Wednesday, September 17, 2014

If A Statue Should Be Erected One Day

With all due respect to a long-time friend and contemporary of mine who led the final charge, I have a suggestion should a statue ever be erected to honor the individual most responsible for the resurgence of Downtown Durham, North Carolina.

Besides, we’ve already been memorialized (although I’m 25 pounds lighter now).  But we clearly stood on the shoulders of many others, including some with ties to Durham’s founding generation.

Having passed away earlier this year, this person was tiny and unassuming and yet a powerhouse of community activism.  She probably began in areas such as pioneering child-care for families with both parents who work.

When I arrived in Durham on a mission to jumpstart this community’s first official destination marketing organization in 1989, having helped start several others, I was under no illusion that I was coming to the rescue.

For any new DMO exec, the first order of business is research into what has been done to shape any sense of place that may remain.

Dating to its first, it was obvious generations here had shaped a community worth loving and worth visiting, but it was not without battle scares.

Asking around about who had been most passionate about Durham in the decades before my arrival led to audiences with a number of individuals.  It is a good way to learn what had worked and what hadn’t over the years.

None was more dynamic than Margaret Davis Haywood, then in her 70s.  Standing about 5’4” or so, she was unpretentious and humble but incredibly helpful and supportive.

She gave me clues on where I should start, which were echoed in meetings with George Watts Hill, Josephine Clement, Southgate Jones Jr., Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans and Elna Spaulding, all contemporaries of Mrs. Haywood who have also now passed on.

I wasn’t so brave as to expect an interview with these people but often the people I would contact for referral's would insist on paving the way.  Each not only knew first hand several generations of Durham natives back to the very first but had been an activist for Durham.

Margaret Haywood, I would learn from others, fed up with the failed policies of urban renewal, had helped instigate what I call a “sense of place revolt” while in her 50s.

It was an insurrection sparked in defense of the 1920s-era Carolina Theater, which in the early to mid-1970s had been targeted for demolition to create a parking lot by local officials.

The “sense of place revolt” she and cohorts inspired not only saved the cultural landmark, but forged an organization as guardian of other landmarks as well as an inventory of historic treasures by state officials throughout what we call the City Center District today.

As a result, this commercial district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the first in North Carolina so recognized.

Often it is those who raise the funds who get the credit—as they should—while co-conspirators in “sense of place revolts” such as Mrs. Haywood, are overlooked because they take a more strategic role.

The “sense of place revolt” led by Haywood and others raged for a decade, inspiring efforts by others to safeguard other ingredients and assets that make up Durham’s sense of place.

It inspired Duke student to rally in support of a historic black neighborhood and commercial district in the path of the Durham Freeway and formation of an alliance of neighborhoods and the banning billboards.

Others simultaneously worked with landowners and developers to establish a scenic overlay along Durham’s stretch of I-40 and push for signature landscaping around the co-owned airport.

It is through the unsung grit, determination and valor symbolized by Haywood that also a new breed of developer was inspired to begin adaptation of historic structures.

Two decades before their now idolized successors, they initiated the trend of converting these sense of place assets into restaurants, residences, stores and offices rather than just grumble about them being in the way.

A decade before Margaret’s “sense of place revolt” sparked what would become a complete renaissance of Downtown Durham over the next three decades, the New York Times had, in the wake of the tragic implosion of Old Penn Station in that community to make way for an nondescript office tower, penned:

“We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

That, too, spawned a “sense of place revolt” to preserve and adaptively use other landmarks there.

Margaret Haywood is proof that the self-less determination of just a few individuals can save a community’s distinct sense of place from forces that would otherwise homogenize it.

To use a phrase coined by one of my co-workers at the time I first met Mrs. Haywood, communities really can “fast forward without saying goodbye to yesterday.”

Today, Durham’s sense of place is at risk again, but this time from a another breed of developer, who was drawn to this sense of place, but now seems eager to pollute it with “franchise architecture,” and “formula developments” that drive up rents and hollow out the authenticity of its tenants.

All Margaret Haywood could focus on that day we first talked was the failure to save the historic Washington Duke Hotel from implosion a year or so after the revolt.

Opening in 1925 within a year of the Carolina Theater, the hotel had cost $1.8 million, seven times the cost of the theater and nearly $25 million in today’s dollars.

