Thursday, December 28, 2006

Wow, That's a Lot!

I’m always amused that, whenever someone inquires how many staff it takes to run DCVB, they invariably respond with “wow, that’s a lot.” Compared with what? People in my job are used to a few people who will try to use that as a form of criticism. What they usually mean is, “I don’t have a clue what to say, so to sound like a critical thinker, I’ll blurt out – wow, that’s a lot."

But the fact is, most of us underestimate the human talent and resources it takes to do any type of job. We stroll through life thinking mail delivery, trash collection, custodial services, public safety, firefighting, utility pole work, home building... almost any job is much easier than it really is.

Then there’s the crowd that thinks there must be waste in every endeavor, so if we attack the number of staff doing the job, it’s a safe bet it will become more efficient.

Well guess what… it may drive up stock value, but it drives down productivity, morale, unity, teamwork….

We need to turn the tables. The next person who utters the remark, “wow, that’s a lot,” needs to hear an immediate chorus of: “What kind of comment is that?” “Do you think this happens by magic?” “What are you thinking?”

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A New Theater

In 18 months Durham will have a brand-new, 2,800 seat, professionally managed theater for the performing arts. It will be Durham’s 14th but arguably in a class of its own.

The good news is it will be a joy to promote and market to visitors; PFM/Nederlander has already proven an excellent partner, it will keep some Durhamites from leaving Durham for certain shows and will be a tool to help draw visitors and it will finish off the southern part of Downtown Durham, already home to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, American Tobacco Campus, Diamond View I, and two national historic landmarks (Old Bull Building and the Lucky Strike smokestack).

The new facility presents challenges that are equally significant. It will require drawing three lodging room nights for every one it has the potential to generate, in order to pay the debt service. No matter how much effort is put into “raising all boats in the harbor,” it will divert some business from existing theaters and other leisure facilities and activities. Getting patrons to come early and stay after in restaurants will be complicated by the commute people will make in this region from work, then back to theater and back home again, and getting them to walk to and from other parts of Downtown will prove as complicated as it does now for the ballpark.

All in all it’s a major plus. But beyond the first few years when everyone will come just to see the facility, like they did for DBAP, the easy part is behind us and the hard part yet to come…make it sustainable and, at the same time, make existing cultural facilities sustainable... and develop a much more coherent decision process and funding mechanism for future cultural needs.

Is the theater a great thing?…yes. Was it creatively developed?…yes. Was a lot learned to improve the process?...not yet, people are still playing offense and defense. Now the real work begins. Can we put aside personalities and stop the finger pointing at people who raised good, although uncomfortable, questions and seriously sit down together to make this all work?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Running From Taxes

It's conventional wisdom these days that politicians can’t raise taxes and still be re-elected. I’ve heard surveys to the contrary, but it has permeated the national, state and local levels and brought everything into a kind of “finger pointing” grid lock.

It used to be that “taxing” visitors was thought to be a work-around, but recently Governor Romney of Massachusetts reportedly vetoed $25 million in visitor promotion with an eye to running for President of the United States. In community after community where taxes on visitors have been jacked up to absurd levels, there is evidence visitors are rebelling.

A local political expert told me once that surveys show the issue isn’t taxes per se, but the fact that the public no longer associates taxes with the services they receive. Could be we’ve all fallen for the idiotic idea that anything is free. Could be the media’s obsession with amplifying each and every mis-step in government while only rarely amplifying either its own or that of corporations. But I doubt the media is fully responsible or able to reverse this.

The problem may be politicians themselves, who often vilify taxes during campaigns. My personal take is that, to reverse the trend, it will take a group of individuals to run for office on “fixing problems” and playing very straight with the electorate about the cost of the things the public “wants.” Once in office, they need to communicate often and directly with taxpayers about the cost of services and how those costs are being mitigated and how waste is being eliminated.

I believe we have leaders like that. But it will take a lot of courage to deliver these messages and an electorate willing to push aside the usual hyperbole of election campaigns and news media willing to give more exposure to solutions than to rhetoric and smear campaigns.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

State of Durham's Economy

Durham is so extraordinary, and it is such an honor to be part of this community. Sitting through the 9th Annual State of Durham’s Economy Breakfast (which DCVB co-founded and co-sponsors) was humbling. There is so much greatness in one place.

For instance, Ryan Wuerch, founder of Motricity, gave some remarks about why they chose Durham as home. This is the company that provides ringtones etc. all over the world, and it's based right here. They are the wireless industry's leading provider of content, and it's all done just blocks from where I write this blog.

Each year as we go through hundreds of economic development and quality of life benchmarks, it’s clear that Durham is indeed where great things happen. It's also clear that great things alone won’t make a pesky image problem go away.

No, it's not in our head, and it's not just a complex. Studies have proven that Durham is assaulted by highly negative word of mouth from residents in nearby communities, often fed by the fact that Durham is the only major city in the state covered by two major dailies, Durham’s and one from Raleigh.

Late last week I had a conversation with John Wagner, plant manager for Merck’s vaccine plant. He volunteered that I was right on--in comments during a discussion--that it was vital that Durham be vigilant and inoculate newcomers as early as possible to this negative word of mouth. He said that, by the time they were orienting executives about Durham, several construction people had been down earlier and had already become contaminated by exaggerations and war stories that would make your skin crawl.

Many people don’t have the stomach to stand up and confront inaccurate information about Durham. We get paid to do it, but it's not the most fun part of the job. But as branding experts say… you either defend a brand or your competition and enemies will define your brand.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Telling Yourself a Story

Two of the most incredible books I’ve read are Crucial Confrontations and Crucial Conversations. I only found out later that the authors also graduated from Brigham Young University. ;-)

The steps don’t come naturally for me. I have to do a refresher whenever I’m quick enough to know I’m in or needing a crucial confrontation.

But the most incredible insight for me is the part about “Telling Yourself a Story.” It’s the lightning quick (reminds me of the book Blink, another great read by Gladwell) presumption of motive and intent in another person or group before you’ve confirmed it exists.

It's served me well in some aspects, e.g., avoiding grave danger. But more often than not, it gets in my way by setting in motion a whole series of actions, reactions.

But knowing my quickness can result in “telling myself a story” is a very small part of the solution, and the easy part. The hard part is catching yourself before you do it. I’m making progress, but it will be a lifelong battle.