Monday, October 20, 2014

Payment Forward With a Far Better Way to Outperform

Rarely do I run into people in my former profession but recently at an awards dinner in Winston-Salem recently, a young exec asked a question that gave me pause for reflection:

“How are some communities able to outperform others without succumbing to the slippery practice of - “buying business?”

This is a euphemism for paying out-of-town group meeting planners to select your community as the host for events such as conventions, now just 10% of overall visitation.

It’s funny how in later years it is easier to trace the origins of ideas, concepts and influences of wisdom you had forgotten weren’t always your own.

For me, the answer goes back to when I was “greener” than anyone at dinner that night and a chance 1975 meeting with Marty Splain, a legendary national meeting planner who was by then already in his early 60s.

As World War II ended, Splain, then in his 30s had served as executive assistant to U.S. Senator Francis J. Meyers who was majority whip.  He then helped Marty at a very young age rise to the chairmanship of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

During the 1950s, Splain had also worked himself up to a stint as Grant Worthy President of the International Fraternal Order of Eagles (F.O.E) followed by a long career as the group’s membership director and national meeting planner.

The F.O.E. had originally been founded in 1898 by a half dozen managers of performing arts theaters in Seattle, then spread via inclusion of troupes of touring performers before also accepting patrons and finally, I guess, anyone who could be a patron.

There was one condition, to join:  Members had to be Caucasian, something Splain had worked internally to change.

The huge organization peaked in the early 1970s at around 900,000 members, but it wasn’t until 1979, the year after the national convention was held in Spokane, that the requirement to be “white” was finally dropped in response to a lawsuit.

This group, which had pushed for the creation of Mothers Day, finally surrendered its Jim Crow past a quarter of century after the U.S Supreme Court had struck it down as unconstitutional.

Spokane was a tight fit for this big convention but Marty was intrigued because that is where the second ever “aerie” or club had been created.  By the time of our introduction it had grown to about 1600.

On a first name basis with Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, Marty had great stories and could have easily been one of those Borscht-belt comedians the Catskill resorts made famous, one of whom, Joan Rivers, just passed away.

He also wasn’t afraid to dial down and answer questions from a kid from Idaho who was in over his head but eager to ask as well as soak up every answer.  This included some I didn’t even know I should ask.

Several pieces of advice that were graciously passed to me by this sage would help me help the three communities I served during a now-concluded four decade career in community marketing including leapfrogging those so desperate they began handing out of town groups cash to hold events there.

Two years before my DMO career launched in 1973, the counterpart representing Portland, Oregon along with two major hotel chains had entered into consent decrees as a result of anti-trust litigation, which were not lifted until two years before I retired.

Backed by legal counsel, Marty carefully explained to me what I could and could not do under the ruling as well as what Portland had been doing with the practice which was to raise essentially a slush fund to help lure conventions.

The Eagles had been one of those groups that required upfront subsides from cities but Marty shared not only how it could be handled but that he feared that as an unintended result of the ruling, two things would begin to happen.

Prophetically, he predicted that instead of building the financing required into participating hotel rates as was then and is still now legal, over-reaction to the Portland ruling would mean that:

1) cities would be pressured into distributing tax dollars directly to groups such as his and,

2) the smell of money would bring a torrent of “snake oil salesmen” out of the woodwork, making it hard to ferret out good folks who just didn’t know the way this should work.

He explained to this then-naïve rookie the dangers of cash subsidies as well as how these “snake oil salesmen” would use them to line their own pockets.

Marty warned me never to fall into that trap because there were far more transparent ways for a host city to fold these costs into the prices charged by private sector businesses that would ultimately benefit.

I remember asking him why city officials would tolerate - let alone enable - distributing cash from tax funds to out of town groups.  To paraphrase his reply 40 years ago:

“Easy – Remember, at one time I worked for politicians.  Many, who were otherwise honorable and deeply concerned about fraud, would fall for border-line extortion such as this simply because they fear blame more than they do failure.”

Blame for what I remember asking? 