It was the finest hotel in the South at the time.

A mid-century annex is being restored today as one of several hotels around the CCB Plaza where the old Washington Duke once stood, including a 21c Museum Hotel and a boutique hotel called The Durham.

More than a decade later, people in Durham that December would recall to me its implosion with descriptions of clouds of debris flooding downtown streets similar to what we saw when terrorists brought down the Twin Towers in New York, but without the horrific human tragedy.

The implosion, even more than the demolition of Union Station here a few years earlier, galvanized some—but not all—Durham residents around sense of place.

And we would see on the heels of those initiatives I mentioned earlier incredible design incongruity of public facilities such as the Civic Center, Detention Center, Performing Arts Center, Transportation Center and Human Services Building.

I’m reminded by a friend that in the early 1970s, after a Southern business and development magazine labeled Durham a “hot dog” town, Haywood and some friends formed Pride Builders of Durham.

It was a precursor to a grass-roots successor we would forge two decades later as Durham Image Watch involving hundreds of resident volunteers who rallied to help Durham’s community destination marketing fulfill its role as guardian of image, identity and sense of place.

Business and university executives, as well as most politicians and executives of other types of economic development organizations are wary of standing up so overtly on behalf of a community, although most were very supportive when DCVB did.

There were always a few exceptions during my career.  Some would join with us when asked, balancing out a far bigger number who would duck for cover, and a few more trying to pull us back for fear of rocking the boat.

But residents of Durham both in public opinion polls and through personal involvement always wanted us to do more, especially those I mentioned above and none more than Margaret Haywood and her Pride Builders.

The implosion of the old hotel in 1975 spurred local officials a few months later to launch a consultant-led study of the feasibility of a new civic/convention center for the old hotel’s site.

But its location, when erected a little more than a decade later, would be hijacked when officials tore down another full block of historic buildings across the street instead to appease the developer of an office tower.

This island of incoherence remains an inspiration for those who today seem more pursuant instead of “franchise architecture” and corrosion of of sense of place, aided by some sworn or elected to defend it.

Today, thanks in part to the community marketing that gave it oxygen and awareness beginning in 1989, Durham is now recognized as one of the country’s “foodiest” towns, including perhaps even hot dogs.

But unless repeatedly called to task by citizen activists like Margaret Haywood, Durham often seems to take two steps forward only to inexplicably take one or two back when fostering the sense of place.

In her 80s by then and more than two decades after that “sense of place revolt,” Margaret was still rallying others to step forward, this time for a Museum of Durham History to memorialize Durham’s sense of place.

The struggle continues to keep Durham distinct, both in the economic importance of being different and its worthiness of love.

It may even require another “sense of place” revolt.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Looking Back To A Revealing Era of Common Sense

As if on cue each year, news reports in Durham, North Carolina will headline that the convention center here ran a deficit as if there shouldn’t be one or that this wasn’t expected when it was built.

A new book I recently finished inspired me to read back through each of three feasibility studies that were conducted between 1972 to 1982 for facilities of this type on behalf of each of the three different mid-sized cities in different parts of the country.

This was the first of my now concluded four decades in visitor-centered economic and cultural development during which I would represent these three cities.

It is a span when studies such as these seemed far better grounded and realistic than many before or since.

Last reported, the annual deficit for the civic/convention center in Durham, where I still live in retirement, was $104,000.  That is without netting out tax revenues generated from related visitor activity or even parking revenues.

If they had, it would cover that amount by more than double.

Leading up to construction of the facility, consultants warned the City based on a 1977 survey of convention centers in other cities in North Carolina, to expect a deficit of around $450,000 annually or about $1.8 million in today’s dollars.

The fact is, cultural infrastructure doesn’t “pay” for itself any more than roads or other types of infrastructure.  The only difference is that communities very rarely build roads that aren’t needed.

But in-depth research going back nearly a century reveals that local officials across the country have long been pushed by business interests to build stadiums, convention centers, and increasing over the last decade, performing arts centers.

Ostensibly this is for tourism-related purposes but the real motives have been to shore up the values of surrounding private property in downtowns.

