Tuesday, September 02, 2014

7 Things To Look For In Feasibility/Impact Studies

Supply-side economic developers often latch on to tourism as a rationale for mega-facilities such as theaters, stadiums and civic/convention centers, even though that demand-side form isn’t remotely their forte.

They do this as a means to siphon off visitor-related taxes as a means of financing things that will avoid voter scrutiny, masking that the real purpose for the facilities is to prop up nearby private property values so as to better enable development.

Flattered to have tourism acknowledged at all, in some places, demand-side community destination marketing organizations have played along, or worse, failed to grasp the inherent supremacy of demand-driven economic development.

Fortunately, as was almost pathetically apparent recently at the 100th annual conference of DMO execs, this clique is a dying breed.

It is easy to find fault with feasibility consultants, who in a perfect world, should be brought in to do a needs and impact assessment unfettered by the “push and pull” agendas of advocates and local officials who have already made up their minds and only seek cover.

So increasingly, the ability to dissect feasibility studies both to keep them objective and as probing as possible, and then later, to further dissect reports for news outlets, concerned residents, neighborhood groups and any still-objective officials, is a requirement of being a demand-side DMO exec.

The importance of learning to fulfill this thankless task first emerged as a “best practice” nearly three decades ago (1985) when a handful of DMOs began to circulate a ground-breaking essay coining the term sense of place.  They also began to grasp the risks inherent in mega-facilities.

Central to what had become a movement a decade ago is the increasingly irrefutable mountain of evidence that if mainstream mega-facilities such as these are not proportional in scale and very delicately feathered into the ecosystem of what makes a community distinct, they rapidly hollow out its appeal.

Why does this responsibility fall to demand-side destination marketing organizations?  First of all, it’s because they must be intimate with sense of place to craft appeals to visitors, including more than 8-in-10 newcomers and relocating executives.

This also makes them, by default, responsible as the guardians of sense of place.

The second reason this responsibility falls to DMOs is that this is the organization in a community charged with spearheading overall visitation, including any portion necessary to pay off the debt on these facilities, as well as that which can be harvested by these facilities to make them sustainable.

Here are 7 things I learned to look for during my now-concluded four-decade career when assessing feasibility/impact assessments for mega-facilities:

Residential Burden from Visitor-related Taxes

Just because they are called visitor or tourist taxes does mean there isn’t a cost to residents and other local businesses.

This is far more than the small amount economists have identified through research that will be absorbed by the businesses collecting these taxes (e.g., lodging, prepared food, admissions, car rentals or special business districts’ property taxes.)

The impact is also far more than the visitors who will be lost at the margins due to the tax, something economists can also compute.

Far greater is the fact that any time a tax is assessed on a visitor, it subtracts from funds they have to spend in local businesses during the trip, an amount that adds up very quickly.  It can also be computed in advance during feasibility/impact analysis.

If spent on marketing to draw more visitors to a community, a visitor-related tax is offset by more than a 6-to-1 increase in visitors, and tax revenue generated from their spending that can offset the local tax burden through more visitor spending.

But when spent on debt service to finance a facility, that amount immediately leaves the local economy to pay off bonds.  Even the amount ineligible for marketing will still take away from availability to fund roads, trails, wayfinding, and the operation of other cultural facilities and events underwritten by local government.

The public has a right to know how much this will remove from the local business climate.

People who say financing something is painless because a visitor tax will pay for it may not realize it, but unless it is reinvesting in community marketing, they are deceiving local businesses and residents.

Insist On Estimates of Downstream Improvement Costs

Also beware of studies that cite the impact of similar facilities in other cities without showing the differences between what was projected by consultants on those projects and how hey have actually performed.

Studies should also reveal ongoing costs for renovation and upfit, which will ultimately far transcend the original construction costs.

An example is the Charlotte Coliseum.  It opened in 1988 but was demolished and replaced by another in 2007 before its original construction cost, $104 million in today’s dollars, had been paid off.

