December 1, 2013

Local activists the best at getting things done

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

— My friend and colleague, Paul Grasso, elucidated eloquently about how communities thrive. He noted that there is a greater sense of community in our region now than perhaps at any other time in recent memory. I cannot agree more.

There must be something in the water. I could not count on two hands the number of new initiatives and new people that have come together to improve our collective lot.

These efforts include Vision 2040 and its successor, Vision2Action, the Saranac River Trail, new efforts in the creation of county-wide recreational opportunities, the fishing tournaments, First Weekends, the Arts Council and the Strand Theater, the Zombie Walk, Rotagallery and numerous other initiatives and activities that draw our community closer.

Most of these ideas were mere dreams half a dozen years ago. All of these initiatives are already wonderful works in progress. And each of these efforts make our community more attractive to those with tourist eyes or those who may contemplate moving here.

What is happening now that was not in 2007? Much has changed in half a dozen years.

In 2007, we received our first warnings of economic doom. Few heeded these warnings, and the messengers were treated like the host who takes the punchbowl away just as the party gets going.

Then, the bottom fell out of an economy that had soared to great heights but with no visible means of support. There were plenty of people to blame, from banks too big to fail to the 1 percent, from local and state politicians who made promises to employee groups that were simply unsustainable, and from an inept and infighting Congress to a newly elected president.

Well, those banks and insurance companies too big to fail were bailed out. And, we bailed out states under the pretence of fiscal stimulus. In retrospect, these policies, and a set of knee-jerk regulatory changes, failed to either rid us of the recession or prevent another one from happening in the future.

What does any of this have to do with dozens of points of light here, against an otherwise bleak background? I believe that we simply got tired of being tired. Congress’ popularity is at rock-bottom because people have somewhat given up on viable solutions and compromises from federal government. On the other hand, while there is little enthusiasm for big government, there is an unusually intense enthusiasm for local government. 

A few years ago, we could barely find enough candidates willing to serve in town, city or county government, and many who were willing won by acclamation without any challengers. More recently, almost every race was contested, and voters could exercise wide choice.

These twin engagements, of those willing to serve the public and those willing to create opportunities for their communities, share a common aspect. They all espouse vision, and even thirst for a vision of what could be.

Mr. Grasso observed that government is often wise to stand back and let local groups take the charge in community building. I agree that our best ideas often come from those who care deeply, and those with the energy and intensity to make a difference locally. Government can stand by and watch with awe as these groups brighten our community sky.

I do believe there is a role for government in all this, though. Government, especially local government, can foster an atmosphere in which private-sector energy is embraced and encouraged. Government can ensure these thousand points of light aren’t met with a thousand notes of no. Government can be the cheerleader, the facilitator and sometimes, even, the funder of private initiatives for the public good.

It would be wonderful to imagine a world where government need not be proactive community builders. Instead, we want to encourage private groups to do things in the public good, without offering them any commensurate award for their generosity of time and money. 

We have to create the incentives for our dogooders to continue to do good. If we do not, they leave burnt out at best and discouraged and demoralized at worst. Our community can’t afford that. And a lean and thoughtful government can prevent it by helping to sustain public efforts by private players.

Colin Read chairs the finance and economics faculty at SUNY Plattsburgh and has published a dozen books on global finance and economics.