From their own public records including private papers, it is clear this has most often been done, to paraphrase their words, as a means of “shoring up” downtown property values or “insulating” them from “erosion” in nearby neighborhoods.

Other ulterior motives were to act as “anchors” to facilitate private loans or as “people generators.”

If a cultural facility is ever reported to be breaking even, it is usually a sign that ancillary revenues are being included while costs related to capital and site preparation are conveniently not.Durham Convention Center

Feasibility consultants up through the 1970s, called convention centers by the name “civic” centers because they knew that “75% of the days in a year that the civic center is in use is for local meetings, dances, banquets, [expositions] etc.”

Even today scientific surveys of residents show that more experience a civic/convention center in a given year than any other cultural facility.

Eventually renaming them convention centers, this was said to appease a handful of meeting planners seeking ego gratification, but the real reason, along with pressure to increasingly overstate performance, was to rationalize using visitor taxes as a means to avoid public referendums.

Durham dodged a bullet when it waited ten years after that 1977 feasibility study to secure voter approval to build a civic/convention center, but still at the modest size that had been originally recommended.

Consultants could see back then that far more cost/benefit accrued to centers just 9% of the size of today’s behemoths and less than half the size of centers back then.

Even then, before it ever opened, the Durham Civic Center was situated so as to fulfill its role related to surrounding private property values.

Many other cities over the next two decades, would go on a “big game hunting” binge, doubling the amount of similar space across the nation, while convention and meeting tourism began a long, gradual decline.  The proportion using these facilities plummeted to just 8%, at tops 15%.

The same thing is happening now with performing arts centers with hundreds of new facilities opening in just the last decade while Americans attending concerts as a percentage of the U.S. population has remained flat at around 22% and even down in areas such as touring Broadway.

But based on the findings of urban policy-making researchers, nearly all of these cultural facilities fulfilled their primary “real estate” purpose before they ever opened, pimping tourism merely as a means to access funding without voter scrutiny.

Though undetected yet due to systemic changes in the convention/meeting/facilities landscape, we know know that convention/civic centers were destined to become unviable by the 1980s.

But based on performance surveys of convention centers in the mid-1970s, it was estimated that, on average, these facilities should expect to harvest up to 45% of the overall convention and meeting attendance in their communities.

The overall nationwide decline in convention and meeting demand was imperceptible and unfathomable in the 1970s,  But it would soon begin to show graphs as each dip in demand began to fall slightly lower than the last and each subsequent rise peaked short of the one prior.

It has continued with few exceptions over the past four decades, still undetected by those zooming in on too tight a focus.

Unaware, consultants in the mid-1970s, as they did for Durham, would often predict that a community’s “delegate count would not increase significantly without facilities provided by a civic center.”

This mantra would prove wrong as would a pervasive amnesia about the primary use of these facilities being local.

But what also wasn’t anticipated was the sudden explosion across the country in the number of major convention hotels across the nation (with at least 150 guest rooms and at least 5,000 square feet of meeting space.)

An even bigger surprise was how much more popular they would become nationally than civic/convention centers.

It was inconceivable to consultants in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the proportion of conventions interested in convention/civic centers as a venue would soon plummet rather than skyrocket as predicted.

It is the miscalculation that haunts many cities today where sense of place has been exchanged for things bright and shiny only to find their overall appeal diminished.

Using Durham as an example, forecasts in 1977 for Durham estimated only a slight increase in the number of guest rooms over the next few years and a leveling off during the remainder of the 1980s.

Instead, by the time Durham’s convention center and an adjacent private hotel opened, there were already 10 or more convention hotels across the community vying to harvest conventions and meetings drawn here.

By the time its center opened, Durham was already drawing a third more convention attendees overall than had been projected by the consultant.

With a community destination marketing organization then in place, within three years Durham, community-wide, was drawing more than three times that amount and would soon eclipse its fair market share of that segment of visitors.

But in part because under contract it was held hostage to the priorities of the adjacent hotel, which naturally limited its availability when more lucrative visitors were available, the convention center was harvesting only 8% of Durham’s convention attendees instead of the 46% projected.

Still, as the consultant had forecast in 1977, even the existence of a very modest civic/convention center can often serve a role in a community’s marketing appeal to meeting planners even though the events are ultimately held elsewhere in Durham.