Now just nine years old, the newer $265 million facility is already in need of a $28 million upfit.  While a bit extreme, this example isn’t unusual for other mega-facilities there and elsewhere.

The downstream costs should be estimated in preliminary studies of feasibility and impact.

Don’t Settle Just For Estimated Activity

Be sure the study reveals three trend lines:

  • Percentage of visitor participation across the nation over time in the related activity as a proportion of overall visitation;
  • National estimates of the time Americans devote on average to the related category; and
  • Percentage of their income spent on that activity.

Economists know that these three factors rarely change over time.  They may keep pace with population but not capacity.  Time devoted to leisure today for example is the same as it was in 1900.  In fact, “pure leisure” has declined since 1965.

About 1-in-10 hours on weekends is available for events.

Instead, new facilities create a transfer or substitution within a category, e.g. leisure, not detectable in direct competitors but at more vulnerable levels.

This is why performances in non-profit theaters increased by 5,000 annually between 2004 and 2007, but attendance declined as the number of theaters doubled.

Often this effect is masked as it is in commercial touring Broadway shows where playing weeks and revenue increased during a similar span, but attendance, while up and down, is essentially what it was twenty years earlier.

This is why mainstream facilities are always a two-edged sword.  There may be a visible bump in participation, but the hollowing out at other levels that are even more distinct to a community’s identity are barely detectable, until it’s too late.

Most developers and related consultants dismiss this because many depend on “churn” to justify their developments.  But a community that ignores this is destined to lose its soul, if it hasn’t already.

A staggering number of cultural facilities were built in the United States between 2000 and 2007, especially performing arts centers, and yet the percentage of visitors participating in and/or prompted by these events along with overall attendance remained flat.

The index for ticket sales to commercial concerts increased from .73 to 1.38 driven by the 5% of performers who are driving 90% of concert revenues.  But it was flat to slightly down when compared to the index for capacity.

Good studies for a new theater, for example, should show not only how capacity has increased overall through the years but that the percentage of adult Americans attending various types of concerts collectively over the past decade has been flat to down at 22%.

Yet of the nearly $16 billion spent by communities on 725 new cultural facilities between 1994 and 2008, most were spent on performing arts centers during just five years between 1999 and 2004.

Look Carefully At Trend Lines

A decade is not enough to spot decline.  For example, a chart of the last 15 years for attendance at conventions will show only a valley, a peak and a slightly lower valley.

Some consultants for convention centers add a trend line at the end going straight up.

But to see the long, slow decline in this segment of visitation requires zooming out to at least 1974.  Suddenly, it becomes clear that over the past three decades, both the valleys and peaks gradually each became lower and lower than those past.

Of course, conventions and meetings are still an important visitor segment, but any community looking at a convention center must also ask to see the corresponding trend line for the number of groups using convention centers.  This is about 30%, broken down further by cohorts of average size by both overnight and daytrip, e.g. 80-85% are 2,000 or fewer in size.

Charts should also overlay a trend line for capacity, showing the more than doubling of convention space during that decline as well as the explosion of major convention hotels with meeting space.

Durham and Raleigh are a case study of comparison.  The former built what we call a “boutique convention center” as the decline became apparent, while Raleigh erected a mega-convention center several years ago.

Yet during the five years they have co-existed, Durham and Raleigh have continued to draw the same proportion of overall visitors to each community who attend conventions, with Durham actually exceeding Raleigh during some years in the proportion attending other types of meetings.

Similarly, Durham opened a new performing arts center during that period—its twelfth—which supplanted one in Raleigh for touring Broadway and other performances.

Yet, this has not decreased the proportion of visitors to Raleigh who take in that activity or changed the proportion of residents so inclined in either community.

Mega-facilities increase supply, but not necessarily demand.  Those that succeed are often due to anomalies.  Make sure feasibility studies detail downside risks beyond those that are merely financial.

