Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Waterfront Redevelopment: A Rant About Election Games
"A ship in port is safe, but that's not what ships are built for." - – Grace Murray Hopper
Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, the American computer pioneer, was the first woman to become a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. She was born in 1906 in New York.
By age seven, she was taking alarm clocks apart to see how they worked.
She worked for the U.S. Navy developing the first compiler, which allowed people to write computer programs in real language rather than machine code.
When she found a moth inside a computer, she coined the term "debugging." She died in 1992.
This piece is a little dated, since it was first drafted back in September of '07, during the heat of elections.
Had I published it back then, I might have called it something like 'Waterfront Redevelopment: Mother Goose & the Doctors of Spin Revisited -PART 2'
This one is also a little long, because it was already mostly written, and it does take me much longer to distill and write a short piece that people can read with only one cup of coffee!
But, maybe some folks will find much of it is still relevant.
From my Navy days, I learned first hand about the terms "skinny" and "scuttlebutt".
Skinny had the connotation of correct information, or poop, as in 'straight skinny'.
Scuttlebutt was a phrase used to describe gossip around the water cooler, and every ship had at least one 'biomass' artist whose mission in life it was to create rumors and misinformation.
Many things change over time, but the meanings of 'skinny' & 'scuttlebutt' seem to remain the same.
With this in mind, it's interesting to focus on some of the criticisms –legitimate, misguided or malignant- now circulating about the ambitious plan to first cleanup, and then redevelop our blighted Waterfront; and by what process and financial underpinnings that long-term project should follow.
No one seems to doubt the potential benefits of converting this particular ‘sow’s ear into a silk purse’, but questions of who subsidizes whose ‘pork’ with how many chests of public treasure, need answering before anything more than virtual sorties to hypothetical destinations are attempted.
Carrying the nautical theme a little further, this ship needs to sail with the tide, and not against it, as is customary outside dire emergencies.
And it needs to sail under a qualified Master, preferably a senior Captain, handpicked by the Admiral - us!
The right number crew needs to be seasoned, loyal, healthy and durable, and with the right mix of Junior officers, Petty officers and Rankings.
Of course adequate provisions for a long voyage need to be secured and safely stored.
The right equipment for propelling, steering and navigating are musts for any successful voyage.
But once the ship sails, the Captain is in charge, and mutiny is severely frowned upon!
At times, changes in command are needed, and new crewmembers recruited, because a good ship’s mission outlasts any one compliment of sailors.
Complicating all of this is the fact that the ship is still in the shipyard being designed, tested and its technical challenges and costs estimated.
Only after that can the vessel be built to careful specifications and launched for sea trials.
Hopefully the finished craft will, upon being commissioned, be fully seaworthy, operate as expected, fulfill its purpose and last a long time.
I’d much prefer names like Enterprise or Constitution over something like Pequod, Turtle or U-anything, but that comes later.
Back to Landlubber talk for a bit.
This project is something Bellingham really needs to make happen.
It is literally the chance in a lifetime that we have within our grasp right now so let’s try our hardest to make he most of it!
Other coastal cities would give their eye-teeth for a chance like this one, because it carries the promise of redefining Bellingham’s potential for long into our future.
I’d go so far as to say that it would be patently irresponsible for us as a community to let this opportunity elude becoming reality.
Of course it's expensive, controversial and uncertain and therefore divisive to those with different agendas, fears or wishes.
If those concerns weren’t being expressed, that would be remarkable!
In fact, the project may not be worth considering at all if it failed to raise concerns.
But it is, and it does.
That’s what folks thought about the Space Program, too before Sputnik woke us up.
So, getting these concerns out there early, is actually good.
But, how concerns are expressed may not be so good and that has become more of a problem than it needs to be.
Already there is enough misinformation about to sink a lesser, un-seaworthy vessel.
But there are also serious concerns that both the City and Port are trying hard to address as soon as is realistically possible.
Let’s put it this way, until and unless we have good information as to what cleanup and redevelopment scenario will satisfy our ecological, social and economic needs adequately, no decision to go forward will be made.
Restating that another way: if we can’t be reasonably sure the project –whatever its configuration and timetable- is financially affordable, it will not be approved, and some other course of action will need to be pursued without the very substantial City participation that is currently envisaged.
That’s called adaptive management, or more simply, common sense!
