City strengths and city governance

by The City Wire staff ( 6 views 

“After my kids are grown I might move to …”

I often hear friends and clients with high school and college age kids make the above statement on a regular and frequent basis with the only variation being their destination. These statements don’t bother me (much) when the person making the statement is moving back to their hometown. Hometowns are important places in people’s lives.

What bothers me is when people born and raised in and around Fort Smith announce their plans to move away after they made their lives here.

People choose where to live for various reasons. A good job and children in local schools are big motivations to live in a community. Quality of life issues are important too. When people move away from Fort Smith, something in their life has changed. That change is usually a new job or a parent’s children have moved away and the parents want to live close to their children.

Wherever a person decides to live, it requires them to have the economic means to live. Relocation and setting up a new life in a new community requires money. Because of this expense, there is a bias toward higher income households to move away.

The type of economic means that predominates in a community determines the overall quality of life. If a community consists of people whose primary means of living is a government check or low paying jobs, then the quality of life will suffer. Why? Because a community’s quality of life is greatly impacted by how much money is in the community. It takes money to operate schools. It takes money to support libraries. It takes money to have good roads. It takes money to hire and train police and fire fighters. There is a cost for the most basic public services.

Money to support a city doesn’t come from the government. It comes from the profits of businesses and the hard work of its residents. The government taxes business and working people to get the money to provide the city its needed infrastructure and basic services. Therefore every city needs business and industry to survive. The stronger and the more vibrant the business community, the better the quality of life will be for all residents.

The most important benefit of a strong and vibrant business community isn’t the tax revenue it generates. A city with a strong economy is full of innovative people with new ideas, new buildings, new houses, festivals and community activities. People in thriving cities support the arts with private donations. In a city with a strong economy life is good.

If Fort Smith is going to be a city that provides economic opportunity for its people and enjoys a quality of life that keeps people from moving away and attracts new people, things need to change. I’m not a know it all, but let me offer some suggestions for discussion.

Fort Smith residents need an attitude check. Much of human behavior is determined by a person’s attitude and beliefs. As residents we need to develop a strong sense of community and purpose. We need to admit to ourselves that Fort Smith is a great place to live. But we continually keep a sense of purpose. The danger is that if we quit working to improve our circumstances, we could lose many of our best attributes.

We need to recognize that Fort Smith has to compete with other cities when companies are looking for a place to relocate or expand. We need to allow our local companies to grow too. This is the origin of job growth and opportunity. Residents who believe that businesses are takers, not givers, need to keep in mind that business investment is the golden goose that provides the money it takes to build infrastructure and provide quality services for all resident.

Fort Smith needs to develop a wider attitude of acceptance and even gratitude toward people willing to invest their own money in our community. Investing in downtown Fort Smith or the historical district isn’t a sure bet for an investor to make a decent return on their investment. Using hard earned savings to start a small business, even committing their future to repaying loans for years out of wages if this business fails isn’t for the weak at heart. Business owners and investors make the difference between a thriving town and a dying town.

The benefit of strong business investment in Fort Smith will mean more opportunity for our own graduating students and allow them to stay in Fort Smith and establish a career. When our children stay home, their parents don’t move away and take their money and future tax revenues to other places – tax revenues that support our schools, build our roads, and contribute to paying for our city services.

Fort Smith needs revival. A revival of its sense of community pride. We need to recognize and brag about Fort Smith’s great attributes without losing a foothold in reality. We have great schools, we have great community organizations, we have great people. People looking to move to Fort Smith will be more attracted when they sense a community that is motivated and works together for the future.

We need to change our language so that when we talk about Fort Smith, we speak with a sense of pride. The language we choose to use will change the way we think about ourselves and change the way we behave. Think karma. The consequences of our positive behavior will eventually make life better for us all. Today we have too much of an inferiority complex Fort Smith. It’s time to notice the good.

Finally, we need leadership. Leadership with a vision. It is not government’s responsibility to bring jobs to town, to development a sense of community, or to lead Fort Smith into the future. However we need city leadership and a city administration that is not an obstruction to the future growth and development of Fort Smith.

This is not a criticism of the city’s rank and file staff and workers. I appreciate our city’s workers. I am thankful for their efforts and hard work. Daily efforts made by our city workers make life easy for all residents. For example, last week I needed a new trash container because the wheels had come off. I called the Fort Smith Sanitation Department and before I got home from work that day a new trash container had been delivered. That’s customer service! There are many great things to say about Fort Smith’s governance. But …

We need a city government that participates in a vision for a future Fort Smith that thrives with economic vitality and opportunity for its residents. I doubt there is anybody in City Hall opposed to economic vitality, but I believe its culture and structure doesn’t encourage innovation and change.

I think it is time to reconsider Fort Smith’s current form of government, to move away from the current city administrator form to a strong mayor form of local government. This would give residents a structure to hold our city officials accountable for their job performance when they obstruct Fort Smith’s economic growth and discourage investment, inadvertently or not.