Beware Of Including Resident Impact

Research economists uniformly disregard resident spending as part of a facility’s economic impact.

This is not only because a new facility will result in a transfer, or substitution of leisure time use and spending rather than an increase.  It is also because residents would have been spending the same amount of discretionary income somewhere else in the economy if not there.

Still it isn’t uncommon for downtown advocates or local officials to shop for consultants until they find one that will inflate projected impact by including residents.

This may because downtowns have a win/lose inferiority complex born of years of neglect, but it may also have to do with adopting the “churn” mentality of some developers.

But anyone credibly evaluating a feasibility study should back out resident spending or show it merely as “economic contribution” but not value-added.

However, a growing trend is to try and compute “retained tourism” which is “locals willing to travel” for similar events but because of the proposed facility, will now keep that spending local.

We attempted to calculate it in Durham for facilities during the last decade.  It must be customized to each community because “locals willing to travel” will fluctuate greatly on how close or far away alternative communities and facilities may be.

It is a legitimate calculation if very carefully done based not on conjecture, but sound research.  Of course, as with visitor impact, this should distinguish between attendees prompted by events from those who take them in on trips for other purposes.

New Visitors Attributable To Vs. Required For A Proposed Facility

Consultants usually make an attempt to quantify the number of visitors who will travel for the main purpose of taking in events at a proposed facility either in lodging room-nights or admissions or car rental days or meals, versus those who may happen to take in events during trips for other purposes.

But it is just as important to also make sure there is a calculation of how many additional visitors the destination overall will be required to draw to make up the amount needed to pay for the facility either by direct subsidy or from revenues fueled into government coffers.

A good estimator will suggest, based on this calculation, a corresponding increase a community should simultaneously invest in community marketing to generate this increase in visitation.

A good performing arts venue hosting a mix of concerts and touring Broadway productions may generate up to 15,000 hotel room-nights from cast and crew, which to officials, may seem like a lot.

But remember that the tax is paid on the rate paid for the room, not the room itself.

Even for a destination such as Durham, where rates are the highest of its comp set, this means that such a facility will generate less than 1% toward a debt service requirement of $1.5 million.

So good business dictates an increase to overall community marketing of $250,000 to $500,000 annually to generate the rest of the revenue needed.

ROI

A good feasibility study won’t just calculate the raw impact of a facility but also the return on investment to local government from non-resident visitor spending.

This should be net the cost of the land and any costs related to relocating existing businesses or services as well as the cost of construction.

This will include taxpayer return on investment from any parking and concessions or revenue-sharing.

Local governments are notorious for accounting practices that make it difficult to trace revenues related to expenses but especially beyond just operations.  A study might go so far as to recommend a special account to do this.

The ROI should include related visitor spending broken down by prompted vs. those taking in the event on trips for other purposes as well as the induced value added to the economy.

The best practice economic model will also calculate unavoidable “leakage” specific to a community; e.g., supplies that must be ordered from vendors outside the community.

It should also make it practical for a community to institute policies and metrics that encourage use of local vendors and the hiring of employees who live in the community or otherwise deduct that from the impact of the facility.

A “best practice” community destination marketing organization can re-calculate these numbers annually using the same model.

In summary, communities that value the importance of sense of place not only for appeal to visitors and new business relocation or expansion, but also for resident attachment and passion should carefully evaluate any proposal for mega-facilities.

Preservation of sense of place and community revitalization require strategic decisions as much or more about “what not to do” as they do about “what to do.”

Those most appealing in the future will be communities that learn to say “thanks but no thanks.”

Friday, August 29, 2014

Is Thinking Critically, Nature or Nurture?

A close friend’s experience in a criminal trial this summer brought back memories of what turned me off to that profession in law school.

Before I get to that I am reminded that it was a desire to bring about social justice that fueled my interest in going to law school.  However, that isn’t what made me stand out on aptitude tests from the 50% of all first year college students back then drawn to law as an interest.

