Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Audacious Sign of Things to Come

I was surprised when in 1989, just a few weeks after I signed on to jump-start Durham’s community/destination marketing organization, a now-deceased commissioner from another county dropped by to visit me in our temporary offices above Brightleaf Square.

After some pleasantries, I asked him what brought him to Durham and how I could be of assistance. He proposed that I simply contract with an organization down in Raleigh, one of more than a dozen towns and cities in his county, to do Durham’s marketing.

His proposal was audacious but not preposterous. As part of what in marketing is called an environmental scan, Durham leaders and my newly founded organizations had already confirmed that Durham is a primary city, not a suburb, and that this general area of the state is polycentric with no one dominant city at its center; and these are just two of two dozen reasons I shared with this visitor to illustrate why it made much more sense to market Durham on its own.

Little did I realize that this visitor would be one of many from Raleigh that I would encounter over the years, some more hostile, many far less polite but just as over-reaching, over-bearing and audacious.

Some would publicly call for my dismissal, or made donations to various organizations in an effort to isolate or corner me, and even distributed campaign donations in covert, but unsuccessful, attempts to get me fired.

From the vantage point of hindsight, these efforts were much more telling and humorous than disturbing.

One thing that became apparent repeatedly was the fact that when Raleigh or Wake County runs into a problem or causes a problem for itself or others, the issue is almost always quickly re-framed as a regional problem. And often decisions made there in self-interest are suddenly re-framed as regional to secure assets or underwriting from other communities.

Fortunately, the re-framing is never reciprocated by other communities, making Raleigh’s sense of entitlement seem even more obnoxious. While annoying to other communities such as Durham, it has never been permitted to inhibit cooperation on true shared concerns as was so well articulated when a Raleigh executive tried to reason with others there in my defense by stating:

“Creating serious regional cooperation requires all of us to respect and celebrate the differences that make this a great region and then identify the areas where we can work together to build a better shared place.

It does not mean Durham or Raleigh should function as a single place, rather our communities along with many others are members of a ‘family of communities’ each with a distinctive personality and a number of individual and shared interests.”

I thought of that Raleigh visitor who came to my office all those years ago as I read a new book entitled The Research Triangle: From Tobacco Road to Global Prominence. While the author is well above my pay grade, if I still had one, the book makes many of the same mistaken assumptions that long-ago Raleigh visitor made.

Beginning with the dust-cover, the book has a distinctively Raleigh-centric feel, even down to an extremely outdated characterization of Durham’s image. It also repeats a revisionist history of Research Triangle Park that snubs Durham’s role and many of the true pioneers of this namesake.

But where the book truly goes astray is in suggesting yet another layer of government just to resolve a problem caused by and centered in Wake County and Raleigh which is only one point of the Triangle. Ironically, any new layer of multi-county government would of course be dominated by Raleigh and Wake County and essentially put the “fox in charge of the hen house.”

It is Raleigh-centric hubris, greed and dishonest representations by developers and realtors that created sprawl by misrepresenting the geographic layout of the region, distorting commutes, diverting relocating executives and philanthropy and creating the need for massive amounts of infrastructure.

Serious discussions about growth and development and cross-community impacts are taking place and must continue but another layer of government, especially one controlled by the biggest offender, is not a solution.

What is needed is a mutual respect beginning with a new honesty about the geographic nature of the region, and when problems do occur, a sense of honor and responsibility by the communities or counties that spawn them.

No comments: