice of the British officials, most notably Alastair Canning (Jack Davenport), the condescending British liaison to Bechuanaland, that the case be presented to an assembly of the people, then all male. (It should be noted that Canning never existed. In the film he is a fictitious composite of various British colonial officials.) But in this format, we can already see the seeds of modern democracy in Batswana culture, an open forum in which people could hear and judge for themselves. Following the uncle’s denunciation of the marriage, Khama passionately makes his own case for remaining both king and the husband of his English mate, and after some tense moments of thought, the men side with him. Uncle Tshekedi moves on to form a new settlement where they no longer need to live together.

But then the machinations begin. British diplomats, worried about South African ambitions and opposition to interracial marriage, work behind the scenes to oust Khama anyway. Khama turns out to be no one’s fool; he notices that mining explorers are on Batswana land without permission and quietly enlists a British journalist to investigate, and it becomes clear that his nation may both be resource-rich and the target of those who would exploit it before Khama can assert the nation’s right to control those resources, which ultimately turn out to be diamonds. Meanwhile, the British are using the dispute between uncle and nephew to manipulate the situation for their own geopolitical advantage.

The story that follows shows both the workings of democratic dissent in the United Kingdom (the movie title is clearly a play on that name with reference to Botswana) and the dishonest nature of imperialism. Labor Prime Minister Clement Attlee seems bent on catering to South African wishes despite opposition within his own party. British officials lure Khama to Britain to negotiate a settlement, then ban him from returning for five years. Amid all this, the king and his wife must endure the burden of prolonged separation while she is pregnant and gives birth in Bechuanaland to their first child, a daughter. We watch her convictions and commitment grow as she blends in with the people she comes to love despite the skepticism many first felt about her.

Back in England, meanwhile, Winston Churchill, in a bid to return to power as prime minister, promises publicly to return the young king to his throne. Once his Conservatives regain a narrow majority in Parliament, however, he reverses course and declares a lifetime exile for Khama. Despite widespread adulation of his role in the fight against Hitler, there was a dark side to Churchill that wanted to cling to the glory of the declining British Empire. Increasingly desperate both to reunite with his wife and to save his country from these designs, Khama finally manages to get permission to return for one week to meet with his uncle and settle family affairs. Khama uses that opportunity brilliantly by convincing his uncle of the need for national unity. Overcoming the weight of tradition, they agree to forsake the traditional monarchy and seek independence with free elections, upending the British ban on Khama’s rule and setting the stage for eventual separation from the UK within the Commonwealth. In due course, by 1966 Khama was elected the first president but honored democratic principles and set the stage for a much better history than most other African nations have experienced. Moreover, the nation has largely lifted itself out of poverty, with average annual income rising from about $70 per year to nearly $20,000 today. A Texas-sized nation in southern Africa, two-thirds of which is Kalahari desert, has grown a substantial middle class and educated its citizens. Somewhere, there is a moral in this story. It strikes me that the moral centers on courage and leadership and vision, which are often in short supply in this world.

And all that means this movie deserves more attention than it will likely get, but I’d like to hope that it will get that attention anyway. It is a powerful antidote to much of what we still see happening in the world today. It reminds us that one can stand for dignity in politics and make change accordingly. And while you’re watching A United Kingdom, enjoy the dramatic South African scenery, the lively romantic plot, and the brilliant acting. It is a movie, after all.

 

Jim Schwab

Keeping It Sharp in the Flats

Let’s start with the fact, obvious mostly in retrospect, that I should have printed out a map of the Flats Entertainment District in Cleveland rather than relying on Onstar, the GM dial-in navigation system in our Saturn, for directions. (I could also have used my iPhone for guidance, but I hate looking at such a small screen while driving.) On this one occasion, Onstar stumbled somewhat, but a quick call to Alley Cat Oyster Bar, our choice of location for an anniversary dinner, got us to our destination a mere two blocks away. My point is that the Flats can be mildly confusing if you have not been there before. Onstar told me to go to a traffic circle but failed to detect that another traffic circle preceded the one in front of Alley Cat, but nonetheless insisted “you are near your destination.” Well, sort of.IMG_0258

That said, Onstar has generally served us very well for several years. But in certain anomalous settings like the Flats, it can fall short. The city could also improve its street signage in the area.