Manifest on tests to determine aptitude was an applied skill referred to back then as “thinks critically” and “reasoning.”

Many today argue that this skill can’t be taught in school contending it must be fostered in the family or by a combination of “nurture and nature.”  These naysayers may also fail to see the link of this critical skill to humility, integrity, perseverance, empathy and self-discipline.

Anyone who knew my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles back in my preschool years would have said this ability was directly descended from the “Neeley” branch, a lineage mix with Shumways, Grahams, McCrorys and many others back beyond those five generations.

But I have evidence that for me it was also honed in school beginning in the first grade (kindergarten didn’t exist then where I lived.)

These family members were great arguers and if you tried to agree with them, they changed sides and kept arguing.  No sentiment was ever expressed without requiring immediate and reasoned justification.

It wasn’t enough to watch them at dinner on Sundays, my dad would continue it during the week around our own dinner table.  He would describe current events, ask for our opinions, followed by your rationale and then engage you in debate.

But I also know it was taught in school and that I still had a lot to learn.  My first grade teacher wrote on my report card to my parents, “reasoning poor in workbooks.”

Later it was found across from my course grades on a page with other “soft skills” under headings such as “desirable habits and attitudes.”

Turns out as I will show later that this skill is “foundational” in the workforce.

Today, there is a cool little guide for teaching critical thinking in K-6 classrooms entitled The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking for Children.

By high school, my extracurricular activities involved sports.  But my dad who starred in four sports encouraged me to also join the debate team.

Debate as well as Model UN and similar activities are a ways to learn how to structure arguments, understand both sides of a controversy, identify the logical reasoning or lack thereof in an argument or statement, critique your own thinking, spot contradictions and identify factual or logical flaws in sources, etc.

As to the question of “nature vs. nurture,” I tend to agree with systems biologist, Dr. Michael White in an article in Pacific Standard, who also writes at The Finch & Pea, that too often we approach issues as “splitters,” but “we should recognize that the factors that drive our social behavior can, as found in Zen koans, be two things at once.”

In workplace vernacular, experts define “critical thinking/problem-solving as sound reasoning, analytical thinking, using knowledge, facts and data to solve problems.”

Surveys of educational professionals back when I graduated from college found that 97% believed critical thinking should be the primary take-away from a college degree.

Nearly 9-in-10 members of college faculties still identify it as the primary objective of any degree but many struggle with it themselves.

But researchers find that many “teach content only for exposure, not for understanding.”

NYU researchers found that 45% of college students made no significant gain in critical thinking in the first two years.  After four years, 36% showed no significant gains.

A study this year of executives in America responsible for workforce development by The Economist found critical thinking and problem solving far and away the most important workplace skill.  This is also the aim of employee training for 76%, more than so-called foundational skills.

But critical thinking is much more even than understanding.  It involves learning many other thinking-related traits including:

  • “intellectual humility,”
  • “intellectual integrity,”
  • “intellectual perseverance,”
  • “intellectual empathy,”
  • “intellectual self-discipline,”

I changed over to my lifelong career in visitor-centered economic and cultural development (community-destination marketing) because I found I could make a difference.

Throughout my career I was continually amazed at not only the lack of critical thinking in the general population including those in high office or others also working to effect change but because so many also seemed determined to prevent it.

There are some incredibly bright and well-meaning people in this world for whom any question of their ideas or reasoning is taken as criticism or insult.

They are threatened by critical thinking when it isn’t their own or in lockstep with what they want.

It is astounding how often phenomenally expensive decisions are made with a proverbial piece of paper in the file while some very simple and effective alternatives are required to provide reams of backup.

But I also turned away from the law after seeing far too many defense attorneys illustrate that the our justice system isn’t about justice and being a defense attorney involves putting the victim on trial, assassinating their character when the facts of a case don’t go the way of the defense.

Juries are ill equipped to sort out facts from theater.  It is a very slimy world where critical thinking takes a back seat.

