Sunday, July 07, 2013


I am taking a break for a few weeks to recharge.   Thanks for reading.

Friday, July 05, 2013

The “Humpty Dumpty” of Community Sense of Place

According to third-party analysts, last year, Durham, North Carolina where I live hosted 9 million visitors. This is an increase of 15.8% in the number of non-residents drawn to Durham for purposes other than school or work and a 400% increase in annual visitation since community marketing commenced.

The fact that the increase is 4 to 1 for leisure over business/conference visitors can be traced to the late 1990s strategic direction taken by the Durham Tourism Development Authority, the governing board of the community’s spearhead for visitor-centric economic and cultural development (DMO.)

Today Durham’s visitation is 71% leisure and 29% business.

The transformation has not been at the expense of maintaining fair market share of other travel segments such as conferences, a part of business travel.  The diversification merely taps more into segments with greater growth potential while avoiding the capital-cost heavy arms race for mega-facilities.

Projections show these facilities will soon be stranded.

Nor is last years increase in leisure visitors due to the Durham Performing Arts Center where overall attendance remained at a commendable 400,000 including residents.  Durham was able to draw 6.37 million leisure/personal visitors last year

Last year’s increase in leisure visitation would have filled more than three additional theaters of DPAC’s size.  The increase community-wide transcends any anecdotal facility or event.

One of the work horses that Durham marketing is leveraging for this increase is its “non-profit” arts and cultural community which on average, according to another analysis through Americans for the Arts, now relies on visitors for 55% of its overall audience.

This is 73% greater than the national average of the 182 destinations participating, 85% greater than the average for North Carolina’s largest destinations and and 96% greater than the average of nearby communities/counties.

Other analyses beginning many years ago shows that 70% of attendees at Durham’s “for-profit” events and facilities are either day-trip or over-night visitors to the community.

Over the years since Durham’s DMO chose to diversify the community’s visitation, clearly many other communities have instead grown even more reliant on segments that are shrinking such as conferences, while joining the “arms race” for building even more mega-facilities.

If your community is still so fixated, a shift in strategy is in order, but the longer it is delayed the more difficult it will be to escape the eventual reality of stranded facility capital costs related to travel segments in decline.

Mortgaging visitor-centric economic and cultural development with mega-facilities creates the death-grip of codependency.

Recently, one cultural facility operator in Durham was overhead saying that they didn’t get many visitors.  When asked about their audience make-up, the response was, “They are mostly from Durham and the surrounding area.”

This facility must have forgotten that anyone living outside Durham is a visitor, whether here overnight or just for a day trip, regardless of how that facility thinks of them.

Otherwise, the comment would certainly be news to Durham elected officials who provide operating subsides to arts groups and facilities based in large part on analysis of attendees who are visitors.

That’s because true economic value-added, including tax revenue generated, can only be gained through visitors.  Residents are assumed by economic models to be spending discretionary income elsewhere if not at the event or facility in question.

Long gone are the days when metric technology forced communities to use “distance” to distinguish residents and non-residents commuting to work or school from visitors.  Durham adopted contemporary metrics nearly two decades ago but some communities haven’t, perhaps contaminating this operators view.

Still, because without Durham’s “non-profit” arts and culture offerings, 37.4% of residents would travel out of town for those experiences, economists are studying “retained tourism.”

Also, without these events and facilities, Durham’s community marketing would not be enabled to draw the 59% of those who visit for the purpose of attending while community marketing to encourage circulation by visitors on trips for other purposes harvests the remainder.

Retaining and growing a community’s distinctive cultural infrastructure and vitality cannot be taken for granted.  It can be easily cannibalized by creation of too many events or starved for volunteers and underwriting, especially when local corporate benefactors become distracted by the personal decisions of employees and executives who live elsewhere.

According to participation by the Durham Arts Council using data compilation from Durham’s community marketing organization, in a WESTAF-trademarked Creative Vitality Index, the community ranks much higher than the national average.

It also ranks much higher than North Carolina overall and higher than a comp set of other participants including Augusta, Baton Rouge, Greensboro, Little Rock, Montgomery, Norfolk, Raleigh, Richmond, Shreveport and Winston-Salem.

Still, there was a drop-off from the previous year.  Durham can’t afford to be complacent or fail to aggressively nurture, protect and retain its organic blend of presenters, events, facilities and related-small independent retailers.  Out-of-town developers have shown impatience, wanting to substitute more generic forms.

Others keep fueling more and more events without any understanding of supply and demand or how fragile a “non-profit” arts and cultural community is.  Some who should be sensitive to the risks are instead undermining Durham’s cultural vitality by unwittingly facilitating churn rather than retention.