The Flats are somewhat anomalous in any event. Here is an area now known for high-end restaurants and entertainment venues along a river that in 1969 caught fire from a train spark and burned. When I was in junior high school in Brecksville, Ohio, in the early 1960s, our class took a field trip on the Goodtime Cruise down the Cuyahoga River and into Lake Erie. One of my classmates asked the tour guide what would happen if someone fell overboard into industrial filth that filled the river. The guide answered rather calmly that the person “would probably get pneumonia and die.” That answer haunted me into my college days, when I emerged as an environmental activist and founded the first student environmental organization at Cleveland State University.

The movement that grew out of shocking events like the burning river helped trigger the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Water Act, which in turn steadily advanced cleanup of the Cuyahoga River, among many others. In the meantime, foreign competition hammered the once-dominant steel industry, and other industries either died or evolved. It was a classic Rust Belt story. Over ensuring decades, the Cuyahoga River changed dramatically, and the current version of the Flats grew up where industrial sewers used to reign. It is a long story that has been told many times and deserves to be understood in the current political environment because it shows that this nation can succeed in improving its quality of life and the environment when it musters the political will to do so.

IMG_0256But back to dinner at the Flats. With a sense of history that is not yet lost in Cleveland, I sat in Alley Cat with my wife, watching out the window at the nearby river, this time watching a team of kayakers row up and down, a pleasure boat docked at the Alley Cat and another across the water at Shooters, on a sunny June evening in Cleveland, just two hours before Game 3 of the NBA Finals would take place downtown at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cleveland Cavaliers were facing off against the Golden State Warriors in a rematch of the 2015 series. The city’s attention was riveted to the fate of its beloved Cavs.

There are today about a dozen restaurants in the general area of the Flats, but I chose Alley Cat based on its online reviews, which had been stellar. My wife, not a Cleveland native (she grew up in Nebraska), left that decision to me. But we both love seafood, which is Alley Cat’s strong suit, so she was happy. I can happily recommend Alley Cat on several counts.

IMG_0253First, the food is excellent. I enjoyed a Faroe Island salmon entrée, which is draped in Vauduvan curry sauce, accompanied by black rice and yellow squash. I enjoyed it all. My wife opted for the less expensive and more predictable fish sandwich (cod), with pickles and fries, but we cross-fertilized each other’s dinner a bit. The spirits list is impressive, although predictably pricey.  The bottom line is that neither of us was disappointed. Jean, generally a Merlot fan, loved the Syrah that I picked out.

But second, and very important, the wait staff was uniformly gracious and friendly. This is a feature of Cleveland more generally that many outsiders do not appreciate until they experience it, but this is a town that has had good reason at times for a chip on its shoulder yet retains a very welcoming, congenial atmosphere. It is fun to interact with people in the Cleveland metropolitan area. They seem to prefer to enjoy life. At times, they almost made me wonder what I was doing in Chicago. Just the night before, we had met over dinner in Shaker Heights with a former co-worker of mine, now working as a planner with the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, who seemed very happy with his move here from Washington, D.C. As for the staff at the Alley Cat Oyster Bar, they were extremely accommodating with our every request.

IMG_0255The final point deals with the scenery. What was once a stinking, unhealthy cesspool a half-century ago is now a remarkably pleasant setting. Our table was right by a window facing west to the river, where we could watch the rippling water pass by along with the kayakers and other floating transportation, in the shadow of highway bridges high overhead, but with a sidewalk that allows one to experience the marine milieu in a refreshing way. There is outdoor seating, but this day had been rather cool for early summer, so we settled for inside dining.

This all served to remind me that the Flats are at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. It is a relatively short reach of a river that stretches upstream to Akron along a beautiful valley that is now preserved, for the most part, in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the subject of my next blog post.

 

Jim Schwab

Financing Environmental Infrastructure

DSC00626For a number of years, the American Society of Civil Engineers has been issuing an annual report card on the condition of the nation’s infrastructure. Generally speaking, those grades have not been good: In 2013, the nation’s grade point average was a D+. It is not my intent in this short post to review all the deficiencies that ASCE describes, although I will note that part of the problem is a penny-wise, pound-foolish national politics that is so concerned about lowering taxes that it has lost sight of the value of investing wisely in the nation’s future. National, state, and local economic development all depend crucially on well-functioning infrastructure. The fear of raising taxes to pay for important infrastructure repair is short-sighted and ultimately unpatriotic.