“Blame for letting it seem they had been outfoxed by another community.  Blame for building facilities that didn’t make sense.”  “Even blame from peers pandering to small groups of constituents eager to cash in,” he patiently responded.

He taught me instead how to set up local organizing committees and special accounts to show how the costs to a host city were assessed and then used including all “in-kind” requirements which were especially vulnerable to corruption (as we’ve since learned with the Olympics.)

He taught me how to build any assessment required into hotel rates and that groups using a low ratio of hotel rooms weren’t going to be worth the trouble anyway.

He also taught me how to spot that a planner might be shady because they would have already sealed in rates with kickbacks for themselves before explaining the need for fees from the host city.

I think he was using the Pareto principle when he told me that in his experience only 20% of the events in which a community might be interested will make sense for that community and only 20% of those will require subsidies of some kind such as free facilities or extra municipal services such as police and solid waste removal.

And that only 20% of the 20% of those 20% will be legitimate and worth the risk.

I was never very good at math until taking business statistics but even to a rookie community marketing exec back then, given that 92% of these groups refrain from the subsidy model, it made obvious sense to go after those groups and leave the 8% for communities desperate enough to get involved with groups that do.

Ironically, the hardest part throughout the years was explaining to local officials that a group only made sense if tax coffers would be held harmless for any subsidy required through local tax revenue that would be generated.

In other words, groups need to generate more tax revenue than they are asking for in public subsidies and services.

This can’t be just wishful thinking either, but using economic impact models calibrated to local variables and after netting out the costs of in-kind services such as police and solid waste pick up.

For instance, in Durham where I retired from DMO work, a typical out-of-town group with 1000 attendees, should have a ratio of overnight to daytrip attendance of 550 to 450 (lower than communities are led to expect but typical.)

Given average duration, hosting it would return about $9,000 to local governments in general sales tax revenue and another $10,836 in special sales occupancy tax revenues.  This doesn’t include any taxes that are returned to the state, just those gained locally.

This includes tax revenues from induced and indirect spending calibrated to Durham County but hasn’t yet netted out leakage.

This return, meant to broaden the tax burden on residents and local businesses, is one of the primary reasons that fueling community visitor-centric economic development will come close to just covering the local services required.

Ironically, I know state associations for local officials in both the public and private sectors that now demand far more than this amount to be considered as a host city, reinforcing that they don’t have a clue about economic development.

But often in communities chasing after “worst practices,” officials will shell out subsidies far greater than any return just to avoid being blamed for a facility’s poor performance that didn’t make sense in the first place.

Even those officials with good business sense often seem to leave that hat hanging outside the room when they make decisions on elected or appointed governing boards.

Scary but true.  We, their constituents, far too often hold them accountable only for making us happy and for far too many that means a doling out a different kind of welfare to non-residents.

Marty was tight with a nickel, even someone else’s nickel.  But he wasn’t one of those “screw them before they screw you” folks.  He was an Oil City native in that no nonsense stretch of Allegheny between Buffalo and Youngstown.

He loved sports including boxing and baseball,  and even, I think, promoting a few events when he was younger.  We talked about the recent Thrilla in Manila match that first day we met in my office.

Marty had been a delegate to more than a decade of national party conventions leading up to the buildup in Vietnam.  He didn’t seem as accepting of Muhammad Ali’s (aka Cassius Clay) stand on the war as my generation was.

I continued to get reality checks from him on a few long distance calls after I transitioned to Anchorage, but then heard he had retired when I called one year to get him to emcee an annual event there.

The month I was selected in 1989 to start the DMO in Durham, I learned he had passed away.

Maybe I would have figured all on my own not to “step in the bucket” of worms that subsidizing groups represents.  It was so easy to avoid them and still outperform cities that slid down that slippery slope that it was always puzzling to me when so many did.

Almost monthly throughout my career, those “snake oil salesmen” Marty warned me about would darken my door.  I would treat them with respect, hoping they just didn’t understand how we could help them while shielding taxpayers.