Cultivating a community’s distinctiveness and organic appeal takes decades if not centuries.  Destroying it takes only a few careless decisions or the hubris to believe a sense-of-place is invincible.

While celebrated today, Durham’s failure to be consistently strategic and protective of its place-based assets is silently taking a toll.  Events are downsizing or disappearing, facilities are struggling, artifacts and heritage are at risk and whole categories of creative businesses are silently evaporating.

All of the marketing and “brick and mortar” development in the world cannot save or resurrect a community’s soul once it has been surrendered.

Even “all of the King’s horses and all the King’s men” won’t be able to put it back together again.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Reflections on Young Men and Fire

In the tiny town near the Idaho ranch where I was born and spent my early years, National Forest Rangers were an inspiration to go to college.  The incentive when I was around the age of my youngest grandson now was that you got to wear a uniform.

Those memories returned a year ago as I arose before dawn in a motel in Stanley, Idaho (pop. 62 – altitude 6,260 ft) where three scenic byways converge in the Sawtooth Mountains about four hours west of my native Tetons.  (Click here for a live webcam or slide show of images during the last few hours.)

As my daughter and grandsons slept, I ventured out for a cup of coffee.

The motel and the half mile drive along Stanley’s main drag to the small airfield were already abuzz with firefighters during a shift change as they were ferried back and forth by a fleet of helicopters to the huge, 182,000-acre Halstead Fire aglow behind the ridges to the north.

Two current events have renewed those memories.  One is the tragic deaths of 19 elite firefighters near Prescott, Arizona at the southern end of the Rockies.  The late Dr. Norman Maclean is best known for his lyrical A River Runs Through It but one of his non-fiction books deals with unwrapping tragedies such as the one on Yarnell Hill earlier this week.

I read his posthumous Young Men and Fire a few years after relocating to Durham, North Carolina.  It chronicles how all but three members of an elite team of 15 smokejumpers died fighting Montana’s Mann Gulch Fire in 1949, the year after I was born.  His son, John Norman Maclean wrote another entitled Fire on the Mountain, about a fire in Colorado where 14 firefighters lost their lives.

Dr. Mclean taught English literature at the University of Chicago.  It wasn’t until after he retired 40 years ago that he began writing stories that made him famous such as the somewhat autobiographical A River Runs Through It.  As a young man he worked for the Forest Service in the Bitterroots, not far from our ancestral ranch or the Halstead.

His son was named after the fly-fishing Presbyterian Minister at the center of the book which is set one gulch down from Mann Gulch near Helena.  I’m sure the Yarnell tragedy will also become a impetus for change in firefighting techniques as the other two fires were.

Smokejumping such as the elder Mclean had written about in Young Men and Fire had begun as experiments in Utah and Washington State in the 1930s before being formally established in 1940.  The Mann Gulch fire chronicled by Mclean claimed 13 firefighters, 12 of them elite smokejumpers.  A lot was learned from the fire in 1949 but not nearly enough.

No doubt, one of the routes taken this year with my grandsons to our Pacific Northwest lake rendezvous with family will skirt the Montana smokejumper base as we did last year after leaving Stanley and traveling up the Bitterroot Valley.  The base is about 20 clicks from where it all started up in the Lolo at Ninemile Camp.

It was in this area a little more than a hundred years ago that The Great Fire of 1910 (aka the Big Blowup) burned 3 million acres of Montana and Idaho (about the same area as Connecticut) in a two-day firestorm, killing 78 firefighters including an entire 28-member crew near Avery, Idaho and entirely destroying seven towns and severely damaging many others across the two state area.

It is was the largest fire in recorded U.S. history.  Just two years after the Targhee was established near our ancestral ranch, the Big Blow greatly influenced the approach to fires by the young National Forest Service, established two decades earlier.

Ironically, The Forest History Society, established a couple of years before I was born relocated to Durham a few years before I did to affiliate here with the Duke University and the soon-to-be-created Nicholas School for the Environment.  It is headquartered less than two miles from my house.

The second reason these memories have flooded back this week is that a friend of mine is going to visit Bandon, Oregon in a few weeks.  Developers have overtaken the small southern Oregon coastal town now.  During my only visit there, it was still quaint and the motel room was on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

There too I arose before dawn to make coffee and walk a few feet to the bluff’s edge to watch the fog roll out.  As I returned to the room for a refill, the images of the World Trade Towers in New York City filled the screen.  They had just been struck by planes flown by terrorists.

