Monday, May 26, 2014

The Decade of Insight Behind Today’s Accolades

One of the things running through my mind recently while helping a friend clean out a garage in the Buckwater Creek neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina where we both live was how forward thinking the Durham native was to leave huge stands of trees.

By the mid-1990s when that neighborhood was completed, Craig Morrison’s Cimarron Homes had been developing neighborhoods for more than a decade.  Craig was a “green” developer decades before it became cool.

He grasped what some homebuilders down in Raleigh didn’t when along with other special interests their whining spurred a bill to ban development related local tree retention, preservation and reforestation ordinances.

Good developers know that trees improve property values and help sell homes and lease commercial property of all types more quickly.

Trees also provide a number of ecosystem services that affect the entire community such as evapotranspiration, a process by which trees slow, capture and cleanse storm run off and put the moisture back in the atmosphere.

In Minnesota, instead of banning tree ordinances, the state is developing a system of credits for retaining and planting trees with the formula calibrated to trees as they grow, canopy, impervious surface, soil type, temperature, rainfall and other variables.

Unfortunately, the only credits that will be given in North Carolina if a few regressive lawmakers have their way, are those designed to incentivize deforestation.

In South America, some outdoor billboard companies are bragging that with new technology, this form of sign blight could cleanse up to 25 gallons of water a day in countries where clean water is still hard to come by.

But in thousands of acres of roadside where North Carolina lawmakers are now permitting out-of-state billboard companies to clear-cut the length of a football field, each would cleanse 400 gallons per day if permitted to remain.

Anyway you slice it, the giveaway makes no sense and runs in the face of an amendment to the state constitution.

The variety of calculations that economists and forestry researchers are now placing on the value of trees may one day help lawmakers understand how foolhardy it is to public health alone to ban tree retention and preservation ordinances.

Even in some highly acclaimed cities such as Durham, where the challenge is cleaning up urban streams that flow into water supplies, an obsession with not raising taxes is obscuring services that are lacking and hollowing out others.

For example, neither the city nor county of Durham has an agency tasked with keeping these streams clean or following up to find polluters.  Instead, we rely on episodic clean ups by agencies, non-profits and volunteers such as Creek Week that barely make a dent.

Maybe local as well as state officials should be required to publish a list of services that are being neglected or hollowed out whenever they take credit for not raising taxes or even cutting taxes.

The public has a right to know that what we take for certain is more often actually being neglected.

Durham was renowned for investing in its future especially from 1900 into the 1940s thanks to forward thinking leadership and visionary public servants such as John C. Michie, William M. Piatt and Dallas W. Newsom in the period that led the way to professional management of cities and counties.

Then Durham suddenly descended into another period not dissimilar to the one we are in now where an obsession with holding the lid on taxes took precedent over preparing for the future during the late 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s.

Durham was held back during this span even as state and business leaders from here laid the foundation for the transformation of North Carolina’s economy to what it is today.

The costliness of that era when Durham was around a third the size it is now is made strikingly apparent by what happened during a remarkable decade beginning in 1982.

It is this decade that truly laid the foundation for making Durham known worldwide today for where great things happen.

It began when now-Mayor Bill Bell, then just in his early 40s was elected chair of the Durham Board of County Commissioners and joined by community activist Becky Heron about the same time Cimarron Homes was founded.

An incredible generation of students who had graduated from college in Durham in the 1970s has stayed here and had begun to be elected to the Durham City Council, including Wib Gulley who would go on to serve two terms as mayor and several as a state senator.

In 1983, Orville Powell was recruited as city manager, followed a year later when Jack Bond was recruited as the new county manager for Durham.

Together, these managers and elected officials all with fresh eyes, decided to make it clear to residents what they had been missing during the four-decade obsession with not raising taxes rather than investing in the future.

These are also the years when local officials also grasped that by forming a community-destination marketing organization (DMO), which I was brought here to start in 1989, they could also grow the local tax base through attracting visitors.

It is also the decade when Durham banned billboards and cleaned up other sign blight, first initiated adaptive reuse of historic factories and warehouses, grew organic districts such as Ninth Street, and established tree preservation ordinances and scenic overlays along major highways, all by fostering the community’s unique sense of place and authenticity.

In the years and months before I arrived, these Durham city and county officials also asked residents to approve two huge bond issues designed to catch Durham up and lay the groundwork for the future, followed by several subsequent bond issues.

In response, realtors and developers in neighboring communities began to hammer Durham as having higher taxes failing to mention that Durham’s city taxes were 19% higher because after running utilities to make Research Triangle Park possible, corporations there were subsequently exempted by the state from paying a full share of Durham taxes.

These detractors also obscured the significant difference between “tax rate,” “tax valuation” and actual “tax burden”which must be factored into any comparison.

In response, Durham’s fledgling marketing agency fueled the local and surrounding news media with better information, but the damage had been done.

Some Durham voters had become confused by the constant misrepresentations, especially in the more conservative unincorporated areas of the county.

Jack Bond retired from local government in 1991 and after a stint in state government and on the governing board for Durham’s DMO, he passed away in 2001 about the time Bill Bell moved over as mayor.

Bell had been briefly replaced as a Commissioner in 1994 because he had supported school merger and while he was soon re-elected, some conservatives were also elected in the early 1990s whose rhetoric deepened suspicion among residents about taxes.

As it still is today, this changed the conversation from taxes as investment and it set Durham back again to the regressive thinking of the 1950s and 1960s, a preoccupation that quietly began again to hollow out initiatives such as upkeep and refocus attention only on the near term.

One conservative elected official during that transition even asked me in a hearing, when we would have enough visitors and wouldn’t need visitor spending or resulting tax revenue.

“Uhhh…never,” I replied, “Not if we want Durham to thrive.”

By 1993 Gulley had gone on to the state senate and in the mid-1990s, Orville moved on to teach at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Durham has passed bonds since then and has had many good leaders, but the obsession with capping taxes at any cost has systematically hollowed out local government while simultaneously blinding residents and probably some elected officials to what isn’t being done as a result.

The revitalization of downtown today, a remnant from that decade of forward thinking, belies the fact that we’re no longer keeping the community up as a whole or investing in the future.

All of this is to say, that Durham needs leadership to stand up again and level with Durham residents and business owners about what is needed to prepared Durham beyond our current terms of office and lifetimes.

Durham can’t sit back and rest on today’s accolades, most of which are really the result of strategic groundwork initiated in the 1980s and early 1990s, while the community silently slips behind again.

Nor do we have to sell Durham’s unique character out to the highest bidder so we don’t have to ask residents to shoulder this investment.

We just need another period where preparing Durham for the future is considered an investment, not a burden.

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