Many would storm out and then get officials to pressure us into giving them cash.  Fortunately, enabling legislation prohibited that.

But that never seemed to stop counterparts in other communities who became enablers, often using state of national figures to inflate projected local impact or applying overnight expenditure levels to residents and daytrippers.

As one former colleague quipped when I noted that cash subsidies to groups violates legislative guidelines defining community marketing, “the legislature and local government commission are never going to check.”

Not a part of the job I should ever miss but I write this memoir to help communities that want to outperform these guys and avoid chasing after “worst practices” while protecting local taxpayers.

Consider it just a payment forward for Marty.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Revisiting A Frustrating Habit For Some

Frustrating regular readers, I have a habit of segueing while writing on one topic to another that is underlying, making it obvious that the six or more hours I spend per day on this post-retirement avocation is more about personal introspection than sharing insight.

But because one of these segues seemed to resonate, especially with the majority of readers who are beyond Durham, for anyone who missed it I’ll lazily pull one out for today’s post:

“Up through the 1970s and into the 1980s local government officials across the nation used to do a much better job of breaking dividends such as this down for residents and connecting the dots for folks like my neighbor.

Then it seems they suddenly stopped connecting the dots for themselves as well as witnessed somewhere in the first decade of my now-concluded career.

It is also how the insanity of “front end” subsidies, oh I mean incentives were born, another word for “legalized” panhandling.

In Durham for example they began very slowly hollowing out funds for basic community upkeep which in turn soon began to degrade curb appeal, which dampened property values, which slowed tax revenue, which resulted in more hollowing until a vicious cycle took root.

Of course, the intent was to restore upkeep before anyone noticed but gradually it became the new norm and then one day local governments began to whine that basic maintenance and upkeep of appearances was somehow an unfair burden.

Of course, this wasn’t a strategic decision.

If I hadn’t been a witness, it was easily gleaned from books such as The United States of Ambition that moves such as this take shape when politicians began to sense that “keeping people happy” by doling out these funds instead was far more rewarding and fun than upkeep.

But this has contributed to creation of a feedback loop where residents are frustrated and resistant to paying taxes (in reality only a tiny but vocal minority) so officials try to appease them by holding the line.

This, in turn, forced the year-to-year absorption of increases to the costs of living such as goods and services which means budgets for maintenance and upkeep get “rabbit-holed” into a downward spiral, which undermines resident confidence.

It is how communities that are otherwise seemingly vibrant and “cool” on the surface, begin to slowly and imperceptibly degrade at the margins before falling again into a cycle of decay.

Now instead of running local government like a business with 5% of budgets set aside for maintenance and upkeep along roadsides, streams and other commons, local officials are more likely to feel put-upon by this responsibility.

Soon they resort to panhandling businesses and volunteers to get by never realizing the resentment this creates because residents and businesses then silently fume because upkeep is something they feel they already shoulder in property taxers.

It has been this way in Durham for nearly three decades.  Even the increasingly depleted news media seems to have bought into this feedback loop rather than shining a light on its absurdity.

As a good friend who is a university executive mumbled under his breath, on a walk one day, when I noted a few years that had been the exception, “it won’t be enough to reverse that dysfunction has become the default.”

But this paradigm is not one in which Durham is unique.

To paraphrase the legendary “outlaw” of my time, Waylon Jennings, a fellow stoic who wrote in 1978 just before this all began, “We’ve always been crazy but its keep us from going insane.”

It seems so thoroughly embedded in the psyche of futility common among nearly all public administration professionals now that they probably never knew it was any other way.

Sadly, so many of those elected to shift the paradigm seem converted instead within a few weeks of being sworn in.

It may be left to Millennials and social entrepreneurs like the young developer of Wetrock to reconnect the dots and return us to true sanity.

In the meantime, I swear to do everything I can to never be an enabler.”

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Modifying “Gnats” As A Strategy

In the early 1990’s, I don’t think Durham’s local governments realized they were being strategic when they provided nearly all of the funding for a new non-profit organization to do advocacy for downtown revitalization.

