Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tidal Floods and Durham’s Temporal Resume

I live in what geologists call a “rift basin.”  Along the eastern edge of Durham, North Carolina marks where the continents of North America and Africa broke apart creating a widening gap filled with the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of millions of years ago.

On the other side of the jointly-owned airport, Raleigh lies down in a “falls zone” marking a bay of the vast coastal plain that forms nearly a half of North Carolina, essentially an ancient, receded tidal flood plain.

Early explorers such as John Lawson would have probably recognized this “falls zone” as where rivers began to cascade down water falls created by a fault line where he passed over what is now northeastern Durham, before they slowed and widened out on their way to the ocean.

So named is Falls Lake created in Durham in 1981 from three rivers flowing down from an ancient volcanic arc around northern Durham.  It was impounded as a means to fuel the growth of Raleigh and Wake County, which at one end of that violent arc notoriously had trouble percolating water.

There is a fascinating, easy to read book co-written in 2007 by a science writer here Durham along with a geologist down at UNC-Chapel Hill, entitled Exploring the Geology of the Carolinas.

It includes a map of physiography showing that the coastal plain doesn’t underlie Raleigh from the east but pushes up into that community from Fayetteville and the Sand Hills to the south as a sort of bay.

My interest is not coincidental.  It is highly recommended that anyone inventorying the sense of a particular place, as I did for Durham, begin with its geologic formation where distinctiveness first takes root.

I josh about Durham having once been a “beach town” but it was at least along a sound or an Intracoastal Waterway, and might be again some day.  Its elevation is measured at 404 feet above sea level.  But parts are much higher and where I live slightly lower.

It has been worn down by erosion over time and its underlying rift filled with softer Triassic sediment makes it vulnerable to legislators prematurely pushing natural gas extraction, known as “fracking,” even before questions about the technology’s threat to water quality are resolved.

This is how “representative” democracy turns despotic because Durhamites have virtually no say or way to vote their conscience against those wreaking this unique havoc on only a few very narrow slices of North Carolina.

It turns out those defiant about “states’ rights” are worse than any federalist in their refusal of “locals’ rights.”

There are many reasons to visit the 84+ acre Museum of Life and Science in Durham but one is Explore the Wild, an exhibit wonderfully retro-purposed back to wetlands and habitat for wildlife from an old quarry.

Dormant since 1939, the quarry dated back to the early 1900s when  motor vehicles emerged making creation of roads a higher priority.

As the quarry deepen nearly a hundred years ago, it exposed part of Durham’s geology unique to much of North Carolina including nearby settlements.

This is just one of several quarries here now reclaimed by nature including one as a 4-acre lake with a 60’ cliff tempting to divers and another as an emergency city reservoir.

At one time the mountains of western North Carolina were as high as those around Mt. Everest, meaning the width of the base would slope to what is now Durham adding “mountain town” to its sense of place resume at one time.

We’re “playing with fire” ‘er…better make that floods…when it comes to mitigating our human effect on global warming dating to the mid-1700s with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

But in the history of the earth where I live, sea levels at one time spiked 20 feet higher than today and scientists have evidence there was a time it spiked 800 feet higher here, making Winston-Salem a beach town and all of the state’s other major cities mere novelties for deep sea divers.

Globally, sea levels have risen eight inches since 1880 according to analysis of records in a new scientific report entitled Encroaching Tides.

People who live along the coast see this in the increased days of tidal flooding, which in some communities has quadrupled in frequency over just the past forty years.  Or maybe they are like the frog that fails to detect when water is slowly brought to boiling.

It isn’t just the nuisance that flood events represent now.  Tidal events rise exponentially to overall sea levels and already they are disrupting commerce and related tax revenues, often stretching through entire neighborhoods.

But the report calibrates that these regular flood events are also due to reach far farther into communities all along the Atlantic coast.  If confused by claims of projections being partisan, just ask those in the business of insuring risk.

The report breaks down what the increase means to specific coastal communities by comparing tidal flooding today with what it will become in 15 year increments out to 2045.

Here in North Carolina, the report looks at the communities of Duck, Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington, the state’s eighth largest city and a port.

Duck along the very northeast corner of our coastline will increase from 8 annual flooding events currently to 32 by 2030 and to 126 by 2045.  Farther south, tony Wrightsville Beach will increase from 8 currently to 29 by 2030 and 90 by 2045.

Flood events in Wilmington will increase from 44 a year now to 133 by 2030 and 343 by 2045, with each one penetrating farther and farther inland, which means such communities need to take the actions recommended in the report seriously.

Scenarios beyond 2045 predict that these flood events will continue to increase.  If I am lucky enough to live as long as my mother has, I will see portions of coastal communities abandoned and not just in New Jersey where the coastal plain is 1/10th as wide.

