How to Spend $40M, Pt. 1 [updated 2/5/15]
Hickory has been trying hard of late to show that it is not a place where innovation goes to die. The proof is in the pudding, which is still being concocted, but in the mid-term election the community gave the city a vote of confidence by passing the Boost Hickory bond referendum for $40 million. Now that the wheels of government and community involvement are slowly beginning to turn (hear the grinding of the gears?), we’re already starting to see some troubling signs in the implementation of the Boost Hickory plan. As reported this week in the Hickory Daily Blotter Record, the Boost Hickory campaign team missed their third and final financial reporting deadline, and our illustrious mayor has found himself in hot water over reimbursements he received from the campaign for signs he purchased from a third party vendor as a “middleman” on the campaign’s behalf, as well as making an unreported $1,200 in-kind donation of banners from his own business that were not even in compliance with election size requirements. (His excuse? His company makes “vurry, vurry few” political signs.) Are we having fun yet?
You’d have to have warped priorities (and not much of a life) to get worked up over these recent shenanigans, so let’s put this nonsense in perspective. These are typical missteps in a small town such as ours. Nothing to see here, folks. Nor is this anything new for our dear mayor. When asked if he had any concerns about the perception of conflict of interest in the matter of Signgate, Mayor Rudy Wright responded, “Why would I be concerned about that? It is no secret that I was all in on this (bond referendum).” No shit, Sherlock. It is precisely BECAUSE he was “all in” that he should have taken extra precautions to distance himself from the campaign. The campaign should have told him “Thanks, but no thanks” as well for his offer to help, expediency be damned. As I recall, City Manager Mick Berry and his staff were very careful not to cross the line between providing information and advocating when making their presentations about the plan. It seems that this would be common sense to any politician, particularly one now serving his fourth term in office.
There is no question that the city and council have their work cut out for them in creating a plan to 1) spend the $40 million raised by the bond and 2) to come up with projects for the plan that both elevate the appearance of our city and boost its economic development. First, they had to overcome a somewhat misleading branding problem, going back to when this project was originally called Inspiring Spaces. Mayor Wright campaigned heavily on this in his 2013 re-election campaign and believed in it so mightily that he continued to use the name long after the new name of Boost Hickory had been chosen. Whenever I heard him speak about this or read his comments, I couldn’t help think that at a time when our community was suffering through an unprecedented economic collapse, resulting in the loss of jobs, businesses and the exodus of our younger population, this sounded like so much lipstick on a pig. (Mister Mayor, you want to talk Inspiring Spaces? How about coming up with something inspiring to do with the site of our world-famous sinkhole?) It wasn’t until I heard presentations given by city staff about the bond referendum, now branded as Boost Hickory, that I began to understand that this wasn’t about parks and greenways over more important issues such as jobs and education, but rather about creating new areas of commerce that would attract businesses, create jobs AND provide the impetus to improve and highlight the features and natural resources of these and areas such as Lake Hickory.
The mayor’s poor judgment aside, one has to hand it to the Boost Hickory team for running an effective campaign, one that passed by 55% and 60% of the vote for the economic development and streets and sidewalks bonds respectively. (It really is inexplicable that the campaign would miss three – count ‘em, THREE – report filings, but the community was obviously able to hold their nose on this when they cast their vote.) Now it’s up to city council to devise an effective gameplan for infusing this significant amount of cash where it belongs and can do the most amount of good for the city.
The council knows that all eyes are upon them, scrutinizing their every move and decision, but that hasn’t stopped them so far in making head-scratching decisions that would seem to belie Hickory’s current capacity for pulling off an investment of this magnitude. One of these is to put no restrictions on the candidates appointed by the council to the bond committee. This means, among other things, that a person does not have to be a resident of the city to be on this committee. It boggles the mind to think that our council would already be widening the net when they’ve barely attempted to find among the 50,000 or so souls within the city limits people smart enough to oversee the creation of this plan. When coupled with the fact that the council has also extended the application deadline, this may be an indication of a larger issue that goes back to perception: not enough smart people are stepping up. Who’s to say why, but I guarantee you that these recently reported missteps have not helped the cause one iota.