Typically governments across the country do this initially either as a “dole-out” to “make some constituents happy” or because it seems like an inexpensive way to shed a responsibility.

Either way, it turned out to be genius.  Essentially, the organization turned out, at its best, to be a sort of ombudsman to work deep within those bureaucracies both as a collaborator with public servants but also to connect dots between agency silos.

Any large organization, public or private, could benefit from a few “gnats” such as that.

I know it wasn’t a strategic move in Durham because the formula hasn’t been replicated in other areas even once.

In fact, when I pointed out how it had worked to one administrator, she tried to replicated it with Keep Durham Beautiful but clearly as a way to shed responsibility for community upkeep on the theory that businesses and residents could be panhandled to do it instead.

To apply a popular rhetorical device, “How’s that workin’ for ya?” .

KDB was instead embedded within the bureaucracies but given a hybrid non-profit with which to work along with a tiny fraction of what had been given just for downtown advocacy, greatly inhibiting its effectiveness.

But essentially this has still served its more valuable role as a “gnat” to “connect or reconnect the dots” between agencies regarding the huge dividend local governments can reap by fulfilling overarching responsibilities for curb appeal.

There are advantages to each approach.

But having seen both close up now, I am persuaded that the former makes it less likely that such “gnat” will be weighted down with internal agency culture.

Even so, it still doesn’t appear that local governments here have caught on that funding “gnats” could be scaled up as a broader strategy but then again being strategic or innovative often goes unrewarded in public service these days.

Ironically, before there is any “eye-rolling,” most stupid public sector decisions originate when instead of creating economic value on their own, some private sector “bottom feeders seek to leverage value through manipulation of public policy as a substitute.

Or when small groups of vocal constituents sense handouts could result.

Remember, the “Baby Bell” that reconstituted AT&T after its breakup did so by overwhelming the Texas legislature and a soon-to-be US President by literally deploying a lobbyist for each member of that body.

Thus we now see even our jointly-owned airport shamelessly out panhandling local governments to subsidize fights that don’t make sense otherwise to businesses.

Where do you think they got that bright idea?  Proponents of convention centers and stadiums such as subsidy-ravenous event planners and promoters?

Of course, even if Durham had been strategic with downtown advocacy and community appearance, the “gnat” model only works as long as public, rather than special interests are foremost and those spearheading change are insulated from closed-door strong-arming and retribution.

That given, an area ripe for extension of the “gnat” model as strategy is in the area of land use and specifically, the character of the “built” environment that can make or break the distinct sense of a particular place, that is, if like Durham, it still has one.

This certainly isn’t a role for which commercial boosters would fit, or anyone afraid to walk away from a project.

But Durham local governments do have a non-profit with the mission, sensibilities and now expertise to fulfill this role and one with which they already have a relationship, however modest.

They would be well advised to greatly expand the role of Preservation Durham in the mold of how it has done with Downtown Durham Inc.  The organization both by sensibility and by expertise is in a unique position.

It already serves to survey and identify landmarks but it could do so much more, much as DDI did for revitalization, but in this case to work with planners, general services, open space and many other agencies.

The dividend would be to shape public and private structures early in the process where modifications aren’t costly in ways that ensure the structures belong in both scale and design and links and benefits to their surroundings and to the “built” aspect of Durham’s sense of place.

This wouldn’t be a much fun for those who enjoy public policy “car wrecks” and controversy, but it is something Durham’s local governments need, not a shedding of responsibility but another useful and collaborative “gnat.”

Converting tactics into strategies, let alone overarching strategies is not always the best way to shape strategy, but often innovation occurs unexpectedly when something works for a reason other than intended.

Think “post-it notes”, “stainless steel,” “x-rays,” “Velcro,” even “potato chips” and “matches.”

Durham local governments stumbled on its own “post-it” innovation and now, in my opinion, it is well advised to strategically replicate it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Reconnecting the Dots

A neighbor of mine lives along one of Durham’s most beautiful parklands but fails to see the irony whenever he complains that the city should focus less on greenways and more on funding hard services such as police.