But unfortunately, as I would find throughout my career, so can be community development, all for want of critical thinking.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Investment In Sense of Place

We may be a bit smug in Durham, North Carolina where many take retention of sense of place as a given.  But we can learn from the observations of a New York entertainment journalist transplanted to Raleigh, a city to the south and east that has taken a path not so fortunate:

“Once this kind of development gets started, it is hard to stop it.  And all of a sudden you wake up and wonder what happened to your city.  How did it start to look like every place else?”

Several decisions in Durham have nudged it in the direction of a “Disney-fied theme park with no character” by chipping away at those natural and “built” elements that have made it distinct.

National surveys show that by 9 to 1, Americans believe their community could benefit from a community plan while only 17% believe their community should be left alone.

When it comes to neighborhoods, more think they need protection than revitalization.

Only a fourth believe elected leaders are best able to understand changes that will make a community better compared to fully one third who view community planners that way, perhaps saying more about perceptions of the undue influence of developers.

Rated highest – neighborhood representatives.  More than half of Americans, including 54% of Republicans “want to participate in local planning decisions for their communities.”

In what should send a strong signal to regulatory-obsessed regressives in state legislatures across the nation, water quality and protecting neighborhoods rank as top priorities, just after schools and before roads at the local level.

One of the intriguing things revealed in a recent analysis of feasibility studies and related correspondence by community leaders (don’t be misled by the title) is the primary justification for public funding of mega-cultural facilities such as theaters, stadiums and civic centers.

As a community leader confided to me years ago after a controversial theater project, these facilities are first and foremost a way of propping up property values usually to appease private development lenders, but often to block the encroachment of nearby blight.

Ironically, as disclosed in this excellent overview of the revitalization of Downtown Durham, the pivotal secret, as it has been in most downtowns since their advent 14 years ago has been the use of “New Market Tax Credits” from the federal government.

Interestingly though, a qualification for a lender (but obviously not the eventual development) is a “primary mission of providing investment capital for low income communities or low income persons.” Investing In Place

This intermediate lender then recruits investors, including financial institutions, with a 39% tax credit to, in turn, make marginal development projects feasible while increasing capacity to help truly low income neighborhoods.

According to reports, many types of tax credits including, perhaps, historic tax credits if granted for the adaptive reuse of an old factory, for example, can be used as collateral to leverage a loan.

Propping up or increasing adjacent private property values with a publically-financed theater, stadium or convention center is often needed as well for the same reason.

This federal program has resulted in $40 million of tax credits to date issued to 836 projects, and between 2003 and 2006 alone, Durham ranked sixth in the nation for New Market Tax Credits, first on a per capita basis, with 90% going to revitalize the 1-mile square downtown.

There is no shortage of people who take or are given credit for Downtown Durham’s current renaissance, but as the report suggests, the most credit of all, both here and across the country, belongs to every day taxpayers across the nation.

As I mentioned, national studies show that Americans prefer protecting neighborhoods to revitalizing them.  They also have different ideas about economic development.

Half believe the ideal community will have “locally owned businesses nearby,” the ability to “stay in their neighborhood as they age,” as well as sidewalks, transit options and neighborhood parks.

Only a third cite a unique character and/or culture.  Sense-of-place is about being distinct, not unique, coherent as though temporal, not manicured or “Disney-fied.”

Jobs are important to half, but two-thirds believe investing in schools and features such as transportation, walkability and diversity are a better way to grow the economy than investing in recruiting companies which nearly always require tax subsidies.

Quality of life features such as cultural and sports facilities are cited by just 1-in-5, on a par with having friends and family live nearby.  A third view “centers of entertainment” a high priority but only 1-in-10 view professional or college sports that way.

Top priorities for public investment by Americans are new sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, upkeep of existing roads, new roads and of course, education.

When it comes to economic development, regardless of size or type of community or region, Americans favor spending on high-speed internet, affordable housing and safe streets.