It would be folly to do otherwise, and how senseless and insulting it is to be baselessly accused of such a thing!
But that is being done, isn’t it?
I think such behavior is irresponsible and reprehensible, but that’s just my opinion.
Now, who would get to decide if and when we arrive at that point?
For the City to commit any funds other than those already appropriated for planning, the City administration would need to make a public recommendation for these additional funds, and the City Council would have to approve them, but only after due process.
That is the way representative democracy works; your elected officials get to decide such things as part of their official duties.
If you trust them to do the right thing, let them do it.
If you don’t, speak up –or replace them!
That’s what elections are for!
Maybe that’s why all this rhetoric and fear mongering is happening!
Why do elections get exempted from truth telling and civility?
Maybe, because people have the right to act as they please, up to some limit allowed by our Constitutional freedoms?
Hey, this is Amurica, we can screw things up anyway we want to – and get away with it too.
It’s the law of the jungle and the way the cookie crumbles.
If you don’t like dat, do somepin’ about it suckah!
Some version of that street talk seems to be operating here in the -former- City Of Subdued Excitement, doesn’t it?
Yeah, old COSE is a’changing, but growth isn’t the only thing messing it up!
Perhaps adding yet another minnow of perspective to the swirling fishbowl of created -and very creative- public perceptions is in order.
While this particular minnow is not expected to survive for long amongst the various piranha, sharks, jellyfish, barracuda, blowfish and slippery eels that flourish in such environs, perhaps its DNA message can eventually bio-accumulate in the genes of these respective species.
But do we have that kind of time?
And would the genetics actually change in the direction hoped for?
Methinks chances are slim to none on both counts, human nature being what it is.
But some sort of evolutionary process is needed to allow a more balanced assessment of the merits of both the Waterfront Redevelopment [WR] actions taken to date -and those that are planned.
After all, the main purpose of WR is to stimulate and stabilize economic redevelopment on the very front door of our downtown - an area already recognized as a priority for revitalization and infill.
Economic redevelopment leads to jobs and prosperity, folks, and very close to our existing downtown, too.
That is what will eventually pay for the costs of the infrastructure needed to access and serve the Waterfront.
That, and the considerable funding expected from Federal & State sources, which actually seem happier than some folks here about the prospect of this project happening!
These governments see both the potential and our need to make WR succeed.
And, they also see the very positive local effort being made, which really acts to stimulate their support, which likely will come in the form of matching grants.
You see, even with government-sponsored projects like WR, it does take [investment] money to make [local prosperity] money.
Governments won’t just give money away just for the asking; it has to be for a good purpose and compete with other good proposals, so that some judgment of best value is obtained.
Yes, Virginia there can be a Santa, but he needs to know you’ve been a good girl and deserve his gifts!
Not to be minimized in importance, are the clean-up efforts on what could otherwise remain a contaminated industrial site for a very long time.
Because without effective action by our local governments, neither the clean-up envisioned by the Whatcom Waterway and Bellingham Bay Demonstration Project, nor the remediation of the former G-P and other industrial sites and landfills to a higher standard cannot effectively proceed.
That first mentioned cleanup program has already been in planning for over 10 years -with all stakeholders involved- and is considered -nationally- to be the prototype model preferred over the endless litigation that is normally the case in such situations.
That kind of old, ineffective and stalemated non-action, causes the productive use of contaminated land & water bodies to be effectively limited –even sterilized- for many years to the detriment of anything positive.
That scenario helps no one, especially those citizens who have expressed so clearly their vision for what our Waterfront could become if we really tried to make it happen.
'A rising tide floats all boats' is an expression most often heard in connection with general economic conditions, but, it is equally applicable to the environment and to the well being and quality of life for people. By people, I mean real people, like you and me, and all the kids who would delight in enjoying our Waterfront, but can’t safely do that until we’ve done the hard work of cleaning it up properly.
I’m sorry, folks, but there is nothing productive or positive about insisting on something so hard to accomplish, that it prolongs and prevents other good outcomes from happening!
Setting up artificial, binary choices between this versus that, is a loser in this game!
I, for one, am not about to sit idly by and watch, while some people badmouth the entire scheme to oblivion, just because they can! Tearing down is always easier than building something, but why tear down something that hasn't been built?
Why not redirect all that negativity and back-biting energy into something we were all brought up to believe in!