Of course, this is a very expensive way to amplify marketing, but should be credited when considering operating deficits.

One elected official obsessing a decade ago about the center’s operating deficit quipped in a moment of frustration to a group looking at data showing the local tax revenue generated by visitors who attend conventions and meetings:

Why do we care about meetings held in other parts of town, we need to close that facility’s deficit!

A more strategic member of the group quickly reminded the group:

That this would be “fiscally cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.”

Another added to the chorus of nods around the room, “more like Hara-kiri.”

This would have robbed the city coffers of millions of dollars in revenue from conventions and meetings and undermined scores of businesses just for the sake of avoiding uninformed criticism.

It varies, but the convention/civic center in Durham generally harvests about 25% of Durham’s overall convention attendance.  While not the 45% projected in 1977, this is two to three times the proportion held in convention centers nationwide.

By the time I retired five years ago, the percentage of meetings using convention centers nationwide had dropped to between 8% and 15%, depending on the report, with nearly 90% of conventions and meetings now using convention hotels or other types of lodging with meeting facilities.

During the course of my career, the proportion using convention/civic centers fell by more than 80%, by nearly a quarter in the last few years alone while the communities I represented continued to grow and exceed market share for that visitor segment.

So it isn’t likely Durham’s facility can somehow buck that trend.

Another systemic change that has occurred since the late 1970s is the proportion of day-trip to overnight attendees going to conventions and meetings.

Even today, consultants will often project that as many as 75% of attendance at conventions and meetings held in convention/civic centers will be overnight.

But even when daytrip attendees who travel less than 50 miles are excluded (and they shouldn’t be), 41% of attendees are now “local.”   Fully a third of the attendance now at major national conventions comes from within each state where the meeting is held.

Overnight delegates aren’t quite half of attendees.

But as I retired in 2009, even in major convention destinations such as New York City, only 39% of the attendees at conventions and trade shows (not exhibitions) held in its 1.8 million square foot convention center were overnight visitors and more than a fifth were local residents.

Overnight delegates attending events in the 700,000 square foot convention center in Washington D.C. represented just 4% of the community’s total.

Even as long ago as 1993, as the newly opened civic center in Durham was finding its legs, consultants for the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, using historical data there, found only 45% of attendees to conventions were overnight visitors.

Still, other cities, including nearby Raleigh and Charlotte, tore down those facilities the Durham consultant found to be too large to be optimal in 1977 and erected new ones five times larger, the former out of envy for the latter according to an editorial there.

As I retired five years ago, the performance of Charlotte’s much larger center was barely measuring up to that much smaller predecessor, harvesting about what the other one did in 1991.

Cities that open huge convention centers such as these also find, if they are looking that is, that as a percentage of overall visitation they are drawing the same as cities with much more modest facilities such as Durham.

Even though it has a 3.2 million square foot (soon to be 3.7) convention center, Las Vegas draws the same proportion of its visitation to attend conventions that Durham does.

Its proportion of visitors attending conventions has been relatively unchanged through three expansions, even though 50-60% of delegates say they were more likely to attend because the convention was held there.

On top of the glacial decline in convention business nationwide, the migration of more and more to hotels and trends to lower proportions of overnight attendees, the massive oversupply of convention center space has caused these cities to shell out subsidies to secure business, adding to its deficits.

But conventions and meetings nationwide now have fallen below 9% of overall visitor person stays while the annual number of visitors being drawn to destinations such as Durham has been increased four-fold since the convention/civic center opened.

Shackled to mega-facilities, other cities are siphoning away marketing dollars that would bring a far greater return if redeployed to other visitor segments.

Durham will soon have 578 lodging guest rooms within walking`` distance of its micro-sized convention/civic center and another 145 nearby, nearly what it had back when the facility was first studied in 1977, but still fewer than what consultants had suggested would be spurred when the facility was built.

But Durham officials should question very seriously any future calls for a new or expanded center.  As it did in the 1980s, Durham should buck any effort to do so for ulterior motives such as propping up, insulating or anchoring real estate values.

The facility is doing just fine and outperforming the national average for proportion of convention attendance harvested by a convention center by nearly double.

