Press-Republican

November 7, 2012

In My Opinion: Public involvement needed to fulfill vision

By BOB SMITH
Press-Republican

---- — Our community recently completed the fourth Vision2Action forum. Its conclusion reminded me of how our democratic process depends on an engaged community.

At the end of this political season, it brings to mind a myriad of reasons why these forums are so important for our community. Let’s reflect on the origin.

The concept began over lunch six years ago. Conversation centered on apparent inefficiencies of government, school systems and taxes. We needed to make changes, but decisions could not be made on opinions or assumptions — we needed facts.

The Development Corp. and SUNY Plattsburgh professor Colin Read started collecting data about our local demographics and trends. This effort confirmed our concerns and forced us to conclude that unless we changed these trends, we would fall off our own financial and community cliff.

Armed with these facts, this group began to organize the first of three Vision 2040 conferences. The challenge was to ask attendees how they envisioned the community in 2040, a year when very few of them would be here, so their comments would have no effect on the vision the attendees would have.

The hundreds invited to these three conferences were community members from all walks of life.

At the first session, Colin Read presented a most sobering fact about our state and our region: The current demographic of the area indicates a static if not decreasing birth rate, a ballooning rate of college-age students, an immediate decline of the working age 24 to 60 (earners) and a huge increase in the Baby Boomer population as they reached retirement.

The results were typical of a declining economy, where the size of the remaining earning group is insufficient to generate the taxes necessary to support the increasing social and economic demands generated by increasing retirements. This trend would accelerate the rate of citizens departing the area.

With these sobering statistics, analyses were developed, and task forces were formed. These groups met separately over the intervening months to report back their findings at subsequent Vision 2040 conferences. Their visions focused on characteristics of the North Country in 2040, the challenges to attaining their goals and an inventory of the assets we could employ to overcome our challenges.

They concluded these trends could be reversed if we could create action out of their visions. It was clear these citizens wanted to be part of the solution.

The Development Corp. approached the Partnership for Community Development in the summer of 2011 with the belief that the partnership would be the ideal group to provide the support and direction to achieve these visions. We changed the name to Vision2Action, developed a logo, websites and social media pages and formed an organizational structure that exists today to support the community’s vision.

We identified four primary areas that were close to positive tipping points and brought together citizens with a vested interest in those topics to a series of Vision2Action meetings.

These first four meetings held in 2012 were on Arts and Culture; Recreation; Transportation; and most recently, Education. All were well-attended. Participants agreed to assist in the effort of improving their specific area of concern.

What has been accomplished? The Strand Performing Arts Center will be open within a year. The Saranac River Trail and public access to the lake with facilities to access it have improved. Bike paths throughout the region have been developed and used extensively. We have initiated a Thrive Program to support our citizenry with a cradle-through-career program focused of community education and support by both public and private enterprise.

The Partnership for Community Development cannot take credit for these successes. The citizens who were already working on these programs did the work. The partnership merely helped to promote their efforts and leverage political and financial support.

The public, hopefully, feels less apathetic, more engaged, more involved and more effective in our community.

In January 2013, we will present our report card to the public and receive further input from citizens on these subjects and others that are in need of attention.

Our community’s success depends on your engagement. If the people lead, the leaders will follow.

— Bob Smith is chair of the Partnership for Community Development.