State of the City 2010
January 5, 2010
[What follows is my personal perspective. In these times the "State of the City" is less an official accounting and more the subject of an on-going community dialogue. To participate, send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
To me, the State of the City address answers two questions:
1 - How are we doing?
2 - Where are we going?
External Conditions - National/International
With regard to the first question, my conclusions are that we face unprecedented changes in our external environment:
- The national economy and its financial infrastructure have been irreparably damaged by both the excesses allowed by insufficient regulation and by multi-trillion dollar efforts to restore the economy to its previous state. I do not believe we will see a bona fide version of the former economy again. We're now in a period in which the inherent forces that act to preserve the system are attempting to stop or at least slow the breakdown of the economy by inflation, currency devaluation, or the takeover of national economic assets by holders of dollars and U.S. debt.
- International competition among industrialized and industrializing nations for fossil fuels is becoming so intense that these fuels will increasingly become less reliable and/or affordable energy sources for the U.S economy. This will have far-reaching consequences since so much of what we consume or sell is transported great distances using fossil fuels.
- Worldwide environmental and ecological breakdown, probably caused by human activity is reaching, or may have already passed, a point of no return with potentially grave consequences for all beings on the planet. Now we have to learn, rapidly, how to adapt.
And these three processes all interact with one another in negative ways.
External Conditions - Oregon and Jackson County
Regarding the state of Oregon, its unemployment is higher than the national average and the State's government has had to make big cuts in funding that affect our community in many ways. Moreover, failure of Measures 66 and 67 on the Jan. 26th ballot could magnify the State's financial problems and cause more indirect harm to Ashland.
Jackson County unemployment figures, comparing year to year employment levels for Oct. 2006 through Oct. 2009, show at gain of 1000+jobs, a loss of 267 jobs, and, most recently, a loss of 7,000+ jobs. This indicates the downturn is far from over in our own county.
Conditions in Ashland Itself
But the news from Ashland is rather different. Although some people have lost their jobs and some companies of various kinds have gone out of business, the local economy seems to be holding together fairly well. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival had a record year with respect to both attendance and revenues; the University, despite harsh budget cuts by the State, has increased enrollment; and the Hospital reports several quarters in a row "in the black". Some merchants and restaurant owners have figured out how to adjust to changes in buying patterns and preferences of their customers and the general energy level and traffic in the downtown business district seems robust.
To the extent our economy is surviving, credit must go first to the resourcefulness of the managers of those organizations but I believe something else is at work, sustaining and energizing Ashland in general - and this is the central point of my address:
Unique Qualities and Character of Ashland
I believe Ashland is surviving because it is a genuine, archetypal, community in a world that has lost touch with what that actually means but when people come here, they feel the difference and respond to it. Most Americans live in big cities or suburbs and don't have an experience of what a geographically based, human scale, fully developed town is like. Nor do they appreciate, until they experience it, how different life can be in such a place as this.
I believe we are a seed community for where the world needs to go if the human race is to survive on this planet. That doesn't mean we're more virtuous that people elsewhere but that rather we have the good fortune to live in a geographically extraordinary location that has always attracted people who have responded to it and throughout its history created institutions and a culture that aspires to complement, or match, its physical qualities. And, beyond that, the current incarnation of our community is centered on a world class repertory theater inspired by and regularly producing the works of the greatest playwright in the English language.
You can go on to list many unusual components of our community that mutually support a unique atmosphere that has drawn us here and keeps us here, sometimes at great sacrifice. We definitely have our foibles - but in a largely unspoken way we are tending a flame of community and culture that is life giving and life affirming. I believe such a community is at the core of creating a sustainable future in all associations and aspects of the term.
* * *
So that's the "How are we doing?" part, and here's the "Where are we going?"
Ashland's Implicit Strategy
With the world, to a certain extent, crumbling around us, and we being affected as well, I would argue we, as a community, are pursuing the following strategy:
Take full advantage of the old economy as long as it lasts but use this time to develop a new community and new culture that is in harmony with the world in which we live.
I will use the rest of this address to illustrate what I mean and project that strategy a little way into the future so far as the coming year is concerned. Also, I believe other towns and communities around the world may be going through a similar process to ours and we may be able to join forces with them to our mutual benefit. Simultaneously, we have a responsibility and opportunity to interact with our visitors to support their aspirations and efforts in their home communities to move along similar paths.