Essential pieces of the national infrastructure are and should be environmentally related: water and wastewater treatment plants, sewer and water delivery pipes, green infrastructure that helps to mitigate stormwater runoff, and so on. Much of that environmental infrastructure also serves to mitigate natural hazards and thus reduce damages from major storms and other disasters. Regions affected by prolonged drought have learned the hard way, in many cases, that water-conserving infrastructure is critical to drought resilience.

How do we find new ways to pay for all this? The real point of this short blog post is simply to link the reader to a video interview by me with Dr. Jack Kartez, a long-time professor of urban planning at the University of Southern Maine. Dr. Kartez also serves as director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 1 Environmental Finance Center, which is hosted at the university but serves all of New England. This is the second of two interviews we conducted during the July 20-22 Natural Hazards Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado, this summer under the auspices of the American Planning Association’s Hazards Planning Center. I think he offers some valuable insights into solving some of our problems in this arena.

 

Jim Schwab

On Taxes and Public Trust

A very curious op-ed article appeared Monday (July 6) in the Chicago Tribune. Tom Geoghegan, best known as a liberal lawyer who represents labor unions, made a plea for more taxes. Not just any taxes for any reason, but “Tax me, please, so Illinois can compete.” Let me set the stage for this commentary.

First, we have a mayor who has been adhering religiously to maintaining property taxes at a relatively low level, compared to many suburbs, while struggling to make the city’s books balance amid pressure to keep the city’s pension funds solvent. Pension funds for both city and Chicago Public Schools retirees promise reasonably generous benefits that include a three percent cost-of-living yearly increase, which certainly beats Social Security in most years because its increases vary with the Consumer Price Index. (For the record, my wife is a Chicago Public Schools retiree.) These agreements have been in place for many years, but for many years the city and the school system have not met their obligations to fund these pensions adequately. The city is also making its perennial argument in Springfield that Chicago residents pay twice for pensions because their own teacher pension fund relies on local property taxes while all other systems in the state rely on state income taxes, which, of course, Chicagoans also pay. Suburban and downstate legislators counter that Chicago gets more of other types of state support because of higher numbers of families in poverty, an argument that strikes me as lame because Chicago is hardly the only city in the state with poor people.

Welcome to the twisted logic of politics in Illinois. We also have a constitutional provision that cements flat-rate income taxes in place. We could only enact a progressive state income tax by first amending the state constitution to allow such a thing. Meanwhile, Illinois is undergoing a bruising battle between a conservative rookie Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, and a legislature with large Democratic majorities in both houses. It is now July, and they have not agreed on a budget, and a judge has ruled that, without statutory authority in the form of an enacted budget, the state cannot pay its workers more than the federal minimum wage until this gets sorted out.

It is not apparent to me, or many others, that either the state of Illinois or the city of Chicago lack considerable wealth or the ability to pay their bills if we sort out our priorities and match spending with revenue. Rauner refuses to budge on the revenue until the legislature adopts at least some of his pro-business, anti-union agenda—he basically wants to make Illinois a right-to-work state—and the legislature is busy enacting budgets that necessarily entail large deficits, so Rauner vetoed their most recent attempt. A standoff is throwing Illinois into turmoil.

To be brutally honest, I could never hope in this short blog post to do justice to all the intricacies of this situation. I am providing only a broad outline of the conflict as background to the Geoghegan commentary. Basically, his perspective is that school closings driven by budget cuts drive middle-class residents to the suburbs for better schools for their children, which they pay higher taxes to achieve. In short, lower taxes make the city less competitive in attracting talent, resulting in a less competitive business climate. He bolsters his argument by pointing out that other big cities facing many of the same macroeconomic challenges have survived the recession and are thriving in ways that Chicago is not. And in ways that Illinois also is not. People in those other states pay higher, progressive income taxes that support public services that make their states and cities more competitive. In short, he says “blue states that collect higher taxes thrive and red states with lower taxes do not.” I am sure one can find some exceptions to his general rule, but he has a point. Taxes alone do not make a state less competitive, especially if used wisely to create better public education and amenities and infrastructure. All these things matter. Then comes Geoghegan’s clincher:

“Illinois is a blue state that tries to govern like a red state. And that’s why the state and its crown jewel, Chicago, are about to go belly up.”