For coastal towns, my jest about Durham being able to one day add “beach town” back to its sense of place resume is no laughing matter, nor is developer-driven stalling in the legislature.

But all the same, I think I’ll continue to put off any inkling to ever rent or buy a beach house and stick with my preference for mountain lake cabins.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Engagement Elephant In The Room

People never accused me of being disengaged or uninspired during my four decade career in community marketing.

Mystifying until I began studying Gallup’s longitude studies of workplace engagement was that 70% of those with whom I had contact or tried to enlist for support were disengaged, 20% even working at odds.

Usually folks like that attack you for style but no matter how much I modulated my style or grew in my job, they remained at best a drag on community performance.

This breakdown of engagement is also roughly true of public servants and elected officials but no more or less so than among those working in large private sector organizations.

Researchers think 70% of workforce engagement can be influenced by management although it is a lot easier to hire engaged employees in the first place.

But it is a lot harder to influence the “unengaged” in corporate and public bureaucracies.  This is why I have so much admiration for those who can thrive working within large entities without losing their sanity.

Regardless of having a high level of personal passion and engagement, I had to work hard every day on learning how to manage people right up until I retired.  But I restlessly tweaked the culture of the small organization I led to compensate for my inadequacies, often achieving workplace excellence citations.

Being made a CEO in my mid-20s only meant I had a much steeper and longer learning curve as well intense pressure to continuously and never endingly improve.  I simply had to try harder than most to evolve.

In general, engagement is only slightly higher though among managers.  Females tend to be more engaged on average than males and engagement among both genders on average increases noticeably under female management.

Studies also show that women are better at managing and less egocentric under stress and at avoiding risky strategies.

Equally problematic is celebrating successes in the workplace.

Engaged people tend to know how to celebrate their successes internally.  No amount of celebration seems to make a difference with those who can’t even when spoon fed.

Engagement takes shape in pre-school years when critical executive function skills are established usually as a result of parenting styles.

It is probably futile and definitely unrealistic to expect teachers, police officers, co-workers and management to somehow compensate, no matter how hard they try.

Society is greatly worried in this regard about young males and they should be.  Only 1-in-5 of this group is engaged or inspired by anything.  While more visible where poverty has taken root, this condition cuts across all socio-economic strata.

People who live in less ethnically diverse areas know that engagement/disengagement is not just about socioeconomics which is hard to accept for those intent on fostering social justice.

The roots of disengagement are put down long before society had any influence which is probably why all of the “reinventing” of management and safety nets over the years have not pushed the needle for engagement.

This is why putting all of our eggs in teacher quality or micromanaging curriculum or obsessively “helicopter” parenting will continue to have only marginal impact on engagement overall.

For a few years in the late 1990s, I worked with an educator who passed away last week.  Then at Durham Public Schools, he was a genius at mining data to spot patterns useful to understand and close gaps in student performance.

One thing that troubled him greatly was why the children of parents who had risen up from poverty or modest backgrounds to achieve degrees in higher education and who earned good household incomes, were trending downward in school performance notwithstanding these advantages.

As far as he could tell, the phenomena had been taking place for several decades, perhaps because parents assumed those conditions were enough to perpetuate student engagement.

Possibly because the condition might destabilize theories about correlations and triggers for student performance, no one seems to have unwrapped it further, at least that I’ve seen.

None of us are eager to accept where the true pressure point lies, not because becoming the greatest nation on earth has made us soft, but because it has to do with something so very personal, far more personal than even cultural or religious or political affiliation.

There simply are no requirements for having or raising children during the years when engagement is instilled.  No age requirement, no licensure or meaningful certification courses, no track record, no scorecard, no qualifications nor any kind of rating.

No amount of pressure on educators, police, courts or government can compensate for what isn’t happening during those first few years of life.

Even early intervention such as the renowned Harlem Children’s Zone can only mitigate and even then where replicated such as in Durham with the East Durham Children’s Initiative, its scalability is often hampered by lack of capacity and overarching emphasis.

In my adopted home, too many have attention deficit when it comes to being strategic which fosters grant-happy list checking and initiative-churn instead.

Where practiced with sufficient intensity, It has proven even more important to achievement than quality schools but inaccurately assumed to be important only for those in poverty.

But the problems that underlie disengagement among 70% of the workforce including managers are far more pervasive and systemic than socio-economic status.

The answers may lie in deepening and embracing research explained in books such as Mindset and Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life.

Until we somehow deal with a parenting and pre-parenting as responsibilities not just rights, we’re just chasing our proverbial tails.

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 Grand 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.