City Government - Staff
Let's begin with City government. After a year working inside the City I have a clear sense that our people are key. Our City employees are skilled, they have good managers, they experience themselves as members of the community and so have a level of dedication to doing their jobs that is just the opposite of the stereotyped big city public employee. It is true that the City has been in a serious financial squeeze for the last four years or more and has cut its budget to the bone. What has been protected, except for a loss of about 15 positions (out of 260+), are the people themselves. Training, travel, supplies, janitorial services, etc. have all be reduced or eliminated. Last year I asked all City employees to forgo their normal cost of living salary increases. Everyone except for the two unions then currently in the middle of their contracts graciously complied. In addition, in last year's budget all capital projects not externally funded, were omitted. These measures cannot be continued without putting at risk the City services that are essential to our identity. As one of its goals, last year the City Council determined to 'stabilize City finances'. That process is under way but it is not yet completed.
We must also recognize that the capabilities of the City as an organization are dependent on 'institutional memory" and therefore ebb and flow as employees leave and are replaced and have to learn the jobs anew. The fact that we still have people with experience from the last water curtailment eight years ago - plus teamwork and dedication - is what got us through last summer's curtailment. Similarly, the combined skill, experience, and history working together in mutual aid relationships with other fire-fighting agencies in the region - plus some timely luck - enabled us to avoid a potentially catastrophic fire in the watershed this past September.
City Government - The Council
The Council is the policy making body of City government and, as such, has great influence over how our mutual future evolves. At the same time, this power is held collectively by the six Councilors (and occasionally the Mayor) and not by any individual Councilor.
Amid the on-going flow of official decisions requiring Council action - which you can see taking up a great deal of the Council's agenda every two weeks - the Council focuses its attention on issues of special importance to the future well-being of the community via its annual goal-setting session. Here is the preamble to the Council's goals for 2009-2011 (every year the Councils selects rolling two year goals):
"The City Council has set goals for the next 12 to 24 months to continue Ashlands history as a community that focuses on sustaining itself and its people. To us, sustainability means using, developing and protecting resources at a rate and in a manner that enables people to meet their current needs and also provides that future generations can meet their own needs. The City of Ashland has a responsibility towards sustainability in six primary areas:
o Social Equity
o Municipal Organization
o Public Facilities
The detailed Council Goals consist of 15 projects which the Council is currently focusing its attention and resources. Four of these projects, all of which are just beginning, are especially significant. To be doing all four in the same year is quite unusual and yet, in light of external circumstances, very appropriate. The four are:
1. A collaboration with the community to produce an economic development strategy for the town and to identify ways that City government can support this strategy. (The community will have significant input in all four of these projects but I've emphasized City-community 'collaboration' in this case to clarify that the City is not trying to impose its notion of economic development on the community.)
2. A city-wide transportation plan for the future that is coordinated with changes to the City's land use patterns. I believe this must be organized around something(s) other than the private automobile as the primary means of transportation.
3. A comprehensive study of the City water system and all its sources, taking into account the latest research in climate change and the latest thinking in how water can be used most sustainability.
4. The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project to reduce fire danger in the watershed and wildfire zones by thinning nearly 8,000 acres of National Forest that borders the city and encompasses our watershed.
It is important to keep in mind regarding these four projects in sustainability that each represents an ambitious 'stretch' for the community.
For the water plan we must go beyond the preconception of many that the answer to our water needs is simply to hook up the TAP connection to Medford's water supply. But there are three problems with this approach - first, since our main source depends on the snow pack for long term storage and recent studies show we're facing changes in the amount, type, and variability of precipitation, we need to address this issue first and not preempt it by committing to a secondary source. Second, we have no idea at this time what necessary changes in our existing system will cost and whether or not we will be able to afford them all. And third, the water study will be based on assumptions about how we use water. Currently, we use drinking quality water to flush our toilets, wash our dishes, and water our non-edible landscaping.
Clearly, now is the time to act on 'right water/right use' - it could make the full complement of changes something we can afford. What's more, we need to make sure water is available for growing food. Growing food in private, neighborhood, and community gardens will play an important role in Ashland's future and we need to ensure that everyone who wants to grow food can get the water they need. (This raises an analogous issue of the right uses of water in gardening and agriculture.) Lastly, we need to redesign our rate structure for water so that it is aligned with the goals for water usage that we as a community choose to promote.