So far, so good. Geoghegan concludes with his plea to “tax me, please,” to achieve better public solvency and make the state and city more competitive. But his article fails to answer or address the question of why a blue state would try to “govern like a red state.” There is an understandable, though also cowardly, fear among legislators and aldermen about raising taxes because there is public resistance. Some public resistance to higher taxes is always to be expected, but in many places it can be overcome with a solid explanation of how that money will be used or invested. It is when it is repeatedly misused or poorly invested that public suspicion becomes a cancer that afflicts the trust people must feel before they are willing to open their wallets to the state and city.

That is where a new book by Thomas J. Gradel and former Chicago alderman Dick Simpson becomes important. Simpson, now teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was an independent who was once a thorn in the side of Mayor Richard J. Daley, the Democratic party boss, subject of the famous Mike Royko book, Boss, whose son Richard M. later ascended to the same office. Richard M. Daley retired before the 2011 mayoral election, when Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor. Corrupt Illinois is a no-holds-barred attack on the pervasive culture of corruption not only in the city but the entire state of Illinois, now famous for having sent two recent governors to prison, Republican George Ryan and his immediate successor, Rod Blagojevich, who ironically had promised to clean up the mess Ryan left behind. Instead, he created his own mess, including the attempted sale of the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

There is not room here to review the hundreds of cases of corruption the two authors discuss, stretching from the city of Chicago to numerous suburbs, including the notorious case of Cicero, to downstate communities where clerks and mayors have stolen public funds, to the state capitol, where matters now speak for themselves. What Gradel and Simpson document is the high, very high, cost of public corruption in the erosion of public trust. Taxpayers like to know that, when they fork over more money that is supposed to build roads and bridges or support schools or social services, that money will not end up illicitly in the back pocket of some operator tolerated by politicians who look the other way, or worse, pocket some of it themselves or find other ways to violate the public trust.

Moreover, this is not a partisan issue, as some would like to contend. Both parties have participated in the skullduggery in their own ways. The book supports an observation I have long shared in talking about other states with similar issues, like Louisiana: Once a culture of corruption takes hold, it becomes a bipartisan enterprise. The same can usually be said of the virtuous cycle of comparative honesty in states where such practices meet with immediate public condemnation. I have long encountered people who have difficulty believing me when I tell them that, when I once ran for city council in Iowa City while a graduate student at the University of Iowa, by city ordinance the limit on contributions by any individual to a candidate for a specific election was $50. There are no missing zeroes. It was 1983, but even allowing for inflation, that limit comes nowhere near the inflated sums that float around in Illinois elections. Public tolerance makes a huge difference.

Rauner attempts in his ham-handed fashion, driven by the personal certitude of a hedge fund millionaire, to pose as the enemy of the political class in Illinois. What he does not understand is that his pose might sell far better if he did not also make himself the implacable foe of organized labor and the minimum wage, and if he did not have such a tin ear about the damage his policies are doing to badly needed services for the poor, disabled, and mentally ill. That undermines any public sympathy he might otherwise muster for a legitimate campaign to root out public corruption, which seems at best to be only a secondary target.

If you do nothing else to understand the hole that Illinois has dug for itself, read this book. At times, Corrupt Illinois may seem repetitive, even slightly monotonous, unless you develop a perverse fascination with just how corrupt a state can become. That is because the authors have so much raw material to work with that it is a wonder they fit it all into just 200 pages. They try mightily to be concise and to the point, but the point they make is unavoidable. Until Illinois voters insist on cleaning up this mess, and their political leaders finally grow a conscience and respond, there is no way out of our current impasse.

 

Jim Schwab

Creative Economic Development for College Towns

College towns can be as different from each other as they are collectively from most other communities. Some literally dominate the economic landscape of their communities. Others are comfortably lodged in a setting that involves a larger community or even a state capital. They have different histories, different strengths, and different outlooks.

What they tend to have in common is a high average level of education and a large number of young people and faculty brimming with new ideas. But they don’t always tap that imagination effectively, sometimes at all, and not all are good at bridging the famous gap between town and gown. So how do they chart an economic future for themselves?

The SURP 50th anniversary dinner took place after the conference at the Kinnick Stadium Press Box. The photographer posted photos from a reception on Friday night at the downtown hotelVetro on the stadium's Jumbotron. It was not my first appearance on a Jumbotron--that was in Fenway Park in April 2011--but that is another story for another time. With m in this image are Professor John Fuller and my wife, Jean.

