A funny thing happens that, even after eight years of doing the Vanguard, every so often I’m caught off guard by the response of the readers. While there is an interesting tendency that an early comment can steer a conversation off course, the only way for that to happen is if the comment resonates with the readers – therefore, I end up taking responsibility.
Most of the time, I will sit back and allow the discussion to happen. Occasionally I will intervene with clarifications.
This time I think it is important enough that we have the discussion I was hoping to have, that I will try again.
When I wrote the column on Saturday entitled “The Community Needs to Come to Together If It Wants Economic Development,” I did so because I am concerned that a polarized debate over the innovation parks will lead to their electoral defeat.
Now that’s not completely true from an historical standpoint. We saw a polarizing debate over Wildhorse that ultimately saw a narrow approval. We saw the defeat of Covell Village in 2005. We saw the narrow passage of Target in 2006. We saw the handily defeated Wildhorse Ranch in 2009. We saw the narrow victory for Measure I followed with the passage of Measure P to repeal the water rates.
However, having a long and drawn-out public process with a polarized electorate is not going to be conducive to moving forward with innovation parks if that is what this community chooses.
One of the interesting points of feedback we have received from Wednesday’s event is that different people see different things.
One person characterized the event as a rally from the anti-growthers. It seemed like a strange comment to me, given that part of the theme was a discussion of economic development and, among the speakers, Brett Lee has been a strong supporter of economic development, Rochelle Swanson has been out in front of the community, and our keynote speaker Betsy Cantwell discussed how economic development worked in Livermore and talked about the concept of tech transfer.
Our audience was a pretty broad cross-section of the Davis population and there were those who told me that Livermore’s land use policies are not the best example to be emulated by Davis.
As one person put it to me in an email, “The Director of Economic Development was a good speaker and I was impressed. On the other hand, I did not feel that she portrayed a balanced picture of the pros and cons of their approach.” The person added that Ms. Cantwell did not address the impacts on the citizens of the community.
And they pushed for a more balanced presentation, representing the points of view of an economic developer and someone who is dealing with both the benefits and the downsides to a development in their community. It is a good idea that we will be thinking about this week.
The bottom line, however, is that as we move forward in the discussion, we have to be mindful that not everyone comes to the table either with the same starting place or the same values and goals. If we create a polarized discussion going forward, this project could well fail or be far more contentious than need be.
There are people involved in the discussion that see this as an inevitability and they are throwing out polarizing language calling people “anti-growthers,” the no on everything group, and the like. That is not going to bring people on board – and I understand the frustration and thinking behind it.
But I think we need to consider that this community really is not black and white on development – for it or against it. We see that with the varying levels of support for projects over time. It is probably worth noting that most of the projects I listed above passed relatively narrowly if they passed and failed overwhelmingly if they failed, which actually bolsters my point on avoiding the polarization.
What I see in the current discussion is the following:
First a group that will oppose any project on principle, that it will destroy our community if we develop. Second a group that believes we will destroy our community if we don’t develop economically. Third, two more moderate groups in the middle – one that is leaning toward supporting a good project and one that needs to be convinced that this will not destroy our community.
I worry about the polarizing labels and the ability for those labels to divide the community and turn the middle groups away from engagement and potential support for these projects.
Yesterday I stated, I have to tell you, whoever the project proponents end up being, whether they be official in the form of the developers or whether they are community supporters, you need to be careful whom you put forward as your spokespeople, and you need to watch your rhetoric.
That was interpreted by one reader to denote that “only certain ‘non-polarizing figures’ should be allowed to lead the economic development discussion, insinuating that it knows best who those ‘leaders’ should be.”
I get the criticism. My point was more benign. We have a saying that only Nixon could go to China. Richard Nixon was bitterly criticized by his own party for going to China, but he had enough cachet from his anti-Communism days that he could survive. On the other hand, could you imagine what the reaction would have been if George McGovern had gone to China (had he been the one elected as president, just for the point of comparison)?
From a practical political standpoint, the people who are going to bring the middle groups into support are likely not to be people from the groups who believe we will destroy our community if we don’t develop economically. The winning argument for those people is not that Measure R is destructive or that we have too many “nimbys” or “no on everything” people living in the community.
Can we challenge people’s existing beliefs? Yes, but that takes time. We saw people move their positions during the dialogue on Mace 391. So it can happen. But we have to meet people on their own terms and their own timeline.
Polarizing rhetoric is not helpful here. That is really the point that I was attempting to make yesterday and the worry I have as this process goes forward.
—David M. Greenwald reporting