There is a distrust of turning over decisions to developers, planners and elected officials for the reasons outlined in the op-ed by a Raleigh transplant, not because of development per se, but when developers “show no respect for history, culture or anything else that makes a city special.”

The writer points to a Durham success as something for which Raleigh should strive.  But he could have just as well pointed to several recent examples of what not to replicate.

It is much too soon to “knock on wood,” Durham!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Accepting Part Responsibility Brings Credibility

On cross country drives I mostly listen to music, switching between satellite radio and Pandora streaming stations created around favorite performers.

Periodically, I very briefly check in on news and sports, which during this just concluded road trip, brought to mind a book I was rereading, during overnight stops, about Francesco di Petrol di Bernardone, better known as Saint Francis of Assisi.

Outbound, the news was obsessed with the war instigated with Israel by Hamas, a Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is opposed to the two-state solution proposed in 1987 by Yasser Arafat and the PLO, less than a year before I moved to my adopted North Carolina.

As a college student, Arafat had also fought in Gaza during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War which resulted in the creation of the state of Israel on the same day I was born that year to fourth-generation ranchers Idaho ranchers.

While only 1% Jewish (Iberian) by ethnicity and descended from a namesake Knight who fought alongside Richard “the Lionheart” on the Third Crusade, I’ve always favored Arafat’s solution and social justice for Palestinians.

But a good friend, a naturalized Palestinian-American just back from a visit to his native East Jerusalem, has persuaded me that unfortunately it is doubtful this will ever happen.

Nor is it ever likely that Jerusalem will ever become the International “open” city that the United Nations resolved in 1947 when the issue of two states, bound by an economic union, was accepted by mainstream Jews but rejected by Arab states.

My view Hamas may also be biased, in part because according to Article 22 of its charter, as a former Rotary Club president I am targeted along with Lions Club members and Masons, all couched as part of a Zionist Conspiracy.

Arafat and the PLO were nationalistic in aim but Hamas is also neo-Jihadi, although given to terrorism today it seems more exclusively the latter.

Rarely, if ever, have I heard a representative of Hamas present a dispassionate, balanced and introspective rationale for its position, or accept responsibility for its part, a mistake many aggrieved parties often make, undermining their credibility.

African-American friends of mine have agreed on one of the reasons Americans approve of redress such as “affirmative action” (including 40% of Republicans), but don’t when it comes to its execution.

It may also be a clue as to why Americans overall view a tragedy such as the one in Ferguson, Missouri, which dominated news on the return leg of my trip, as a question of police going too far but disagree that it is racial.

Rarely, if ever it seems, do those in responsibility for management of affirmative action come out in conversation or in news reports against its abuse.

Unfortunately, this reluctance to be objective undermines the credibility and ultimately the usefulness of an excellent program.

I heard the mother of the victim in the Ferguson shooting decry those who used it as cover to infiltrate peaceful protests for the purpose of violence and criminal activity such as looting and throwing fire bombs.

Unfortunately, those using the tragedy to score points dominated news reports and seemed more interested in “them and us” agendas than critical thinking or the subtleties of mutual responsibility.

I often saw this when I served on a crime cabinet here in Durham.  Passionate observers who were African-American often undermined the validity of their concerns by refusing to acknowledge personal or parental accountability, while being equivocal when it came to reducing criminal behavior.

I had been home a day from my cross country trip before I heard an African-American who happened to be a social worker in Charlotte, North Carolina quoted by a reporter on statewide cable news outlet for North Carolina acknowledging mutual responsibility in Ferguson:

“I think it hits home because we have a lot of great people who may not know how to deal with a situation, when they approach a police officer, what's proper procedure. So I think we also need to educate our young people.”

It may seem obvious but more than any amount of street protest, his comment, if it had been picked up nationwide would have opened far more minds to understanding the social justice aspects being discussed.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. resonated with people of all races because he was as insistent in his opposition to violence and the responsibility of black leaders to curb it and for all individuals to be judged on the “content of our character” as he was insistent about social justice.