He would be well advised to read a book, published earlier this year by a friend of mine, entitled Conservation Communities: Creating Value with Nature, Open Space, and Agriculture.

In part it details the type of development now underway in Durham by a young entrepreneur I met just I was retiring called Wetrock Farm.  Since we met he graduated from Duke and completed an MBA at the University of Miami before returning to the Bull City.

Durham is a single-city county by the same name, the fourth largest city in North Carolina and located in the 17th smallest county by land area.

Making this a tight fit is that the northern third of the county has been set aside in watershed.  Restricted this forms a sort of natural urban growth boundary but also guarantees that this part of Durham’s sense of place will remain rural and open.

Wetrock will exist in what Durham has set aside as “conservation subdivisions” (see article 6.2.4 in District Intensity Standards,) a best practice as I will describe later in this essay that belies a paradoxical failure to connect the dots overall.

These are areas designed to provide clustering of houses and structures in a way that preserves wetlands, streams, woodlands, wildlife habitat, historic and archeological sites as well as “authenticity” and sense of place.

Specifically, Wetrock Farm will develop 230 acres into 141 home sites with 2/3rds of the land preserved as forest.  It will also incorporate trails and a working farm with 140 acres permanently protected by a conservation easement.

All of this will be just 10 miles from amenities such as Duke University and the City Center District, 12 miles from North Carolina Central University and only 14 miles from Research Triangle Park just on the other side of Downtown.

Too bad this rationale wasn’t applied to every neighborhoods here as they began to take shape a hundred years ago.  In fact, even business districts such as downtowns.

The book Conservation Communities uses real estate research to quantify the dividends communities reap from developments such as Wetrock Farm:

    • Environmentally sensitive areas are protected along with water quality and urban forest canopy.
    • Property owners reap a dividend in the form of higher property values.
    • Local governments reaps a dividend in increased property taxes used to fund overall community services such as public safety.

Up through the 1970s and into the 1980s local government officials across the nation used to do a much better job of breaking dividends such as this down for residents and connecting the dots for folks like my neighbor.

Then it seems they suddenly stopped connecting the dots for themselves as well as witnessed somewhere in the first decade of my now-concluded career.

It is also how the insanity of “front end” subsidies, oh I mean incentives were born, another word for “legalized” panhandling.

In Durham for example they began very slowly hollowing out funds for basic community upkeep which in turn soon began to degrade curb appeal, which dampened property values, which slowed tax revenue, which resulted in more hollowing until a vicious cycle took root.

Of course, the intent was to restore upkeep before anyone noticed but gradually it became the new norm and then one day local governments began to whine that basic maintenance and upkeep of appearances was somehow an unfair burden.

Of course, this wasn’t a strategic decision.

If I hadn’t been a witness, it was easily gleaned from books such as The United States of Ambition that moves such as this take shape when politicians began to sense that “keeping people happy” by doling out these funds instead was far more rewarding and fun than upkeep.

But this has contributed to creation of a feedback loop where residents are frustrated and resistant to paying taxes (in reality only a tiny but vocal minority) so officials try to appease them by holding the line.

This, in turn, forced the year-to-year absorption of increases to the costs of living such as goods and services which means budgets for maintenance and upkeep get “rabbit-holed” into a downward spiral, which undermines resident confidence.

It is how communities that are otherwise seemingly vibrant and “cool” on the surface, begin to slowly and imperceptibly degrade at the margins before falling again into a cycle of decay.

Now instead of running local government like a business with 5% of budgets set aside for maintenance and upkeep along roadsides, streams and other commons, local officials are more likely to feel put-upon by this responsibility.

Soon they resort to panhandling businesses and volunteers to get by never realizing the resentment this creates because residents and businesses then silently fume because upkeep is something they feel they already shoulder in property taxers.

It has been this way in Durham for nearly three decades.  Even the increasingly depleted news media seems to have bought into this feedback loop rather than shining a light on its absurdity.