The SURP 50th anniversary dinner took place after the conference at the Kinnick Stadium Press Box. The photographer posted photos from a reception on Friday night at the downtown hotelVetro on the stadium’s Jumbotron. It was not my first appearance on a Jumbotron–that was in Fenway Park in April 2011–but that is another story for another time. With m in this image are Professor John Fuller and my wife, Jean.

On Saturday, September 20, I was in Iowa City listening to, and sometimes asking questions of, a series of panels that comprised an all-day Midwest Creative College Town Conference. The event did not occur in isolation. It was part of the 50th anniversary of the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, whose creation in 1964 some far-sighted folks back then thought made sense in a largely rural, agrarian state. Over time, Iowa has become considerably more urban: It was noted that the two areas of the state gaining population are the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City corridor and the Des Moines metropolitan area. Almost all others have been losing population steadily for some time. There are reasons for those trends. I attended in a dual capacity, as both an alumnus (Class of 1985) and adjunct faculty. I teach a course each year on “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery.” Not so coincidentally, this course became part of the school’s curriculum in 2008, following massive floods that severely affected both Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. The school offers a graduate-level curriculum, in which students earn a master’s degree in planning, many of them, however, in combination with degrees in other fields like law or public health. I was the oddball. I earned a second degree in journalism.

SURP Director Charles Connerly organized four panels, three to discuss economic development strategies in college towns, and a final one to discuss the role of the arts in Iowa City. Of the three, I found the panels from Iowa City and East Lansing, Michigan, to have very substantive thoughts on the subject, but was more disappointed with the panel from Lincoln, Nebraska. I will offer more on that later.

But note the differences. Iowa City, once the territorial capital of Iowa prior to statehood, lost that distinction after statehood to Des Moines, but the capitol building became the core of a state university. Old Capitol remains open as a museum that one can visit, the heart of the Pentacrest, a complex of buildings immediately adjacent to the downtown. As panelist Geoff Fruin, the assistant city manager, noted, this has afforded a “tight integration between the campus and the community,” which allows the university’s “energy to spill out into the streets.” East Lansing, on the other hand, is adjacent to the state capital, more isolated from the action in that sense as a college town, and in the middle of an older industrial area with its own manufacturing heritage. Lincoln, like Madison, Wisconsin, is a major state university within a state capital. Its primary business, in addition to the University of Nebraska, is state government.

The University of Iowa Pentacrest (green area) is literally across the street from the downtown business district (background). Here, Clinton Street is closed, and booths set up, for the Iowa Soul Festival, part of Iowa City's Summer of the Arts.

The University of Iowa Pentacrest (green area) is literally across the street from the downtown business district (background). Here, Clinton Street is closed, and booths set up, for the Iowa Soul Festival, part of Iowa City’s Summer of the Arts.

One can find many other variations not represented on any of the panels—small towns with small, independent or church-affiliated liberal arts colleges, as well as universities in suburbs of major cities, like Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. As an undergraduate, I attended a truly urban institution, Cleveland State University, which occupies prime real estate in downtown Cleveland. No one would think of Cleveland as a college town, of course, but most big cities contain such universities. Every community must fashion its own strategy based on its own circumstances.

Setting the stage for the Iowa Soul Festival. Among the visiting performers was Al Jarreau.

Setting the stage for the Iowa Soul Festival. Among the visiting performers was Al Jarreau.

But there were some common themes that I find fascinating because they relate to the new knowledge economy and suggest changes in the landscape of economic development that many communities are still slow to recognize. That is because, as Jeff Smith of East Lansing noted, many economic development professionals are still tied to the old “hunt and gather” approach, which he says is dying. That approach can be loosely defined as trying to find businesses elsewhere that would be willing to move to or expand into your community, if only given the right incentives. These often involve tax breaks, free land, or similar public giveaways. Ultimately, to the extent that one community’s gain is someone else’s loss, it becomes a zero-sum game. Smith’s answer: “You need to water your own garden. The momentum [from doing so] is contagious.” Smith is director of the New Economy Division of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership.