The drive north that morning through Coos Bay to Florence where I stopped at a pay phone to call the office was eerily quiet.  Sounds funny now to stop at a pay phone.  In 2001, I was among the 45% of the U.S. population who used a cell phone but among the 43% of those who did so primarily for work and this was a pleasure trip up the coastal route.

The fog had burned off to a brilliant fall day and the views outside were spectacular while the car radio was filled with shocking details including the loss of 343 firefighters and paramedics and 60 police officers among the 2,753 fatalities.

When I saw my dad at the end of the road portion of that trip, the hugs were especially tight and the conversation gentle.  It would be the last time I would see him alive.

God bless America and the families of lost firefighters on this Independence Day.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Green Infrastructure Is By Definition Moderate

Friends and readers of this blog often kid me that based on some of the topics in this blog, I often appear more progressive than moderate, as I claim.

I can see their point.  Moderates are eclectic in their views by nature.  But reading closely they will see that while I am passionate about green infrastructure, I often kid “eco-Talibans.”  I prefer bans such that result in recycling and recovery to those on consumer use.

I also believe biotech, or genetically modified, foods (GMO) can be extremely beneficial and not just because I live in Durham, NC, a center for biotechnology research, development and entrepreneurs.

I am also wary of mainframe solutions or one-size-fits all approaches institutionalized by regulations, uninformed by or restricted from practicality and inflexible to the spirit in which they were created.

I am particularly intrigued with solutions forged across seemingly ideological divides such as the case made for green infrastructure over gray infrastructure in a white paper published last month by scientists for The Dow Chemical Company, Shell, Swiss Re and Unilever in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy.

These organizations have unique histories.  About the time Dow was founded in Michigan in 1897, the business that pioneered bulk oil tankers in 1892 was being renamed Shell.  Swiss Re, a wholesale reinsurance pioneer against catastrophes, took on the hazards of operating railroads, following insuring the conveyance of visitors to the World’s Fair in Chicago.

At the time, Unilever had just created Lifebuoy Soap and was launching Sunlight flakes to revolutionize household cleaning.  Two decades later The Nature Conservancy (TNC) found roots first as a society for ecologists to “publish research and pursue an agenda to preserve natural areas.”

World War I had started and baseball slugging legend Babe Ruth began his career as a pitcher in Boston.  Officials in New York State had protected the Adirondacks and Cornell professor Liberty Hyde Bailey published The Holy Earth, elevating conservation stewardship to an ethical imperative.

Bailey had been born on the shores of Lake Michigan, 168 miles west and south of where Dow was founded - and is still headquartered - near Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron.  In 1908, he headed President Theodore Roosevelt’s national Country Life Commission.

L.H. Bailey died in 1952 when I was shy of four years old,  two years after The Ecological Society of America had been renamed The Nature Conservatory and less than three years before the organization founded the first “land preservation fund.”

Seadrift, Texas lies roughly midway between Houston and San Antonio, encompassed by the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge which protects it from the Gulf of Mexico.  Dow’s 4,700 acre plant in North Seadrift was established in 1954 by Union Carbide which it assumed as a subsidiary in 2001.

The two companies had been founded a year apart but Dow took a special interest in the Seadrift plant not because it makes plastics for wiring and drip irrigation or glycols for antifreeze and fabrics, but for its use of green infrastructure.

To expand in 1996, regulations required expanded water treatment facilities that would cost $40 million.  But an engineer, possibly inspired by witnessing the power of wetlands in the surrounding wildlife refuge, staked his career on an unconventional solution, construction of a wetland next to the plant.

At $1.4 million, it was far less expensive and now treats 5 million gallons of water per day while meeting all regulatory standards.  As a bonus it provides habitat for wildlife.  One of the few downsides, as noted in the white paper, is that it first required a 1 to 2 year pilot project and it covers 110 acres as opposed to 4-5 acres for a treatment plant.

Dow is currently taking this tactical success to a strategic level and re-evaluating the feasibility of green infrastructure substitutes to a number of its gray infrastructure practices.  The paper also discussed a project in Oman where Shell is using commercial wetlands to treat water from oil drilling.

The white paper also gives a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) of green infrastructure, an overview of risk management solutions, as well as recommendations for how to make green infrastructure alternatives scalable.

Experts from Swiss Re have a special purpose for their involvement.  The company is in the business of managing risks, including that from global climate change, for which it has been a harbinger.  While many in high office hold solutions to that issue hostage, the free market is taking it very seriously.

Officials in my adopted home of Durham are working hard to deploy green infrastructure by taking a page from its past.  As can be seen by torrential downpours here of late, the city’s park, many of which were created on floodplains, also serve as giant retention ponds to slow and cleanse run-off.