Judging by market data and the lack of performance by larger facilities in other cities, it is highly unlikely that with more space it would be able to do any better than it is now and there are much less expensive ways to improve visitation.

Instead, officials are better advised to put the effort into better educating news outlets and the general public.

The ultimate return from cultural facilities, like that of other public infrastructure, is found strategically in a vibrant community not some narrow and arbitrary bottom line.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Featherweight Menace

A comprehensive survey of litter across America in 2008 published a year later showed an estimate, by weight, of 5 million tons.

But that metric is less and less relevant.  Litter simply weighs less today.

That’s also why it is so difficult to believe it has been reduced by 60% since 1969 when the push intensified nationwide to curb this form of blight, including billboards, a legalized form.

Plastic overall contributed nearly a fifth of the litter stream back in 2008 but because of the proliferation of plastic bags and other types of plastic film, the next survey may need to find another metric other than weight.

That report also signaled that surveys focused primarily on roadways are no longer enough.

Other forms of litter declined by anywhere from 74% to 88%, but plastic in the litter stream has jumped an incredible 165%.

An even greater amount is now blighting areas other than roadways.

These off-road parts of the litter stream include transition areas to roadways, loading docks, construction, recreation and retail areas, urban and rural streams and other waterways (as shown below off Fish Dam Road in Durham near a tributary flowing into a reservoir here used for drinking water down in Raleigh.)

In streams and waterways is where plastic bags have become especially ubiquitous, threatening drinking water and even our oceans where they “form large, swirling, glue-like collection zones” in “gyres” comprising as much as “40% of the planet’s ocean surface.”

Having no local government agency fully accountable, places such as Durham where I live, rely instead on volunteer clean up efforts along urban and rural waterways here.Fish Dam

But no amount of volunteer passion can work without agency capacity in the interim, just as no amount of capacity can make a difference without public servant passion.

Public education efforts fail because they aren’t targeted.  Some are fearful of the apparent links between littering as a behavior, lack of education, smoking, depression, obesity, parenting style, poverty and drug use because it may reflect poorly on various groups.

This may be why those involved in cleanup steadfastly refuse to involve forensics or law enforcement to trace origins of litter.

Plastic film such as plastic bags is as light as it is ubiquitous.

This volume-to-weight ratio undermines its inclusion in far more scalable curbside recycling because judging from Madison, Wisconsin, it takes a year or more to collect enough in communities the size of Durham to have a full truckload.

Retailers such as dry cleaners, grocers and general merchandisers, 18,000 outlets in all, now provide recycling barrels for plastic bags.  They can do this because they merely back-haul them in returning delivery trucks and then forward this critical mass to recyclers specializing in turning them back into more bags and film or decking.

Still, while accessible by 70% of Americans, it represents only 18% of recycled plastic film, with curbside another 3%, as of a report on 2012 released this year.  This is only part of the 141 million pounds of consumer-returned plastic bags and wraps returned for recycling.

If the free market was efficient, the cost of cleaning up the bags that are not recycled would be built into their per unit price to recompense businesses and government units overwhelmed by the problem.

But the market isn’t that efficient and billions of dollars in costs are passed off on other businesses and taxpayers.  Because policy-makers are so fearful of anti-tax groups, as is often happening now, the bags clog storm drains, water ways, blight neighborhoods, suppress property values and threaten public health and wildlife.

Anti-tax enthusiasts are essentially believers in the idea of a free-lunch, a dole for the free market.

They tie the hands of officials to clean this sh*t up, leaving the cost of what little removal is done added to the cost of doing business, which gets passed along as higher prices for goods and services, reduced property values and public health.

The question is can we afford these zealots?

Of course, these are the folks who rolled their eyes at the news recently that policy-makers in California have prohibited much of the 14 billion plastic bags handed out by retailers there each year by banning their use in grocery stores and large pharmacies by 2015 and convenience stores by 2016.

According to USA Today, it also allows grocers to charge 10 cents for paper and reusable bags and provided $2 million in loans to help manufactures shift to a new model.

The loans make sense based on a report this summer that paper bag recyclers are moving into the recycling of plastic film such as plastic shopping bags.

The approach of banning post-consumer use is patterned after the success of similar bans by cities and counties.