For the comprehensive transportation plan, we will have to invent a new model for a town of our size, with our topography and demographics, for a system that meets the transportation needs of this community for decades to come. Clearly, land use plays a key role if we are committed to getting beyond the private automobile as the primary transportation mode. The best form of transportation may depend on re-organizing where we live, work, shop, and recreate to minimize the need for moving ourselves around mechanically. Fulfilling this plan may take a long time to happen but we need a clear direction to guide us. Also this project will likely bring up a deep philosophical debate between those we want to minimize our use of energy sources of all kinds versus those who see the crisis with fossil fuels as finally opening the door for nuclear power as a primary source world wide.
Developing an economic strategy for the community will only be successful (besides actually working) if it:
- Restores the balance in our demographics by replenishing our compliment of families with children, who earn enough to be able to afford to live in Ashland;
- Keeps economic flows in the community rather than 'leaking' off in various ways (including keeping profits and ownership within the community);
- Has benign effects on our environment and food supply;
- Is not dependent on growth for long-term survival.
The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project must skirt highly charged issues like Inventoried Roadless Areas and Wilderness designations while removing fuel from a forest that also possesses tremendous biodiversity and is a Late Successional Reserve. The City must demand that watershed safety and the safety of the city itself take priority over making our watershed yet another battle ground in the timber wars. In a few months we will again be at risk for destructive fires and must move as quickly as possible to reduce these risks in the most effective ways. Plus, we can simultaneously channel millions of Federal dollars acquired for this project by our U.S. Senators, into the local and regional economy. Ultimately, there is the possibility this project could become an on-going laboratory and classroom for working with fire in old growth forests, and therefore a magnet for visiting experts, students, interns and eco-tourists to bolster our visitor economy.
Parks & Recreation
Beyond the four projects to which the Council has already committed, there are several possible extensions or augmentations of its 2009 sustainability framework I suggest we, as a community, consider.
The first group is politically complex because of the unusual structure of Ashland's government, i.e. they require the cooperation of Parks and Rec. Over the past year the Council has, in several instances deferred to Parks and Recreation to allow them maximum flexibility in dealing with certain issues. Now we hope Parks and Recreation will be able to respond in turn. For example, the new Riparian Ordinance exempts Lithia Park from its provisions, even though both the Council and Planning Commission were aware that this opens the City to criticism for not 'walking the walk'. It would be helpful if Parks and Recreation had some demonstration riparian restoration projects in the Park and offered some workshops in these settings for people who want to improve their own riparian areas on their own property.
Also, the Council has retained Parks and Recreation's exemption from the pesticide prohibition that has been in Ashland's Municipal Code for years. Again it would be helpful if Parks and Recreation could negotiate some kind of resolution to the pesticides issue. And Parks and Recreation has a leading role to play with community gardens. Hopefully, they can further develop that facet of their overall program and provide leadership in teaching ways of gardening that utilize small amounts of water. Also, Parks and Recreation could have a model composting program, both with its own green debris and also in conjunction with its community gardens.
Volunteerism and Community Building
Probably the smallest item in the Council's 2009 Goals is the following:
"Effective and increased use of citizen volunteers "under "Organization".
I felt that at the time the Council set this (sub)goal it was much more important than it appeared and that it possibly needed to be a primary category of its own. Apparently others on the Council and Budget Committee felt the same way because they restored a proposed cut in the CERT budget that would have seriously weakened that leading volunteer program. Then, during the year, I've been keeping an eye out to learn more about citizen involvement of varying kinds, not just in traditional 'volunteer' roles but self-initiated efforts to make the community, the environment, our society, better. You can see one of the fruits of this research in the 22 Town Hall interview videos available from the City website, that Jeff Golden has helped me produce. When I look back on them, what I see is a community taking itself in hand, without depending on City government but sometimes with good support or coordination from the City, and making the community stronger, more resilient, more responsive to human needs.