As a good friend who is a university executive mumbled under his breath, on a walk one day, when I noted a few years that had been the exception, “it won’t be enough to reverse that dysfunction has become the default.”

But this paradigm is not one in which Durham is unique.

To paraphrase the legendary “outlaw” of my time, Waylon Jennings, a fellow stoic who wrote in 1978 just before this all began, “We’ve always been crazy but its keep us from going insane.”

It seems so thoroughly embedded in the psyche of futility common among nearly all public administration professionals now that they probably never knew it was any other way.

Sadly, so many of those elected to shift the paradigm seem converted instead within a few weeks of being sworn in.

It may be left to Millennials and social entrepreneurs like the young developer of Wetrock to reconnect the dots and return us to true sanity.

In the meantime, I swear to do everything I can to never be an enabler.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

At The Altar of Shiny and New

I left off in yesterday’s essay by noting the irony that some cities sacrifice sense of place at the altar of fantasy and things “shiny and new” while others even nearby fight hard to preserve it.

Last week, while attending an awards banquet in a Winston-Salem hotel, I had pause to reflect on how emblematic that non-descript, designed to be “Anywhere, USA” 1980s structure and its 1970s twin are of that community’s struggle to hold on to sense of place.

Invariably, unless a community’s advocates succumb to the demons of the “shiny and new,” the latter will always eclipse the former because research shows that the distinct sense of a particular place is ultimately more appealing, even to those visitors and newcomers seeking fantasy.

When I arrived in Durham, NC twenty-five years ago, part of its appeal to me as its newly hired guardian was that the importance of sense of place was apparent here but even so it has been besmirched here and there by those worshipping the “shiny and new.”

Startups are incredibly intense but indispensable is taking time to interview those with ties to the founders who had helped perpetuate and protect it.

One of the questions I had learned to ask during these interviews was, “Which community in the state had done the best job leveraging sense of place?”

Invariably, during my first few months in Durham the answer always came back, “You’ve got to study Winston-Salem.”

So even before visiting nearby Raleigh, which even back then seemed intent on surrendering sense of place to the “shiny and new,” I targeted Winston-Salem for my first excursion while familiarizing myself with North Carolina.

En route, I took a swing through Greensboro, which confirmed what my sources had noted would be more in the mold of Raleigh when it came to undervaluing sense of place.

Winston-Salem’s “sense of place revolt” occurred in the wake of WWII nearly three decades before one similar in Durham, 1948 to be exact, less than two months after the first flight aboard a DC-3 of W-S’s home-grown Piedmont Airlines, now folded into American Airlines.

In April there was a union-organized civil rights protest but it was a zoning request in July for a supermarket that kindled Winston-Salem’s “sense of place revolt” (coincidentally also my birth month/year.)

Back when Durham was just emerging as a crossroads, Winston-Salem had just been “Salem,” the administrative town for a 100,000-acre tract the immigrant Moravian Church had purchased and named Wachovia in the early 1750s. This also included several other settlements, some slightly older.

For the next hundred years, the church owned the land and members owned their own structures.

But by 1849 the church transitioned away from that model, turning over administration of the town to residents and setting in motion the sale of land parcels to each respective structure-owners with some acreage remaining as community “commons.”

This was occurring just as the newly created Forsyth County was eyeing Salem as the natural county seat. Passing on that opportunity, the Moravians instead sold some land just upland for creation of the new gentile-friendly town of Winston for that purpose.

Like Durham, Winston became an industrial powerhouse, quickly tripling in size as Salem declined.

Fast forward fifty years and the U.S. Postal Service created the name Winston-Salem for as the name for newly combined postal facilities.

By 1913, just as the iconic Camel cigarette brand was created, the two towns merged but one had already become more of a neighborhood.clip_image002

Gradually over the next two decades, non-Moravians moved or established businesses in Salem including Krispy Crème Doughnuts, founded there as a wholesale operation in 1937.

Symbolic, nearby was a brothel.