Watering your own garden means fostering entrepreneurship, collaborating with potential business startups, and producing the conditions that will allow new businesses to succeed. It is more difficult work because it involves some serious effort to understand the economic ecosystem in which these businesses will operate. Every college town has its own unique strengths. In East Lansing, said Smith, “Our culture is we are extremely good at making things. . . . We’re engineers, we make things.” Over time, he said, the Michigan State University engineering school bred manufacturing, much of it in Michigan’s automotive industry, which grew an insurance cluster because “people got injured on jobs,” and in time that insurance cluster was followed by software development. Still, Lori Mullins, community and economic development administrator for the City of East Lansing, noted that the city had long been “content to be a bohemian town, humble for too long,” and did not harness the resources that the university offered. “We needed to change that culture,” she stated. Smith seconded that assessment by noting “a stagnant entrepreneurial climate” in which General Motors, which went through bankruptcy in 2009, laid off more employees than all other companies in the region.

The key, as highlighted by both Mullins and Paul Jaques, director of community and student engagement for Spartan Innovations, an enterprise of the university, was both that the city in 2006 was bold enough, in the face of a local culture that did not particularly favor entrepreneurialism, to invest in a hub for innovation in a former downtown department store, and to work with the university, which fostered its own ecosystem to  support entrepreneurship. The result is a series of home-grown enterprises and a gradually evolving cultural change that encourages innovation. This includes competitions and monetary incentives for new ideas, as well as classes to teach entrepreneurial skills.

Interestingly, the Iowa City speakers seconded the notion that “chasing after companies” as an economic development strategy “doesn’t work anymore,” as Fruin noted. In fact, he went further, stating that “older trained economic development professionals need to toss out everything you have learned. Older traditional models are wasteful if not harmful to cities.” Instead, the top talent is already in the community, and you need to “make sure faculty and staff feel invited to the community.” Economic development professionals, he added, need to “stop thinking like economic development professionals and start thinking like progressive urban planners. Promote high-quality architecture. Invest in memorable spaces and make them accessible by all modes [of transportation]. Let your public spaces speak for you.”

The Iowa City panel included, from left to right, Nick Benson, moderator, Geoff Fruin, David Hensley, Eric Hanson of the Iowa City Area Development Group, Andy Stoll, and Nancy Bird of the Iowa City Downtown District.

The Iowa City panel included, from left to right, Nick Benson, moderator, Geoff Fruin, David Hensley, Eric Hanson of the Iowa City Area Development Group, Andy Stoll, and Nancy Bird of the Iowa City Downtown District.

In short, what he was telling the audience was that quality of life will attract talent, and the answer is to “cultivate young students, faculty, and staff, and the rest takes care of itself.” David Hensley, director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, and Associate Vice President for Economic Development for the University of Iowa, outlined a series of university initiatives similar to those at Michigan State, starting from his primary point that “innovation and creativity are drivers of prosperity.”

He was backed up by Andy Stoll, co-founder of the Seed Here Studio, which has fostered numerous new enterprises in Iowa City by holding coffees with groups and entrepreneurs, introducing them to each other and creating a network among people who had thought they were alone, but eventually comprised more than 700 people in a culture of collaboration, which he described as “the new competition.” That collaboration often needs to be between apparent cultural opposites, for example, “the tucked and the untucked,” referring to people’s sartorial habits, and the fact that those with the imagination eventually need to be paired with those with the means to invest. “You need both elements in the same room connecting energy and creativity with knowledge and experience,” Stoll concluded.

The more disappointing of the three college town panels was the one from Lincoln, though that was not entirely the fault of the panelists. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons they may have had, city officials in Lincoln chose not to participate in the panel despite encouragement. This left a noticeable gap in the discussion of economic development strategies in Lincoln compared to the other two cities represented, and the panel could only offer the observation that they would be happy not to have the city get in their way. They had their own interesting approaches from both the university and community organizations, but it still seemed that something was lacking in the absence of similar engagement from City Hall, and there was no particular explanation for that relinquishment of opportunity and collaboration.

What was encouraging, however, was that there was explicit recognition to varying degrees of the importance of anticipating the social and environmental impacts of the kinds of businesses we choose to encourage and support. This is an emerging issue within the economic realm that is changing the way many of us eat, shop, and travel. The conversation regarding sustainability could certainly have gone farther and been deeper and more substantive, but the first step is to recognize that it is a serious question worthy of debate, which may take us back to one opening comment by Dan Reed, the University of Iowa’s vice president for research and development, quoting William Gibson:

“The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.”

 

Jim Schwab