Across the country, local political leaders are doing the right things to put their cities back to work. As a development strategy, they’re using their public resources to dissect President Obama’s nearly trillion-dollar recovery package to find local pathways to economic growth.
Funds from the recovery act have already started to flow to states suffering from devastating budget shortfalls and cities and towns battered by funding cuts. We’re talking about a $3,000 investment for every man, woman, and child in the country. Or better stated, in a city of nearly 100,000 people, that’s a whopping $300 million opportunity for Brockton.
But we all know that in the real world there are few entitlements; you have to work, plan, and lobby hard to turn opportunity into reality. So this leads to the obvious question: What have Brockton’s leaders been up to – the mayor seeking reelection, the city councilor politicking for his job, and all the other personalities charged with doing the people’s business? Well, don’t be surprised if the answer is: nothing much.
Let’s take, for example, two federal investments that could pay off big time for Brockton: 1) the What Works and Innovation Fund that targets $650 million to local education agencies and nonprofit organizations that have made significant gains in closing the achievement gap; and 2) the New Social Innovation Fund, worth $50 million, that will identify the most promising, results-oriented nonprofit programs and expand their reach locally and throughout the country.
These programs are distinctive – and there are many others like them in the stimulus package and the proposed 2010 federal budget – because they depend on local input and outreach to be effective. Meaning, the cities and towns with the best strategies to attract these dollars will be the clear winners.
To seize the opportunity locally, we need our elected leaders to get the ball rolling: instruct the planning, education, and economic development departments to comb through the stimulus package and proposed 2010 federal budget, chart out where local participation will have the biggest play, then convene the most appropriate local organizations in the private and public square to bring their best thinking to these opportunities. It makes no sense, for instance, to have the Boys and Girls Club, the Cape Verdean Association, Get on Base, and other groups spend their fragile resources researching these federal opportunities, only to compete against one another for funding. This assumes, of course, that these organizations struggling to survive even have R&D capital at their disposal. Local government should and can play a constructive role, teeing up a strategy that positions Brockton for long-term success.
A constructive role, of course, would mandate a 180-degree shift in the local political philosophy and practices we’ve come to expect from the current administration. We would have to abandon the politics of going along to get along that has gotten us nothing but economic paralysis over the last several years and a bad approach to planning: economic development through desperation.
The federal government has identified three major areas of investment: education reform, national healthcare and renewable energy. Let’s allow Washington to do the heavy lifting and the deep-pocket funding, while Brockton develops ways for the Obama administration to prove their strategies correct. It’s a win-win proposition.
For example, while Boston is building the nation’s largest wind turbine blade testing center with $25 million from the stimulus package, Brockton is mired in an outdated debate about whether to build our future on an old energy industry. No matter how you slice it, a fossil fuel burning power plant would place Brockton on the losing side of the country’s “new energy for America” agenda. Yes, Brockton has been hit hard by the economy. But, when it comes to the future of our city, desperate times require anything but desperate measures.
I cite these three examples – the two federal innovation funds and the power plant – for very intentional reasons. The opportunity to do things differently is still in our hands. There’s time to do the needed research, lay out a plan, and align our local interests with national opportunities.
Brockton has been built on its people, on their education, skills, vision, and the knowledge that those who work hard and play by the rules will get ahead. Let’s revive this recipe for success and use this election season as an opportunity to demand the same high standards from our public leaders.
Jass Stewart, a former Brockton mayoral candidate, is vice president at Jobs for the Future, a national research and policy organization in Boston. He can be reached at Jass@JassStewart.com.
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