Nationwide, Americans go through 110 billion single-use plastic bags a year, about 60 per family for every four trips to the store.  It has only been since 1982 that grocery chains began the shift to plastic bags.

Now we use about 60,000 every five seconds, much of which makes it into the litter stream along roadsides and in streams and waterways.

There will be some equally negative—if less visible—trade-offs.  If paper bags make their way into landfills instead of being recycled, they create more harmful greenhouse gases, breaking down faster than plastic bags which break down slowly.

Banning sales or distribution of plastic poop bags to clean up after pets will mean an increase in the toxic wastes in parks, beaches, businesses and the yards of innocent homeowners, not to mention storm runoff and contaminated drinking supplies.

No, all poop isn’t equal when it comes to microbial load.  A recent study along beaches for example have found that 1 dog “fecal event” was equal to nearly 7,000 bird “fecal events,” the next largest animal source.

America’s 83.3 million dogs (not counting those running wild) generate an estimated more than 32,000 tons of waste a day, enough to fill 285,000 fully loaded tractor trailers.

Two or three days of droppings from a hundred dogs is enough to shut down watersheds within 20 miles to swimming.  That’s a hell of a lot of microbial load.

As long ago as 1978, researchers in Massachusetts found that dog feces alone were sufficient to account for devastating closures of shellfish beds there.

A single gram of dog poop can contain more than 23 million coliform bacteria.  Even if people choose to use their own yard as a sewer, in a place such as Durham where each acre receives between 1 and 1.5 million gallons of water each year, it becomes a matter of public health concern for the entire community.

But other than making plastic bags water soluble and toxin free, what other option is there than to restrict their use?  I know they exist because I had to order them one year when we lived in an apartment and my dearly departed English Bulldog, Toady, developed Alzheimer’s.

In a fair world, only the 10% of Americans (including 15% of Republicans, 8% of Independents and 6% of Democrats) whose rabid anti-tax-ness hollows out the capacity to deal with problems such as this would suffer from the diseases and complications brought on by their shortsightedness.

Only the 17% of Americans who litter would shoulder the costs of cleanup.  Only the 15% of Americans who never clean up after their dog would step in it or have it pollute their drinking water.

But the world isn’t fair, nor is the free market sufficient until such time that it comprehensively incorporates “full-cost” accounting.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Reflections on The Landscape of A Heritage

As I noted recently, I am the only son of an only son, born midway between my dad and his first granddaughter but as hard on him as he was on his father.

If he were still with us or if he is looking down now, he would be even more proud of her than he was at her birth, now a single mother, lawyer and chief privacy officer for a major healthcare concern spread over dozens of cities and towns across our ancestral landscape.

I was the end of the line of more than a hundred years of ranching but in the late 1840s, these ancestors didn’t begin as ranchers.  They came to the Rockies as carriage makers, saw mill operators, molasses manufacturers, cavalry troopers, miners even a dirt farmer or two (smile – rancher humor.)

But collectively they understood that settling and homesteading and building communities from scratch involved commons such as that where his granddaughter ranges in another way.

He’d also be the first to remark at what a perfect blend she is of each of her parents, but equally important would be what she has done to express those equal sets of genes including molding a career blending law, management, technology and innovation.

My dad also would give a smiling nod at the pride my urbanite grandsons and daughter take in our Idaho ranch heritage.

On our final leg to an annual lakeside family rendezvous in the northern Rockies last month at the hospitality of my youngest sister and her family, they took delight when a cowboy hat they picked out for me turned out to be identical to one their great-great grandfather wears in family photographs.

Already with enough cowboy hats and boots to last several lifetimes, I couldn’t help but wear it as we rode up into the Bitterroots that day, smiling at how frustrated my dad—their great-grandfather—appears in that same photograph at having to dismount.

Not yet 30, in an act of defiance, he refused to keep his hat on, revealing a rancher tan and a look of disgust I’ve seen in the mirror from time to time.  I see far more diverse evidence of his nervous system in his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.00085_p_10aeuyf6sw0449

I wish I could tell him every day how much I love and miss him and how I know I was hard on him.  We both eased up as I turned 30 years old, but we didn’t really clear the air until I was nearly 40 and he was a year younger than I am now.

My emotions were ambushed a few day ago when I first heard a new hit single by Garth Brooks interpreting a brilliant composition co-written by Marc Beeson and Allen Shamblin entitled “Send ‘Em On Down The Road” as I recalled that day when we too “…just threw that baseball back and forth till dark…:”

“he wanted to protect me but somehow my father knew

that you can cry for, live and die for,

you can let them find their wings but you can’t fly for

cause if they are not free to fall

then they are not free at all

and though you just can’t bear the thought of letting go

pick ‘em up, dust ‘em off and send ‘em on down the road”

Some of my favorite Garth Brooks’ songs include references to rodeos such as the iconic “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” echoing a variation of a quip my dad would repeat in the 1950s whenever he was greeted with, “How are you?”

It was co-written with a friend and rodeo rider Randy Taylor in Stillwater, Oklahoma where Brooks first performed it in 1986 at a club called Bink’s with his band Santa Fe.

Less than three years later, it was the singer’s debut hit single, just as I relocated to Durham, North Carolina in 1989 and where I still live in retirement.

But historically, true cowboys, aka Bedouins of the American West, were fast fading when Prescott, Arizona staged the first rodeo in 1888, inspired in part by the success of the Wild Bill Cody shows.

Until then, westerners viewed tourism as a way to recruit settlers and investment.  But Cheyenne, inspired by the “potato days” celebration just south in Greeley, created its Frontier Days Celebration in 1897.  By 1901, Denver added one to its local celebration.

By the time Pendleton, Oregon created its famous rodeo in 1910 and Idaho’s first rodeo, the War Bonnet Roundup, was organized in 1911 fifty miles south of our ranch, a circuit was forming.

When Tucson started its rodeo during the Prohibition, it was a tourist event, and when Old Tucson Daze began the year before I was born, it was, ironically, held on an old movie set.

The father of one of my classmates in high school is hall of famer Deb Copenhaver, a contemporary of my father, who won back to back world championships in bronc riding in the mid-1950s when I was 7 and 8 years old just younger than my grandsons now.

Rodeos are emblematic of the time when Westerners began to reflect what visitors from the East expected.  By the time I was born, it had become firmly embedded in Western identity, reinforcing that authenticity is a negotiation.

My parents married young at just ages 22 and 16, eloping over the Bitterroots to Bozeman, as my dad left to join a tank battalion propelling across France.  Initially, his dad had held him out of the war as an only son so the ranch could aid the war effort.

But when his same-age cousin and best friend, a tail gunner in a B-26, was shot down over northern Italy, my grandpa finally relented and allowed the ranch to go fallow as my grandparents put their only son in harms way.

Dad’s unit was part of Patton’s third army sweeping into southern Germany, liberating Dachau, the first concentration camp established leading up to the war, then changing to horses and spotter planes to patrol for Nazis fleeing into the Alps.

Coincidentally, one of the prisoners liberated there handed a young soldier from North Carolina what looked like a rock, and told him never to forget what happened there.

It was actually molten ashes from human beings incinerated in the huge ovens used by the Nazis to cremate prisoners who died or were gassed because they were unfit,

The day before this past Memorial Day, those ashes were laid to rest in a Hebrew Cemetery here in Durham where I live, which dates to the 1800s.

By the time I came along, my parents were still kids too at just 25 and 19, and they had grown incompatible in some ways while apart.

They were still “two hearts on fire,” to borrow a line from a Shenandoah song written by Hugh Prestwood, but researchers now know that what held them together for more than thirty years was a shared style of parenting.

Its something researchers have just found in successful parents that is “distinct from their romantic relationship.”

In the typology of four parenting styles, my parents were “authoritative,” the mix of “authoritarian and responsive” practiced by 32% of parents.

I know now that researchers find that this style correlates to the “concerted cultivation” common to middle class parents or parents who successfully keep or move their children up into the middle class.

More wealthy parents are often negligent or permissive including many so-called “helicopter parents” today who mistake over controlling and frenetic hyperactivity with cultivation.

Researchers have pinpointed that a natural or more free-range style or permissive style of parenting found among many who are poor is one of factors that perpetuates poverty in their children and differentiates them from poor parents intent on breaking that cycle.