To put this in context, this was the period when the Wake Forest School of Medicine, then an extension of a small Baptist college north of Raleigh, opened in Winston-Salem thanks to a trust set up by RJR executive Bowman Gray.

Some historic Salem structures had tragically been torn down and replaced by incongruent structures that certainly didn’t fit or belong. But it was plan to plop a supermarket in the midst of the old village that sparked a community-wide “sense of place revolt.”

Within a year, an architectural design overlay, only the fifth in the U.S., was created to protect Old Salem. A Boston firm whose two principals had helped create Colonial Williamsburg was commissioned to conduct a historic survey and propose a plan for preservation.

But a young WWII Navy veteran and antique collector named Frank Horton had already been busy combing through the meticulous Moravian archives to identify which buildings were truly historic.

He accompanied the survey team and in late 1949, the findings were presented to Winston-Salem leaders in the 1920s-era Robert E. Lee Hotel, a contemporary of the Washington Duke in Durham.

While even older landmark hotels are still in service in many communities across the country such as Spokane, where I served, both the Robert E. Lee and the Washington Duke would soon be imploded by the forces of “shiny and new” in favor of generic substitutes.

Mayor M.C. Kurfees had just been elected and moved quickly to form a commission to oversee preservation, headed by James A. Gray III, the scion namesake of the then head of R.J.R Tobacco and nephew of Bowman Gray.

The long-serving Kurfees is as crucial to Winston-Salem as his contemporary, the equally long-serving Mayor of Durham, E. J. “Mutt” Evans. But as sense of place advocates rallied, so did disciples of the “shiny and new” a few blocks away.

Without due process and against Kurfees’ caution, officials listening to chamber types fired the city manager there and replaced him with a relative newcomer, a former FBI agent who had recently been Police Chief.

The manager soon became a spearhead for commercial boosters of the “shiny and new” there pursuing an expressway and setting in motion destruction in the guise of urban renewal.

Significantly, not only was Gray connected to the power structure in Winston but his mother was also a Moravian with deep ancestral roots in historic Salem.

Together with Charles Babcock, a newcomer with connections, and Frank Horton as officers, Gray, a newspaper executive, founded Old Salem Inc. to implement the preservation plan.

Gray and Babcock, also related to RJR by marriage, raised the funds to implement the preservation plan for the old town of Salem, while Horton took on the challenge of buying and destroying 120 intruding structures.

In 1954, Horton was joined for two decades by another vet, Frank Albright, as director of research, who in real life was one of The Monuments Men, a special unit made famous this year in the acclaimed George Clooney film.

Already Horton had begun reclaiming Salem artifacts that had slipped away and began reconstructing the story of Old Salem. Albright, an archeologist by training, soon began excavations.

As I first walked through Old Salem in early 1990, Horton, Kurfees and Gray had retired as legends, but the results of their four decades of work on Old Salem was incredible to see including several restorations serving as museums, clearly distinguished from reconstructions.

Gardens were also being restored and Horton had founded the adjacent Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, populated in part with the meticulous collection he and his mother had assembled.

Making sweet irony, its home was a former Kroger Supermarket.

Within a year of my first tour of Old Salem, Hobie Cawood, with whom I would then work on state-wide tourism issues, retired from a three decade career with the National Park Service to head Old Salem for a decade.

On our morning walk after that awards banquet last week, we headed down the hill through Old Salem, my first visit in over two decades.

It is a “real” and authentic place. No Disney-ification here. It is now managed and programmed by more than 200 employees and its historical research and archeology continue.

It is clearly the temporal heart and soul of Winston-Salem and the enduring symbol of its sense of place.

The area had been re-branded before I retired from a four decade career in destination marketing as Old Salem Museums & Gardens and the village as the Historic Town of Old Salem, but at its heart remains Old Salem Inc.

The 1950s were heady times for Winston-Salem in other ways including relocating the rest of what is now Wake Forest University there. But panic set in as its manufacturing heartbeat quietly began to lose steam.

Leaders had been stung by criticism during that 1947 “sense of place revolt that the town wasn’t new and modern enough and that its flair for the fantasy arts a joke.

Next came a new convention center followed by implosion of the old Robert E. Lee to make room for two equally incongruent formula hotels without the character or the bones of the old hotel or its connection to sense of place.

Little more than a decade later Durham would make the same fatal decision, an incongruent testament to the “new and shiny” in violent contrast to the state’s first commercial district on the national historic register.

In the 1960s, in part because the first arts council had also been created there in 1949, leaders pursued the new UNC School of the Arts which protects the southern approach to the Old Salem Museums and Gardens as does green space along Salem Creek.

UNCSA saved and restored a 1929 silent movie theater from the forces of “shiny and new,” and restored it in 1983 as a 1400-seat performing arts center. Now the acclaimed school has plans to add a 3,000 seat performing arts center downtown.

Experts note that most performing arts centers are in “the assembly-line business” rather than being actual creators. But in Winston-Salem, the new center for performing arts will be both.

As such, it will leverage rather than put sense of place at risk as most large-scale venues do. But advocates for the “shiny and new” are impatient with growing indigenous festivals and culinary arts.

Downtown advocates there have sought instead to try and lure away name restaurants and festivals from other communities such as Durham, failing to recognize that sense of place would not come with them.

A new visitor’s center at Old Salem is now linked from the west by a state DOT pedestrian overpass in the form of a recreation of an old wooden bridge.

Pinned down by those obsessed more with the “shiny and new” when I visited Winston-Salem in 1989, its much longer established destination marketing organization lagged behind until recently, so beholden only to the solicitation of the 10% of national visitation drawn for conventions and meetings that it didn’t even have a visitor’s guide at the time.

So Durham was able to rapidly eclipse Winston-Salem by adopting data-driven holistic community marketing and fulfilling the customary role as guardian of sense of place.

Beginning in 1982, Durham was also first to begin adaptively reusing millions and millions of square feet of its old factories and warehouses, but still lags behind Winston-Salem and other similarly sized destinations with only an avatar of a local history museum, more than 60 years after residents and officials embraced it during its centennial in 1953.

But many community leaders in Winston-Salem have never lost sight of sense of place as a as a priority. In the 2000s, a New Winston Museum was created (a museum of local history distinct from Old Salem – get it?)

Plans are for a new facility downtown, along with a new Carolina Air & Auto Museum along the north edge of downtown. RJR buildings are now also being adaptively reused, one as the state’s first Kimpton Boutique Hotel.

But Winston-Salem has also learned from that near miss in 1947. It is careful to define districts and works hard to guide developments and architectural styles into those where they will coherently belong.

Durham has design guidelines but proponents of development often sell out for fear of losing, even with the community’s own public facilities.

Durham is better at community branding, understanding than an overarching personality is about what a place really is, not what you strive to be.

Still stung by those 60-year-old criticisms, Winston-Salem has proclaimed itself the city of arts, now adding on innovation. But this isn’t where the city is distinctive, falling far below many other cities on indices for these traits, even in North Carolina.

Communities such as Winston-Salem and Durham, where sense of place has been preserved, are still torn by the forces of fantasy lobbying incessantly for things “shiny and new” things that make them the same rather than distinct and threatening to hollow out sense of place.

The less rooted in these communities should take heed from a famous 1952 quote by Frank Horton as work on Old Salem began:

"There will be no window dressing.

We plan to restore the old town as it was and not as we imagine it should be.

Whatever is done in the name of history must be honest, authentic, and accurate.”

Communities such as Durham and Winston-Salem cling to sense of place while others long ago gave up and became merely commercial replicas in pursuit of “edifice envy”, forces from which no community is ever immune.

Thanks to those with ties to founding generations but when each community was still 90% North Carolinian, they set a standard for sense of place.

Now it falls to more recent and often unfamiliar generations as well as newcomers to take up the torch.

Hopefully Durham and Winston-Salem are still learning from one another and can tame the forces of “shiny and new.”

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