Now in an effort to purify two of Durham’s urban streams, Ellerbe and South Ellerbe creeks, as well as a Durham lake created in the 1970s as a water supply for Raleigh located further downstream, storm water officials are proposing to create a wetland where an abandoned fitness center sits in the floodplain.

The proposed site sits at a low spot that drains nearly 480 acres of storm water runoff from Downtown and the lower part of the historic Trinity Park neighborhood.  It would cleanse this water of pollutants gathered from the impervious surface of the urban core and then slowly release them to control flooding.

Hopefully, when complete, The Dow Chemical Company’s strategic assessment of a holistic, company-wide application of green infrastructure applications will include full-cost accounting.  To fully address sustainability, it will have to not only offset the company’s footprint on the environment but give back.

As its founder, Herbert H. Dow. once remarked – “If you can’t do it better, why do it?”  Companies may never be able to outperform nature, but there is a stewardship obligation to first, do no harm.”

As disheartening as it is to see those in high office try to undo stewardship, I am heartened by what may become the full embrace of the marketplace.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The Danger of Generalizations

I’ve been guilty of making generalizations about those who share my Mormon religious heritage.  They are not all conservative or even all Republican, nor have they ever been.  It can just seem like that because like Tar Heel fans, those who are just make it an issue (smile from Duke fan.)

According to a survey of members of various religious traditions, while half of all Mormons are Republican by party affiliation, nearly 30% are Independents with 8% not leaning toward either party.  Some 27% are moderates and 10% are liberals.

But it isn’t just with ideology or party affiliation that the generalizations break down.

The majority of Mormons (55%) believe there should be stricter environmental laws and regulations and that they are worth the cost.  Only a third oppose environmental protections, more than the average for other religion traditions.

A small number of conservatives, especially lawmakers, appear to obscure these distinctions by attempting to project homogeneity or out-shout the diversity of opinions within groups with which they affiliate.

This seems particularly true in states where the Tea Party holds sway or at least those who hijacked that movement.

A quarter of Mormons are accepting of individuals who are LBGT and a similar proportion support pro-choice in all or most instances.  Four of ten believe government is too involved in issues of morality.

A similar proportion believes we should concentrate on problems here at home rather than abroad.  More than a third believe we need bigger government and more services.

More than three-quarters of Mormons in the U.S. live in the West with the next highest percentage in the South.  Nearly 30% are unmarried, while more than half have no children, although the percentage with four or more is three times the national average.

Different than the impression taken by many from the recent political campaigns, nearly half of Mormons have incomes of less than $49,999 and more than a quarter make less than $30,000.  Nearly 40% have a high school education or less which is less than the national average for other religious traditions while the percentage with college or post-graduate degrees is at the average for other religions.

Most people would have guess wrong at these percentages.  I know I certainly would have.  To see the views among those of your religious tradition or heritage, click on this link and then on the “select a tradition” dropdown.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Consuming An Olympic-Size Swimming Pool

In its annual report on water quality, Durham, North Carolina where I live included the EPA’s breakdown of how Americans use water in their households (shown in the image below,) but that represents only 4% of our per capita water footprint.

The strategic approach Durham has taken to water supply since the 1920s sets it apart from other urban communities in the state, an approach found lacking in other areas of local stewardship such as urban forests and maintenance of local roadsides.

I have enjoyed reading an excellent book published this last spring by Mark Tercek, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, managing director and partner, co-written by science writer Jonathan Adams and entitled Nature’s Fortune – How Business And Society Thrive By Investing In Nature.

The thesis of the book is that nature, including resources such as water are a form of capital and infrastructure that must be accounted as a factor of market production.  Noted is that overall in 2004 Americans used over 655,000 gallons of water per person on average, “nearly enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Durham residents use 23,688 gallons of that in their homes (64.9 gallons per day,) about 11% less than the national average and nearly 20% less per capita than in the year 2000. But that isn’t how we consume 96% of the water use for which we are responsible.

The authors of Nature’s Fortune note that:

“…a liter of Coke in a plastic bottle requires a liter of water for the drink itself,

a liter for production and washing,

10 liters to make the bottle and

a whopping 200 liters to grow the sugar

– a total of 212 liters (56 gallons) of water for every liter of Coke.

This is applicable, I’m sure, to other soft drink brands.

Additionally – “Many other products have surprising footprints:  660 gallons for a cotton shirt, about 120 gallons for one pound of wheat and nearly 2,000 gallons for one pound of beef.  A typical American breakfast of two eggs, toast and coffee requires 120 gallons of water…”

In another report, entitled Wasted, scientists document that getting food to our tables swallows 80% of the freshwater consumed in the United States while using 50 percent of land and eating up 10% of the nation’s energy budget and yet 40% goes uneaten, wasted at various points in the supply chain, including our homes.