One of my siblings seems only to recall my parents as “authoritarian,” perhaps because she didn’t witness the differences two of us saw in the parenting styles of parents who truly were.

Regardless, I am incredibly grateful and credit my parents for any success I enjoy as well as the legacy I see in their grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

There is always a tiny nugget to be gleaned. Then go shower.

Before I touch on new research supporting the importance of authentic sense of place, let me touch on one of the ironies from my four decade career as a guardian of sense of place.

It is how much time is required in that profession to defend communities from mainstream tourism interests.

Those drawn to the appeal of sense of place but then from  overbuilding and lack of differentiation brought on by ubiquity, soon begin to cannibalize it instead.

Desperately demanding more and more promotional oxygen to subsidize their responsibility to fill beds and seats, they instead begin sucking away at what is meant to promote the community at large and fuel overall visitation.

During the 1970s and 1980s, it was from convention-related hotels, and meeting or event planners demanding kick-backs or subsidies or facility-driven public officials desperate to obscure deficits when public facilities were no longer warranted.

In the 1990s, it was from mega-event “big-game hunters” intent on subsidies to secure events far too large to fit or held only at times that displaced as much or more demand than they generated.

In the 2000s, my final decade, it was from mainstream events and performing arts facilities which, desperate from overbuilding hundred more than warranted, sought to monopolize attention far disproportional to their percentage of visitor potential, at the risk to less pretentious forms.

If that isn’t enough, there are always one of two elected officials impatient for returns from leveraged visitor spending, who seek to drain away promotional resources.

So why did I love my career so much?

Because communities worth loving as places to live are places people find worthy of visiting.  They are the reason the vast majority of people travel away from their homes at all.

That “authenticity” must be protected and carefully nurtured even during the process of creating awareness and appeal.

Because guarding and leveraging sense of place is also incredibly worthwhile and rewarding.

But I still took time to listen very carefully to those who sought to undermine sense of place, even if intentionally.

Not only was there always a fragment of value to be gleaned but it made me think and reflect more deeply about my own assumptions and the data behind them.

As Dr. Robert Reich recently commented, “there is no better way to learn than to talk to someone who disagrees with you.”

The annual study of leisure travelers who now make up 3-in-4 visitor stays includes indices of areas of importance as well as travel style broken down by generation.Destination Analysts Indices

“Nature” scores above 50%, and nearly 65% for “boomers” such as me.

But “authenticity,” the desire for real destinations vs. commercial or mainstream tourism product, is more important across all generations but even more so among Millennials as is “culinary interests,”  engaging in a destination’s arts and cultural assets, and “exploration.”

“Activities,” are among the least important across all generations.

For many communities, this awareness is far too late.  Their sense of place and authenticity has already been hollowed out by preoccupation with mega-facilities and events, mainstream culture and arts, cookie-cutter lodging, formula stores and chain restaurants.

For communities still clinging desperately to their sense of place against the forces of homogenization, the lessons from this report and many others I’ve linked to in essays key-worded as “authenticity,” are clear:

  • Focus marketing efforts on unique sense of place assets such as indigenous art and festivals, green infrastructure, historic preservation, organically evolved districts, and locally-owned stores and restaurants.
  • Keep mainstream elements in their place while teaching them how to embrace the authentic characteristics of a community.
  • Be ever vigilant of the dangers that come with success such as “fear of saying no,” “churn,” “unholy alliances between policy makers and powerful special interests,” and “envy.”
  • Forsake those who claim “special knowledge” and relentlessly pursue critical and strategic thinking, differentiation, data and information-driven decision-making.
  • Beware of the incestuous deadly sins of complacency and envy of other places.
  • Eschew desecration marketing, including billboards, as well as other “yelling” forms of advertising.  Generously invest in the sharing of valuable content, earned attention and respect is the most valuable.
  • Religiously foster and protect distinctiveness and carefully guard against decisions that glitter but merely make a community one of many.

And always strive to listen, especially in the face of spittle, condescension, disrespect, anger, drama, exile, character assassinations, bribes, end-runs, betrayals, sycophants, demands and cabals.

There is always a tiny nugget to be gleaned.  Then go shower.

Be fearless.  Communities still worthy of love, still worthy of visitation, and still having a soul will always be worth fighting for.