Monday, June 28, 2010

Most Business People Are Career Politicians

I always smile whenever a candidate for elected office says he/she should be elected because they’ve been in business, in the real world and not politics (very different than government.)

In my experience, many business people are a lot more like their stereotype of politicians than they admit. Each exists in a push and shove, dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest, win-at-all-cost atmosphere that fosters chest-beating and negative campaigning (it started first in business) and more than a little anecdotal rather than information based decision-making.Print

A good example is a couple of business types, I'm told, who felt they had to demonize the idea of a museum of local Durham history in order to leapfrog it with new theater. They did a good job, even though the theater could easily waited its turn and stood on its own merits including the fact that, primarily dark during the day, it would preserve office parking required by lenders.

But there is an extended half-life when something is demonized.

We now we have the theater, a good thing, but we still don’t have a museum of Durham history, another good thing and still the top cultural priority for two thirds of Durham residents as scientifically polled as well as the top priority identified by consultants in the cultural master plan.

This came to mind recently during a conversation with one of those people who are the 1 in 10 who don’t like this community and for whom it must be pure hell living where residents have twice the level of community pride that is the norm for other communities.

Also retired as the owner of a business, he wasted no time on pleasantries and began trashing the idea of a museum of Durham history. He was formerly in a business where customers didn't talk back and he didn’t anticipate that I wasn’t afraid to stand up to him and I had a lot of information at my fingertips.

His rationale was initially that the local museum in Raleigh which he had heard second hand wasn’t successful, dismissing that the supporters for a local museum here in Durham have studied many others of this type and had professionals do the same. But even before he knew that, I dare say his opinions had hardened to basalt while cocooned from any information he didn’t want to hear.

This was also obviously someone who doesn’t grasp that no matter how proximate, communities have very distinct personalities and character (or lack of) and just because something does or doesn’t work in one, doesn’t mean it is right or wrong for the other.

I’m familiar enough with Raleigh to hazard an informed opinion that a lack of support for a local museum of history there may simply rest on two reasons, unique to that community. One, the fact that the General Assembly appropriated tax dollars collected statewide to build and operate a huge history museum there, which may have sucked the oxygen out of the local effort there and two, Raleigh’s far more inclined to “big game hunting” and as such vulnerable to the hubris of appearing “major league.”

Of course, lack of support for a local history museum there may also be a reflection of that community’s relatively low self-esteem among its residents according to several scientific polls. Or similarly, its consistently low image among North Carolinians over several polls when compared to the five largest cities, facts often masked by the hubris of its real estate community (also a hotbed for slander about Durham.)

But this guy’s real reason seemed to me that he doesn’t like paying taxes for anything. He’s the type who probably rails against local government about everything from paving streets to replacing sewer and water pipe to public health to just about anything it takes to sustain a community and, yup, foster an environment crucial for businesses like the one he had.

He was momentarily stunned but not silenced by the fact that visitors as a source of economic development for Durham annually generates $40 million annually for local government and if marketing resources weren’t diverted, could be $60 million each year. more than enough to cover cultural facilities and operation.

But again, his business, when he worked, wasn’t regulated, collected no taxes on services and enjoyed constricted supply and built in demand. So one can’t be surprised that he doesn’t understand what makes a community tic.

You see, there are many business people who haven’t been in the “real world” either.

But there are many compelling reasons, beyond just entertainment, for building a museum of local Durham history, five of which readily come to mind:

  • Tax Revenue. It will help Durham harvest more taxable visitor spending (broadening the burden on residents) by in-filling a gap in its cultural infrastructure.

  • Story Telling . it will give children, students, newcomers and relocating executives a place to get in touch with Durham’s story. People who grasp that story are more inclined to be engaged as activists, volunteers and philanthropy.

  • Synergy. It will augment Durham’s historic sites by providing exhibition space to stir interest in those locations, making them more sustainable. It will complement rather than undermine other cultural facilities and programming.

  • Preservation. It will be a vigilant testimony to what makes the community distinct and unique and insulate its character and personality from the pressures of development and generica.

  • Future Generations. As a repository of innovations and artifact, it will inspire future generations to build on the temporal qualities that make Durham, well, Durham…creative, entrepreneurial, caring, innovative, accepting etc.

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