Tuesday, September 21, 2010

When It Comes To Community Development, Don't Take "No" For An Answer

A guest post follows by Sam McGovern-Rowen, Business Development Director at the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation.


As parents of identical twin 4-year old boys, my wife and I have to say “no” to things a lot.

“No, you can’t have a cupcake for dinner.”

“No, you can’t wear your Darth Vader mask to bed.”

Or to avoid some social engagement, we might use those boys as an excuse to say “no” to something because we’re tired, had a long week, or just don’t want to admit that we are staying home to watch "Gossip Girl."

“No, sorry we can’t make it…we don’t have a sitter tonight.”

Usually, saying "yes" requires much more patience and attention to details. And most times that complicated "yes" leads to one of us saying “I’m so glad we did this,” as we pull the “date-night car” into the garage and count out the babysitting money.

A little planning and investment goes a long way. "No" is easier, but is no way to live.

Sadly, saying “no” to just about anything has become an ideology and part of a sweeping national political movement that says that “no” is the answer.

“I wish we could have blocked more,” boasted Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, (R-KY), last August.

That original Tea Party protest back in the day was about saying "no" to taxes on tea, but wasn’t it really about saying "no" to taxation without representation?" Those original protesters wanted to participate in their own government, not in the end of government.

"No" is easier. But the trouble with "no" is that it can be impatient, skips details, and stops people from taking the time to develop creative solutions to problems. My opinion: government saying "yes" places a bet on your can-do spirit, and mine, and the neighbors', too.

The recent groundbreaking for the Villard Square project co-hosted by my employer, the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation (NWSCDC), is a shining example of the amazing power of government saying "yes" when faced with a complicated problem.

The problem to solve in the Villard Square story was not a new one for the City of Milwaukee - - it's a problem that municipalities are dealing with all across America: what to do with aging public facilities and the rising operating costs of public services, infrastructure and amenities.

The public amenity in this case is the Villard Avenue Library, a branch of the Milwaukee Public Library system. The library is a vital asset in the neighborhood. It's a haven for children and adults - - a branch with an especially high use of the library's computer lab.

With dwindling shared revenue coming from the State, and rising costs, the library system faced steep budget cuts beginning in the late 1990's.

In order to preserve resources, the older, more-expensive-to-maintain branch library buildings like Villard became annual targets for closure.

In 2004 the Norquist administration attempted to close the Villard branch. The NWSCDC organized protests and the library was saved that year. But the building was outdated and needed repairs and the NWSCDC began looking for a new model to save Villard Library.

Four years later, in 2008, the City budget again looked grim and the Villard Library still needed a long-term solution.

So the NWSCDC brought an investment plan to the city to build a new, modern library across the street in a mixed-use facility that would save the City future operating costs.

The easy decision by the City in 2008 would have been "no." Asking for a capital investment in the 2009 budget was not going to be easy. Mayor Tom Barrett could have said “Sorry, times are tough and no, we can’t afford a new building.”

The NWSCDC persisted, and the Mayor and the City decided to make a more pragmatic and complex decision.

They set aside borrowing authority for a capital investment in the 2009 budget and directed library administration to work with the NWSCDC and the developer to see if our idea could work. They could have said "no," because it would have been easier, but they did not.

They studied the numbers. They looked at creative ways to save on the operating budget and were involved at every step in the library space design process. Most of all, they were patient.

The Villard Square library broke ground on Friday, September 17th, 2010 - - more than two years after those first meetings when Mayor Barrett could have said "no" and politely showed us the door.

It is a very complicated deal involving several public, private, and non-profit entities including Wisconsin Housing and Development Authority (WHEDA), Local Initiatives Service Corporation (LISC), Harris Bank, Boston Capital, the Redevelopment Authority of Milwaukee, (RACM), the NWSCDC, Gorman Company, and others - - and even federal stimulus dollars.

Through it all “yes” prevailed, and now the Villard neighborhood will keep its vital library services when the building is complete in 2011 through $11 million dollars of fresh investment and innovative solutions to common, complex problems.

Villard area businesses will not lose their anchor tenant - - a library that draws 90,000 visitors to the street each year.

Construction jobs are being created at a time when there are very few new buildings being built anywhere in Wisconsin.

And the project incorporates a first-of-its-kind apartment building in Milwaukee targeted to grandparents raising their grandchildren full time.

These 47 units of new, high-quality affordable housing will also help a neighborhood that was hit hard by the flooding this year.

The groundbreaking sent a clear message, echoed by the speakers that day, including NWSCDC Executive Director Howard Snyder.

Don’t take "no" for answer. Believe in the power of "yes."


xoff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
xoff said...

Was it that Norquist policy director who wanted to close the branch in 2004?

James Rowen said...

I am going to ask him that very question the next time I see him.