Through the way we handle food, we waste 25% of all freshwater in the United States.

Soon Mugsy, my English Bulldog and I will set out on our fifth, east-west, cross-country road-trip since I retired 3 1/2 years ago.  On thing that always stands out are the mighty rivers we crisscross including the Mississippi, Missouri, Colorado and Snake and often the Ohio and Columbia.

Iowa is one of those states that always over-delivers, not just because as a native of Idaho, I am partial to “I” states.  Iowa is dotted with streams and lakes but it is bordered on each side by the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, both of which often visit that state with devastating floods.

It also rests at the center of a watershed that drains 41% of the United States.

Like my adopted North Carolina and native Idaho, the state of Iowa is conservative in make up, although where I’ve lived, I’ve always found a spot of “blue” or “purple” where a moderate Independent can thrive and there are one or two of those in Iowa as well.

In November 2010, by a two-thirds majority, voters in Iowa rose up in the midst of the Great Recession to amend the state constitution and approved the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund endowed with a portion of a 1% sales tax.

It stands in stark contrast to the zaniness of North Carolina’s legislature which has turned instead to trying to ripping out any conservation it can and in my opinion desecrating an amendment passed here to the state constitution in 1972:

“It shall be the policy of this State to conserve and protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizenry, and to this end it shall be a proper function of the State of North Carolina and its political subdivisions to acquire and preserve park, recreational, and scenic areas, to control and limit the pollution of our air and water, to control excessive noise, and in every other appropriate way to preserve as a part of the common heritage of this State its forests, wetlands, estuaries, beaches, historical sites, openlands, and places of beauty.”

Instead of trying to redeem a reputation for being backward, as North Carolina’s current lawmakers are doing, the new progressive measure in equally conservative Iowa is being used to perpetually guarantee and increase funding for:

  • lake restoration (7%),
  • trails (ensuring Iowa stays first in the nation in multi-use trail-miles 10%),
  • augmentation of grants to enhance and protect natural and cultural resources (13%),
  • local conservation partnerships (13%),
  • watershed protection (14%),
  • soil conservation and water protection (20%) and,
  • to ensure funding of its department of natural resources (23%.)

You can already see the difference, including tile and drainage on farmland to capture and slow storm run-off, trees, and most of all in floodplains along the two huge rivers bordering each side of the state.

A study published in 2010 by researchers at Duke University here in Durham, calculated that public investments in wetland restoration along the Mississippi River’s alluvial plain, including a portion Mugs and I will traverse later this summer, pay for themselves in just two years.

These critical lands when left as or restored as wetlands are worth two and a half times what they are when converted to crops such as soybeans or cotton.  The study also found that restoration of wetlands can also be lucrative to landowners.

My Idaho-rancher dad would always mutter at what he felt was an unfair burden to taxpayers nationwide when people would rebuild after floods along these two rivers.  Very conservative for his time, he was hypocritical as many holding that ideology are because he didn’t complain when the same was done to control forest fires in Idaho.

But my dad was right about something.  We must learn to let floodplains be floodplains.

They are nature’s way of controlling flooding and ensuring water quality.  Instead, an analysis conducted for Federal Emergency Management Agency is estimating that by 2100, the number of homes in special flood hazard zones is set to double from 5.5 million today to 11.2 million,

The increased risk is not all coastal.  Check out the maps in the report showing the geographic increase every 20 years.

Proving that not all conservatives are alike, in North Carolina, Republicans controlling all three branches of government talk about the virtues of local control when it comes to shunning federal programs, but then try to lord it over truly local governments by trying their best to over-ride democratically adopted standards in cities, towns and countries.

A few years ago in Durham, where I live, developers, land owners, neighborhoods and citizens met for over a year to devise and adopt a measure to create 150’ buffers along waterways.  State lawmakers are passing a law to force Durham and any other community to reduce its buffers to the state standard of 50’.

They also want to force Durham to run water and sewer to a development that is deliberately trying to intrude where residents believe it will violate floodplain and threaten a water supply.

“I” states like Idaho, Iowa, Indiana and the vast part of Illinois may be as conservative or more conservative than North Carolina but they aren’t being stupid when it comes to water quality.

They can’t afford to be, nor can North Carolina afford the arrogance of the majority of its current lawmakers.  Iowa’s humility when it comes to nature was earned the hard way. We should follow its lead.