Let me give you some examples I have encountered during 2009 (not necessarily all from the Town Hall interviews) that I find especially telling:
The citizens' response (that is your response) to water curtailment: in the voluntary phase we met the proposed goal - and then the streams that feed the reservoir unexpectedly slowed down and the City initiated the non-voluntary curtailment program. No one blinked; we just turned to and met the new quotas. Then afterwards, after the rains came, a number of people asked me, "Don't you think this is a good time to go to a more conservative approach to water usage all year round?" I think they're right.
Sometime in the spring (of 2009) Paul Jeancarlo and John Javna independently had similar ideas: surely in these times people need more free food. And they set up and ultimately merged very well thought-out projects that engage many citizens in systematically buying extra food to share, which is picked up periodically by neighborhood volunteers and delivered into the existing emergency food distribution channels. In less than a full year the Ashland Food Project collected 30,000 pounds of extra food for the community.
After the Council gave final approval to its 2009 Goals, it asked the public for feedback on them. Many interesting responses were received but Transition Town Ashland went a step further and put together a summary of its members' feedback, including specific recommendations for each of the Council's Goal categories. This document will be useful during our up-coming 2010 Goal Setting session on January 23rd. The particular significance of this work was that Transition Town Ashland put in the extra effort to bridge from broad conceptual ideas about sustainability to suggestions the City might actually be able to adopt, and also packaged them in an easy to use format.
During the September fire that threatened to spread to our vulnerable watershed, CERT volunteers were called out to go door to door in the path of the fire and notify residents to evacuate. This is what they signed up for, true, but what I noticed, similar to CERT's distribution of Swine Flu information earlier in the year, is a kind of energy boost in the community, a sense that we are taking care of ourselves.
Councilor Voisin, and other faculty at SOU, have developed a proposed joint project with the City to conduct monthly videoed seminars on the broad subject of, "Living with Nature". This series would deal with such subjects as; how to restore and manage riparian areas on your private property, wildlife (deer, bears, foxes, cougars, etc.) in town, home gardening, water catchment, fire prevention in the wildfire zones, and so forth.
We have an unusual Chamber of Commerce as Chambers go. In the 2006 and 2008 Council elections and in the most recent election with extension of the Meals Tax on the ballot, the Chamber conducted politically neutral forums and had them broadcast on community television in order to be available to the public. The new Christmas wreaths downtown were completely rebuilt by volunteers - I saw the CEO of our hospital, the Fire Chief, and the City Administrator among those working on a weekend to get the wreaths done in time. Last summer, Chamber volunteers organized and ran the Fourth of July parade, without which, in these hard economic times, the Fourth would have been a dismal holiday.
And lest we think this attitude and capacity in the community is something new, let me remind you all of the Community Health Center that has been in existence over thirty years providing health care for people without medical insurance, and that is strongly supported by local medical professionals and hospitals.
Then there's the No Frills Shelter, the Farm to Schools Program, The Green Business Program, the Lomakatsi Creek Restoration Project in four of Ashland's schools, multiple innovative historical tours of the city, etc., etc.
Finally, I want to mention the Shakespeare Festival itself and its 'new' Artistic Director, Bill Rauch. Bill's approach to theater is very community oriented. That is, viewing theater as an instrument by which communities can develop. Bill and his colleague Alison Carey, who now heads Oregon Shakespeare Festival's American Revolutions project, were founders of the Cornerstone Theater, that spent its first five years producing classic plays in small towns in rural America - to help members of those communities connect the themes of these great works with their own lives.
All these projects, and there are many more, are not just doing good works; they are examples of community members taking the initiative to make their community better and, in particular, more sustainable. It's in our blood. It's been there a long time. I think it's central to where this community needs to go. Facing a very uncertain future, we need to take advantage of the status quo, the old way, as long as it lasts but we also need to join like-minded communities around the world in creating a new sustainable social form to hand on to succeeding generations.
Because we are a place people like to visit, sharing our efforts to become a more sustainable community can also be good for our economy. At the same time, we have to take seriously our unique qualities as a community and understand the true value of what we have and what we can choose to do. We have a need, a responsibility, and an opportunity all wrapped up in one.
At the end of my 2009 State of the City address I said, "Let's do something extraordinary!" This year we're getting the chance and the challenge to actually make that happen.
May 2010 be a rewarding and successful year for us all!
[And let me remind you again that this address will be posted in video and written form on the City website and your comments and suggestions, of which there should be many, are welcomed. Send them to email@example.com.]