Why Should Small Towns Try to Dictate Their Own Future?

Regionalism, Urbanism, Smart Growth are all buzz words out there concerning revitalization. Many times, people get all their hopes and dreams defined and try to fit into the buzz words. Then there is an attempt to tell people what they want to hear, rather than what they need to do. If, when planning, there is no context to the planning study, you could find yourself running around in circles looking to establish something that is not what you want to do.

If you really want to get things done, there is a plan to be more operational concerning what you are doing and deal less with revitalization clichés. I often refer to the crosswalks to nowhere which are the height of the kind of actions that should be avoided. 

No one wants to go out on a limb when making recommendations about revitalization, and much of what you get in a planning study…. a master plan so to speak, is boiler plate jargon directing you to some set of principles that are good in a theoretical sense, but in reality, are not useful. Many of the studies misunderstand what is real and what is perceived and send you down the path of ordinary just to be safe. 

By the same token, even if you have a good plan, sometimes no one listens to you unless you have someone in your corner. I remember in Pittsburgh when I did the Castle Shannon Train station project, I had a representative named Dan Miller who cared about the project and personally made sure that we secured the money for it.  Locally I will always point to Curt Schroder in Downingtown as being a champion of the people when he fought for the Main Street Association plan.

So, what happens when you get a plan that is not particularly relevant to dealing with your issues, and no politician sees value in your project? You have to take matters into your own hands and create your own reality. I know you immediately wonder how is that going to happen?

I think first a town should take a step back from “their reality” and try to identify a more “third person reality.” Know who you are and know what you want. Know that your ideas are probably more cogent than those of someone you hire. In writing, come up with a list of what you want in your study and don’t be afraid to challenge the paid professional on how your issue is addressed.   

When I initiated the latest train project for Phoenixville, rather than opting for a planning firm, I hired an operational consultant. He has tended to provide a document that is more “how you can” versus “why you should” projects. There are a lot of things that you should do, but really there is no use spending the money to plan it if it is not what you want to do. You should read some of the TRID studies that I reviewed. To say that some of it was boiler plate would be a stating the obvious. I think what I noticed the most was the self-constraints that were levied in the document that were mere opinions rather than facts. 

So as a prequel to doing the train study, Manny DeMutis wanted to provide the regional transportation plan with input for the train. Professional planners basically blew off the requests in the planning meetings, and decided that the trails and intersection improvements were more appropriate. So rather than let it go and just realize that we were never going to get a train, instead Phoenixville moved to see for itself if it was possible. It turns out it is possible, and it could be a boom to the town which has already distinguished itself as a destination and as a regional hub.

So why is it so important that we went forward without the help of the professional planners? In my opinion it is the only way that a town can get ahead without a significant lift from the politicos and the technocrats “may I” policy. One must be cognizant that there is a regional competition for money, and there is a pecking order in terms of geo-spatial politics… you know, the winners and the losers in the revitalization game.

I wanted to use the Transit Revitalization Investment District as a funding scheme. I started by going to the professional planners who immediately told me I had to get in line in order to get the district designation. I was told that there were only two districts designated per year, and I was given the impression I was jumping line. I was told to “READ THE LAW”… well I had read the law, and I am not a novice and went about my business rather than questioning.  No need to argue.

There is more than a possibility that these kinds of incidents would stop a town directly in their tracks. This is why towns must take control of their own future and do what is best for them, whether or not it is in vogue or is the flavor of the day.  Towns need to develop the necessary actors in terms of leadership and thick skin to get through the system rather than wait for someone to determine when it is their turn.

In addition, other towns who are jealous of your effort will try to bad mouth the project to mask their own inability to navigate the system. I had a neighboring town issue a press release that we could not do the project. Stuff like that is inexcusable, and it makes it harder to accomplish a task. When elected officials act in that kind of manner, they only make fools of themselves.

In order to do a project that is widely viewed as impossible for all of the wrong reasons, towns have to believe in themselves as a town. Understand that local knowledge and expertise may be transferable in what you want to do. Most of all, you must realize that other towns are in competition with you and they may have more horses in the race than you, which would improve their chances of succeeding.

Barry Cassidy is a freelance grant and economic development consultant. He can be reached at barrycassidy@comcast.net.