Friday, January 09, 2015

The Flaw of Trying To Import Sense of Place

More troubling unfortunate news about the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, NC is once again affirmation of the harm “big game hunting” does to communities.

The term refers to otherwise well-meaning people who, impatient with evolving or lacking faith in a distinctive community sense of place, are perpetually motivated instead to try to import the cultural aspect.

Then these imported facilities and events invariably and very imperceptibly begin to hollow out sense of place by siphoning away capacity, underwriting, exposure, patience and volunteers.

Once past the tipping point, they begin to tap and draw off audience from other more homegrown events and venues.

Communities with more grass-roots power bases involving activists and neighborhoods can seem immune to “big game hunters.”

But as has happened in even the most self-aware communities, this can be reversed in a matter of a few years when elected bodies, chambers of commerce and even community marketing agencies - charged as sense of place guardians - become enablers by falling under the spell of or trying to placate “big game hunters.”

The mantra of a “big game hunter” is that a community is nothing if it isn’t main stream, “major league” and “big picture,” generally used as put downs on anyone concerned with authentic sense of place.

Unfortunately, analysis shows that facilities and events fitting these descriptors are most often the road to “sameness” and ubiquity, rather than the uniqueness shown to have appeal with the vast majority of travelers.

Of course, sense of place lies along a spectrum.  But it can only survive and thrive if the fulcrum always tips in favor of the distinctive, indigenous and “real.”

Unfortunately, “big game hunting” is addictive and power-hungry and knows no balance.

Sense of place is a delicate ecosystem, fostered more by gardening than hunting and can never be imported.

After cities build large-scale, mainstream cultural facilities, policy makers almost always pay attention to the wrong metrics such as attendance or operating profit or loss.

“Big game hunting” is based partly on lack of appreciation for the distinctive, partly on delusion and partly on failure to focus on broad enough metrics.

Most who truly read the 2006 proposal for the NASCAR Museum in Charlotte could readily see that the numbers didn’t make sense but for a community addicted to “facilities,” it (for once) seemed to make sense for Charlotte’s sense of place.

At first blush, Charlotte’s claim to NASCAR is merely one of proximity, located in the state that hosted 30 of the 52 races in the 1949 inaugural season, close to nearby Concord’s major speedway and close to the area where many of the racing teams are based and conduct research, development and race preparation.

But Charlotte at one time had at least three raceways located there and hosted the first “strictly stock” event in 1949.  Auto dealerships there have also been key as track and race team owners.

But Charlotte “big game hunters” apparently “cooked the books” far too much in the desperate effort to win out over other cities.

Numbers from a 2003 report on the importance of motorsports was misused or misread.  In the gross, the sector had more than a $5 billion annual impact on North Carolina, $4 billion of which occurred in the 12 counties near Charlotte.

But “big game hunters” neglected to mention that the “value added” or net to North Carolina was just over $2 billion and about $99 million tourism-related.

The price-tag was also significantly understated and promoters failed to grasp that most tourism (daytrip and overnight) drawn through the turnstiles for such facilities would be unrelated to the facility, meaning it would be siphoned from other facilities and events in Charlotte’s already stressed cultural ecosystem.

Ironically, “big game hunters” argued it would be augmented by visitors attending heavily subsidized events such as conventions further undermining the purpose of visitor-centric economic and cultural development.

Part of the problem is that instead of allowing its community destination marketing organization to drive tourism demand from which its facilities then become feasible and harvest a share, the community has shackled its DMO to operate facilities, subsidize events and cover deficits, giving “big game hunters” cover.

The Hall of Fame is not an anomaly, it is merely another symbol that “build it and they will come” never really works, and that main stream facilities such as these, including convention centers, often cannibalize not only more destination-authentic venues and events but in the end one another.

The City of Charlotte is now offering to pay $5 million toward loan guarantees from banks there (actually the city is volunteering the visitor authority to pay that amount, diverting it from marketing where, if not restricted by the state as a condition of permitting Charlotte to exceed use guidelines, it would be instead generating a 6-to-1 return local tax revenue.)

This means if used to pump revenues instead of subsidy, the city would have $30 million in hand for that offer.

But the most significant way the Hall of Fame will undermine that community’s true sense of place is related to Charlotte’s request that its banks “write off” or “extinguish” $14.1 million in principle and another $3.7 million in accrued interest in return for free sponsorships.

State taxpayers who surrendered $20 million worth of land to make the $195 million deal work will ostensibly, for now, also have any hope of a return “extinguished.”

I have no doubt that the Hall of Fame will stabilize as expectations are recalibrated but the tragic consequences that “big game hunters” and enablers fail to grasp or refuse to take responsibility for include three other more tragic losses:

  1. In Charlotte, the banks will be less likely now to shoulder backing on behalf of smaller, less conspicuous but far more essential events and facilities to sense of place.
  2. Lawmakers will be suspicious of future proposals to end-run guidelines for worthy purposes.
  3. Philanthropic gestures will be hardened if not curtailed as will be any cultural innovation.

But a reality is that communities susceptible, if not addicted, to “big game hunting” are also suffering from Dunning-Kruger Effect, the inability to learn from mistakes.  Under its spell, they fail to recognize incompetence or genuine alternatives.

In the words of Dr. David Dunning of Cornell, who identified this cognitive bias along with Dr. Justin Kruger now at the NYU Stern School of Business, for communities and individuals so-addicted, “the trouble with ignorance is that it feels so much like expertise.”

Another reality for communities susceptible to “big game hunting” is not just the massive sums it consumes or siphons but the even more significant investments those dollars could have made if directed instead to fostering and making sustainable a community’s distinctiveness.

The great irony of “big game hunting” is that it isn’t “thinking big” at all but thinking zero sum and a failure of faith that a community can be inherently worthy of love.

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