Hamas should take note, as we all could.

A book I read just before I retired at the end of 2009 and again on this trip, as well as parallels in the lives of some my ancestors who experienced officially-endorsed persecution and social injustice was on my mind as I explored a route new to me up the verdant mile-high pastures of the San Pete Valley of central Utah on my outbound route.

At the request of an Ute Indian chief, the valley had been first settled in 1850 by one my great (x3) grandfathers, Charles Shumway who over the next two years also managed to serve as a member of the 1st Utah Territorial Legislature.

By then Charles was 44 years of age.  He had already helped create four settlements including three in the Midwest including Nauvoo, Illinois which was as large as Chicago at the time and served there as a police officer and on a governing council.

He had been a body guard for Mormon prophet and founder Joseph Smith and served a mission to the Cherokee Nation just as factions erupted there in civil war and then another back to his native Massachusetts.

He was driven from his home after the murder of Joseph Smith and led the Mormons across the Mississippi River toward sanctuary in the Rockies, lost his wife along the Missouri River to Diphtheria, and appointed a captain on the vanguard wagon train west from there as well as the first handful to scout Salt Lake Valley.

But he was also outspoken within the Mormon community.  Similar to Muslims after the death of their prophet Mohammed and Crusaders, Mormons had two types of leaders when creating settlements, some ecclesiastical and some secular and some like my great (x3) grandfather, both.

When they disagreed, local ecclesiastical leaders were often quick to trump any introspection or critical thinking by secular leaders with threats of “disfellowshipment”, a form of probation which happened to my great (x3) grandfather once or even excommunication.

No one in my lineage was a saint but The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace by career journalist and SUNY-Brooklyn professor Paul Moses is the fascinating account of a peace mission during the Fifth Crusade by someone who would soon be.

Moses cuts through the agendas of various accounts and omissions over time with a journalist’s critical thinking.

Saint Francis, less than a decade from when he would be canonized, was the same age as my great (x3) grandfather when he was driven from his home by persecution when he traveled to the Egyptian front during the Fifth Crusade.

From a wealthy background and once a Knight himself in battle, he had been a prisoner of war for a year after a bloody battle instigated by merchants such as his father for economic  gain.

Ransomed, he set out to join the Fourth Crusade but an epiphany in his early 20s caused Francis to turn back and devote his life instead to living as Christ-like in every way possible including “love they enemy.”

The Pope at the time called for a Fifth Crusade, an attempt to conquer Egypt this time as a means to drive the Muslims from the Holy Land including Jerusalem.  This was the home of Abraham, the patriarch of three great religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

I’m a life-long Christian but I can see the point that Crusaders such as my ancestor were also Jihadists of their time, even terrorists.

Ecclesiastical leaders were loath to ever admit responsibility, and as in the case of the Fifth Crusade, often pushed for violent win/lose solutions such as Hamas does even when peaceful compromises were on the table.

The ecclesiastical leader on the battlefield, in this case a power-hungry and prideful Cardinal, repeatedly trumped the judgment by military leaders that they should avoid bloodshed by accepting an offer of compromise that for several decades would give them control of Jerusalem.

On the Muslim side, there were also two sets of leaders, one religious - the Caliphate and one political/military - the Sultan, a dichotomy established after the Prophet Mohammad’s death.

A nephew of the great Saladin, Sultan Al-Kamil, also a Sunni of Kurdish descent was fighting increasing fragmentation of the unity the Prophet Mohammad had achieved with Islam.  He also practices tolerance of other faiths as his uncle and the Prophet had and calls for in the Qur’an.

Fed up with the slaughter, Saint Francis walked through the lines of both Crusaders and Muslim armies to spend several days in dialogue with Al-Malik who had been knighted as a boy by Richard the Lionheart during a compromise with his uncle..

Unarmed, Francis intended to convert the Sultan, but it was Francis who was deeply affected and converted to the importance of love and mutual respect and understanding to peace.