There is always room for debate, compromise and hearing alternate ideas, but please let’s be civil about it, and try to be honest!
Let's act with a care for goodness sake, if no other reason.
And, goodness ought to be enough reason, because it’s the best reason.
If folks aren’t into goodness, for its own sake, we are in such a world of hurt that all the redevelopment in the world won’t help us!
This issue is real, positive action is critical and time is getting short, so it is time for us to come together in the same boat and pull on the oars in the same direction, strength and timing.
Winning crews do that, and Bellingham has all the ingredients to be a winning crew except one, the commitment to do it!
If we don’t train hard, those racing shells are pretty tippy, and I don’t know anyone who wants to be known as the crewmember who was responsible for losing the race on the WR ship we’re trying to build and launch for the betterment of our entire community.
Any mutineers out there should be thankful they weren’t sailor’s in the Queen’s Navy, where their punishment might range from 40 lashes with a cat-o-nine-tails, a proper keel-hauling or walking the plank into shark infested waters!
Just kidding, but barely.
As with many situations, the roots of the current WR controversy spring from seeds sown carelessly in the past, and these sometimes grow more like weeds, than the gardens that people actually enjoy.
Given the challenging circumstances our local governments face, one would think the prospect of such a beneficial enhancement to Waterfront would be an event to celebrate!
So, I am surprised at the cacophony of certain interests, who upon discovering yet another big complex issue with lots of moving parts, see it as cheap entertainment.
Is this behavior what engaging in the right of 'public process' is really about?
An alliance of the following seem to be actively trying to scuttle the WR ship before it is even built!
• Habitual nay-sayers who are again taking full advantage of an election year to frenetically spread their anti-government, anti-spending misinformation.
• Hard-core ‘special interest’ groups which have surfaced with competing ideas.
• Those who simply enjoy the controversy that others create, then respond randomly with instant, armchair quarterback solutions.
• Those who are cynically watching and waiting for the WR to sink or actually be completed and gain without making an investment.
• Worst are those political aspirants who believe tearing down something actually elevates them!
These people would make the situation immeasurably worse if they got elected.
Because, theirs would be the legacy that all the spin they could muster would not be good enough to mask the egregious harm they have eternally foisted on the City of Bellingham!
But, it is fair enough, that all these voices should heard, as well as the more positive and engaged others.
And, from that from the resulting discourse will come some truly excellent and enduring concepts that can be used to improve whatever WR project proceeds.
It is such a pity that so much of what the public hears about is based upon data-free analysis, speculation, disguised ideology and conspiracy theories - in other words, scuttlebutt!
In today's world, that seems to be expected.
To be hoped for are commentators who are willing report the straight skinny, not scuttlebutt, and to keep an open mind until the real facts can be triangulated and the overall situation and its costs can be put into truer perspective.
In the meantime, the work on the WR must proceed.
The WR project is important enough to require continued work on defining its various options, trade-offs and costs before making additional commitments of time, resources and funding. Undertaking a satisfactory resolution of these matters is our job to perform without further undue delay.
It is clearly the City Council’s duty and responsibility to obtain sufficient information developed to determine the next progressive steps toward advancing this project further by the most reasonable timetable that can be achieved.
The City Council has determined that the approach the WR is following now is a sensible one, arrived at only after obtaining expert advice and significant public input on various options.
Both Port and Council have listened to many ideas and different views on how to proceed from diverse interests before selecting the course of action now being pursued.
While it is clearly impossible to please everyone, the City does care about the public's ultimate satisfaction in what these revitalization efforts will produce.
Over time, the wisdom of the decisions made regarding the WR project will manifest, and citizens will enjoy the tangible benefits of a mutually beneficial public/private partnership, which will in turn stimulate additional investment and enjoyment of our downtown and Waterfront areas.
Sometimes, it's hard to see the forest for the trees in such situations.
But, in the end, actions that result from broader views are usually the ones that build communities that thrive.
It is to be hoped the WR Project and the experience gained in making it happen will become a model for future successes in downtown Bellingham and the entire community, and will fully justify our substantial investment in time, energy and resources.
Time will tell, but will citizens remember the Skinny or the Scuttlebutt?
Ever think April 1 should be election day?
Sun Tzu -The art of war: aim is invincibility, victory without battle; unassailable strength through understanding the physics, politics and psychology of conflict.