Waves of participation and positive growth come and go in every community. As I’ve met with several long-term leaders in the community to discuss economic & community development over the last few months, there’s been a common warning that goes something like this:
“Our organization thrived for many years, but after a while, members became less active. Years would pass, and then we’d see a new group of people who would bring a new level of energy to our work.”
In my observation, Northfield was mostly at the bottom of the wave from 2000-2015. I’ll give some specific examples below but before that, here’s the general context: Different organizations have waxed and waned over this decade and a half, and there have been some success stories along the way. But there were enough failures to suggest an overall decline.
Moving forward, here’s the good news: there’s always a cresting wave on the horizon. Northfield has always been a town screaming with potential. When a critical mass of residents and voters get behind specific projects, we’ve seen amazing upswings and huge positive outcomes.
Some examples: In the late 1990s a group of parents and supporters raised millions of dollars for new construction and the revitalization of outdated facilities. Many of these projects have become sustainable gems of our community, including the following:
- A new school with expanded facilities for all students K-12. A new, privately-funded hardwood floating-floor system basketball court. An enviable, state of the art theater and auditorium.
- A revitalized Municipal Park, with a new Olympic-sized swimming pool, a new playground and a rebuilt sports field.
- An expanded Brown Public Library with a new Community Room.
- A completely restored building to house the Northfield Historical Society collections.
Credits: Leslie Striebe, NMHS, Go!Northfield, Nate Freeman
The American economy was prosperous, our youth population was growing and an indomitable spirit of public service in Northfield was at a peak. The wave of public participation was at a crest.
Some of the good work continued into the lost decade and a half. The Gray Building Coalition was formed in 2002, and by April 2004 had raised $789,540 toward its $1.5 million Capital Campaign to restore the iconic building overlooking Northfield’s downtown.
Despite the incredible success of the Gray Building Coalition, Northfield was on its way to decline at the beginning of the new millennium. Local attitudes began to change. From 2000 to 2005, Northfield struggled to pass the school budget. Frankly, this was an amazingly rapid turn of events. How could a school with such huge new investments become the target of negative attitudes so quickly? The wave crashed so hard, in 2005 it took 5 votes to finally pass a budget in September. The school had to borrow money to fund operations from July 1st into the beginning of the fall semester.
In the mid-2000s, there was also a movement to further divide the Town and Village, which were already separate entities, as the two governing agencies — the Selectboard and the Village Trustees — began a very contentious struggle against each other. The negative attitudes in local government culminated in 2011 when the Selectobard fired the Town Manager while the Village Trustees retained her services. There was an utter dysfunction in local government which created a negative reputation for Northfield throughout the entire state of municipal professionals. Heated debates over town highway taxes, the Northfield Electric Department and a host of other non-issues wasted a lot of energy which could have been put to more productive work. This chapter didn’t come to a close until July 2014 when the two boards became one under a Town-Village merger.
And in 2015, things really went south. Five businesses including Comfort Colors closed up or left town. A home was destroyed by arson with death resulting. Some idiot decided to blow off his hand with a pipe bomb. And Northfield experienced yet another local governemnt controversy, drawing out dozens of residents in protest against the Selectboard for moving to fire Chief Jim Dziobek.
What the heck happened?
The entire period wasn’t wasted, of course. From 2006 onward, Northfield’s schools began to improve and at this time has been awarded Top 10 in Vermont status and a Silver ranking by US News and World Report. Norwich University grew substantially, expanding new dorm facilities and developing its campus at a rapid rate.
But there was a lasting and bitter negative tone that forced our community to work on conflict resolution vs. community development. This attitude played out in local government and frustrated even the most dedicated residents, employees, and volunteers. The greatest local government success wasn’t really even a success if we think about outcomes. The grand idea of a “One Northfield” merger of Village and Town was simply a testament to how terrible things had gotten.
But if we look back to the late 1990s, we can remind ourselves how much this town can accomplish when it puts its mind to it. Our lost decade-and-a-half has given us time to learn how to *not* do things.
And we should also take a moment to consider whether or not the way things were done to achieve success 20 years ago are models we should use today. By this I mean to say, we may need to think about community and economic development as intertwined activities. When I think about the waves of participation, public service and eventual decline, I notice two trends:
- When waves of participation are on the rise, Northfield invests in non-profit properties as the primary method for community development. (Like many communities, we have a love for building-related projects.)
- When waves of participation decline, Northfield focuses its attention to property taxes and targets the budgets which sustain community development projects we so recently championed.
What does this tell us? Well, most of all, it suggests we’ll need to think about increasing our tax base as a community development initiative as the next wave of participation and growth begins to rise. We need to balance private sector and public sector interests to lessen swift, dramatic and ironic changes in local attitudes when a handful of hard-working volunteers get tired and move on to other things.
We’ll take a look at this irony a bit more in a “Part 2” of this topic since today’s post is getting a bit long. For the time being, here are the main points for our follow-up:
- When things are good, community development doesn’t fully consider the expansion of our tax base and economic development.
- When things are bad, we cut budgets in ways that diminish community development and further contracts our capacity for economic development.