Francis must have sensed that Muslim leaders such as Al-Malik who had just survived a coup, feared even more than Crusaders the religious extremists among their ranks, something they prophetically saw as an end to the Golden Age of Islam.

In the end Francis achieved more mutual understanding and mutual respect than peace but his humility and courage set an example for the two military leaders who soon did.

It wasn’t the last Crusade and the Crusaders would have achieved far more by accepting any of the previous compromises authored by the Sultan including the one offered to the Pope that would have prevented any bloodshed at all.

The followers then of Islam were far more given to compromise than neo-Jihadists today.

It is an incredible book with deep insight into the issues of personal accountability, compromise, fairness and understanding faced both here in the West and in the Middle East today.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Spurring Memories

Mention of “Spanish Spurs” was made in an essay yesterday that linked to one of the letters where Mark Twain refers to my great-great grandfather, a friend, fellow-Missourian and partner in a short-lived mining venture in the mountains between Nevada and California.

It also brought to mind a story about my father, a third generation Idaho rancher in my native Yellowstone-Teton corner of that state.  My early elementary school teachers were following the custom then of trying to get me to print and write “right-handed.”

I was really a mixed-lefty which make up 7-8% of the population, but I was lefty when it came to handwriting.  As was the custom back then I was “encouraged” to use my right hand.  Even through high school and college, I would rarely find a left-handed desk.

The teacher’s desk, either Mrs. Bratt or Mrs. Spencer, was in the back of the classroom.  One day when we were quietly working on an assignment, I heard the unmistakable sound of my dad’s spurs as they echoed up the hallway.

I didn’t turn around but my friend Arlen did and then whispered to me, “Hey your dad is back there saying something to the teacher, are you in trouble? Did he find out about our Mexican Jumping Beans?”

Soon I heard the door close and next to me was my teacher leaning down to tell me that it was okay for me to use my left hand.

As if sharing a name with a high school legend in four sports wasn’t enough, that day he gave me cachet on the play ground and prompted an invitation to join a fourth-grader’s football game…until I picked up a fumble and ran the wrong direction, that is.

Known first as “Damascus Spurs,” the Spanish brought this style of spur-making with them to North America.  “Damascus” referred to a style of laminated, “one-piece” steel-making that Islamic armies adapted from India to make swords and spurs.

For spurs it meant “one-piece.”  If Twain had been referring to a two-piece version made at the time he would have probably used the term “California” spurs.

It would be another decade before America’s spur industry would emerge.

My great-grandfather probably didn’t give it a thought as he tossed those spurs Twain had sent him after they were worn out.  Nor do I have any my dad wore.

If his predated the Great Depression, they may have been one-piece, but I doubt it.

Today, Spanish or “Damascus” spurs are recreated by artisans for collectors such as those shown in the image in this blog handcrafted by Larry Fuegen using the process shown in this slide show.

The process was used by Persians, and after his death, the commanders of the Prophet Mohammed expanded their Islamic reach by defeating the Byzantines and Persians using cavalry of recently unified Bedouin tribesmen atop Arabian horses incorporating this technology.

We forget that Islam had already reached pinnacles of astronomy, physics, mathematics, literature, technology, governance, architecture and urban development by the time Europe began to emerge from the “Dark Ages.”

Brought back by Crusaders, these advances fueled the “Renaissance.”

We also forget that this golden age in Islam came to an end because of infighting and religious militants, still blinding us today to the fact that Islam’s spread was founded on teachings and practices of Mohammed, now ignored by extremists who dominate the headlines.

The Crusaders from Spain didn’t bring back spurs which had originated with Romans who may have learned their use from “Celts.”

Probably borrowing from the forces of Saladin, they brought back fast Arabian horses and the “Damascus” form of forging them, which on this continent became known as “Spanish Spurs” when imported by Cort├ęs.

Remember, even the famed boots of “Spanish leather” often graced by Damascus spurs are a credit to Muslim Moors.