Another red flag is the removal of Business Park 1764 from bond committee oversight. I appreciate the city staff and council’s concern that the negotiations around the businesses to be recruited into this park require a certain level of expertise, not to mention a high level of confidentiality around the terms of negotiation before a deal is struck. Again, I believe this sells short the expertise that exists in our community. A far worse message communicated by this decision is that it signals the first in the death by a thousand cuts of the transparency and accountability that are necessary elements of this process. Without them, the city will have a hard time overcoming the perception of cronyism and distrust of their ability to manage the process and infuse the money for the general welfare of the community.
Granted, we are still very early into the process, and we can expect a lot of changes and hiccups to the plan before it starts rolling on its own momentum. No doubt the appointed bond advisory committee members will make changes of their own once they are in place. It will be interesting to observe in the coming months whether the city will be able to resist its tendency to build and make decisions by consensus. We’re used to the Commanders and Controllers of our economy crafting deals in the backroom (anyone remember the Viewmont Lowe’s debacle?). However, the economic downturns of 2001 and 2008, with the catastrophic loss of tens of thousands of jobs, requires different thinking than that used to build the dynasties of our Commanders and Controllers of yore, when land and labor were cheap and plentiful and education was not necessary to build a strong workforce. Rebuilding our economy from this wreckage requires all hands on deck. Bringing people in our community together from all walks of life will instill the trust in the city to serve the needs of the WHOLE community, and a diversity of viewpoint will lead to a far more robust and sustainable plan. Sure, things can get pretty messy in the “storming” and “forming” stages of task force organizing, and it does tend to take the spotlight and power away at times from those who are accustomed to having the final say. That’s just the nature of the beast, and it’s time for played out and bankrupt ideas to give way to answers to questions we haven’t even thought to ask yet. They’re out there, trust me.
But picking on Rudy and Co. is like shooting fish in a barrel. Let’s turn our attention to the other party that broke the Signgate “story,” shall we? When reporter Frank Bumb of the Hickory Daily Blotter Record (“All the news about meth and death that’s fit to print”) first reported on Rudy’s reimbursement of $3,745 on January 20, it was clear that all he had to go on was a taint of perception of conflict of interest, which Rudy cavalierly swatted away with “Why should I be concerned about that?” It turns out he needn’t be. In the follow-up article on January 22, there were statements from an elections expert at the UNC School of Government and the state Board of Elections saying that no laws had been broken. Had Bumb checked with these experts in the first place, he would have realized this was a non-story. Thus, it appears that the sole purpose of running this ginned up story was to cast aspersions and create a perception of wrongdoing (one reinforced by the editorial that ran on January 25 titled “Stumbling and bumbling”). Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely need oversight of this process, but manufacturing stories just to get a rise out of our mayor and other officials does not help the cause, whether it’s building community consensus or keeping all parties in check through FACTUAL reporting of REAL malfeasance, should that ever occur. Nor does this help the credibility of our struggling local paper.
For the record (not the Record), I voted for Boost Hickory, and I truly WANT the effort to succeed. Hickory desperately needs it, and the process, if successful, has potential to usher in a new era of openness and collaboration for our city, not to mention economic prosperity. In fact, if our Powers That Be don’t pay attention this could become one of those “be careful what you wish for” scenarios. If we are successful in recruiting new businesses to our area, businesses with amenities that in turn attract more of the younger demographic, it will introduce a wave of progressivism, diversity and tolerance of differing viewpoints that tend to be a by-product of urbanism. So I say bring it on, because THAT’S the Hickory that I would like to live, work and raise my family in. But the only way we will be able to accomplish anything is if we come together, roll up our sleeves and do the work, rather than poison the well with mistrust, confusion and half-baked truths that will benefit no one and only undermine the process before it even has a chance to get started.
2/5/15 Update: The Hickory Daily Blotter Record reported in yesterday’s paper that the Hickory City Council had voted to confirm each of their appointments to the Boost Hickory bond implementation commission. I’m not familiar with all the names, but it looks to be a fairly strong list with a decent cross-section of the community in terms of age, diversity and variety of perspective. It also looks as though the Council managed to find appointees within the city limits. I’ll leave it to others to carp about the selections, which inevitably happens when you have to whittle a long list down to a select few. As I said, the proof is in the pudding, and, until I have been given reason to think otherwise, I will give the commission members the benefit of the doubt that they will consistently attend the meetings, consider as objectively as possible the information put before them and make decisions that are to the benefit of the ENTIRE city. Now let’s Boost Hickory!