Alexander: A time to double down on community consensus

Op-Ed by Eric Alexander, Vision Direction (LIBN 12-9-16)

With the presidential election thankfully finished, an elevated level of national and regional divisiveness was on full display and still permeates. A campaign full of elitism, demonization, shaming, fear, anger, greed, narcissism, and prejudice were center stage. While we can treat our national politics like a political version of the Walking Dead or other guilty pleasure entertainment, there are real consequences to letting these divisions bleed into our local communities.

I have had the opportunity to be a part and witness two decades of consensus building on a local level. Despite the division on Long Island economically, racially, culturally, North Shore/South Shore, Nassau/Suffolk, good-minded people work each day in our communities to resolve issues and coexist. Communities working together have helped recover from Sandy, advance major infrastructure projects like Bay Park and Rte. 347, work in opposition to casino’s and more noxious uses and are some of the most active zip codes in the nation for charitable giving.

In recent years, really tough areas in which to build consensus have moved forward with projects and plans. In Hicksville, a community that hasn’t substantively changed since 1969, five civic associations and the local chamber have petitioned the Town of Oyster Bay for a new zoning code for mixed-use development. In Baldwin’s Grand Avenue, where four developers passed at investing in the area over the last 12 years, the town, county, civic and chamber are working collaboratively with a new developer to move on a downtown corridor plan and project.

In Kings Park, where the community has kicked out numerous development proposals through the last 20 years, the civic and chamber have united on a downtown and sewer plan that needs to advance from the Town of Smithtown. In Hempstead, an area that was once a thriving HUB of Nassau County, the village, chamber, community organizations, churches and a local developer have come together in support of multiple redevelopment projects.

Far from being any sort of NIMBY situation, the only folks loudly complaining about these efforts are people who don’t live in those respective communities.

Other projects moving forward – the groundbreaking at Garvies Point, advancement of the MTA’s Third Track, the Ronkonkoma HUB, and Heartland Town Square – along with 35 other downtown areas.  One notable model with a revitalization program, downtown Farmingdale, has seen increased property values of 7 percent a year over the last two years, improved tax revenues, radically decreased retail vacancies with tons of new restaurants and bars and many new downtown events. All of this was planned from the bottom up with the local community.

This very message was the theme of the recent LI Smart Growth Summit, a gathering of 1,100 community, business and government leaders to present 70 pending or approved downtown, transportation, sewer and energy projects. None of these projects would be moving forward without collaborative support from the ground up.

So what makes these efforts noteworthy? The same time-tested methods used to build up trust in any situation: be honest and transparent, engage the public consistently, follow through on what you say you are going to do, collaborate and appeal to folks enlightened self-interest.  And yeah – lose any and all qualities on display in this year’s election campaign.

One positive take away from the election is that folks don’t want to be told what to do by elites. We see this a lot where very smart and accomplished people in their respected fields will come in and tell us what is wrong with our communities, our region or, really, us as people. Citizens trust the ones who roll up their sleeves and assist each day to solve problems. That is why most regional onslaughts on local officials, police, firefighters, school districts, nurses, social workers, and village and town officials almost always fall short.

We need to come together as a region but from the bottom up – through our local leadership – to help shape solutions to the broader goals we need to address. The side benefit of creating true regional partnerships from local leadership vs. top-down planning is having our communities truly shovel ready for needed infrastructure projects like sewers and transit with support that can come from state and federal resources.

The economic consequences of not coming together and building consensus on local projects and infrastructure is lost revenue, decreased property values, missed opportunities and stagnation. The social consequences are actually far more insidious.

So let’s lose the large scale division – shed it like blood stained clothes from a zombie movie – and double down on consensus building locally. It is sometimes long, messy and chaotic but the alternative of no resolution and endless conflict is scarier and more real than and show you could watch.