Lessons from Hinesville 2 — Doing it right
This week I was in Hinesville, Georgia for a one-day technical assistance visit at the invitation of Vicki Davis, the executive director of the Hinesville Downtown Develoment Authority. DDAs are a common form of downtown, quasi-public management entity in the State of Georgia.The Hinesville DDA and Fort Stewart are active in a great initiative called A-CHPP which stands for the Army-Community Heritage Partnership Program. This program, which is now 5 years old nationally, has had demonstrated success, but a further description of the program will have to wait for another day.
Anyway, after having read a number of studies, reports, and strategies before I arrived, I spent nearly the entire day with Vicki, City Manager Billy Edwards, and County Commissioner Donald Lovette. I also spent significant time with Mayor James Thomas, Director of the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission, Sonny Timmerman, and Community Development Director Kenneth Howard and met with DDA board members and other members of the City Council and County Commission.
While the DDA was paying me to be there, I (as per usual) probably learned more than I imparted.
So here’s four things that I learned Hinesville and Liberty County are doing right. 1. Cooperation. There is an extrordinary level of cooperation between the city government, the county government and the other 6 municipalities in Liberty County. They take cooperation seriously. It’s not that I’ve never seen this before, but I have to tell you, it is the rare exception, not remotely the norm. And even though every local elected official in America will claim at the Rotary Club speech that he/she is for fiscal responsibility and frugal use of the taxpayers dollars, those who do not have close cooperative relationships among local levels of government are wasting scarce tax dollars every day.I am sure there are occasions of tension and disagreement between Hinesville and Liberty County. But overall they have choosen to be less territorial and accept more shared decisions and responsibilities. The most obvious manifestation of this is the creation of the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission. Each level of government is free to adopt its own zoning provisions, but the Comprehensive Plan is taking place on a county basis, there is a competent planning staff that serves all of the units of government, and there are systems in place that assure each level of government knows what the others are doing.
This cooperation extends, by the way, to Fort Stewart who makes sure they talk in advance (not after the fact) with local officials on future plans that will affect the adjacent communities.
2. Commitment to the Core. Downtowns have historically been the center of a community’s leadership — local government, major financial institutions, newspapers, the Chamber of Commerce, major law firms, etc. But for 40+ years some elected officials have decided that county court houses and city halls could just as well be next to the Dunkin Donuts out by the interchange. What an irresponsible act of both civic commitment and fiscal policy!
But in Hinesville all three levels of local government — the city, the county and the school board in recent years have recommitted themselves to the core of the city — even with significant (if misguided) public and political pressure to move out. The employees of local government and the daily visitors (to serve on a jury, to record a deed, to pay the water bill) to public offices should be the central customer base for a smaller town downtown. Further, the proximity of these functions to each other not only serves the customer (the local citizen/taxpayer) well, but also enhances the regular interaction among local government officials.
There is no doubt in my mind that the cooperation listed above directly influenced the decisions of all three levels reinvesting downtown — one good public policy generating another.
3. Quality. OK, I’ll admit that I have more than one issue that triggers my ire, but near the top of the list is crappy public buildings. And this is absolutely driven by taxpayers as generational parasites. Some unit of government will build a new building (or propose one) and out of the woodwork will crawl a bunch of self-proclaimed taxpayer advocates and say, “Why are you building palaces for bureaucrats? You could easily chop $40 a foot off that building. You’re wasting tax dollars building the Taj Mahal. You should lower our property taxes rather than spend that much on that new building.” Bullshit. That’s not fiscal responsibility, that’s sticking your kids with your bills. Yeah, you can build a tilt-up metal buildling, cover it with Z-Brick and install styrofoam beams. But the building is going to have to be replaced in 25 years. You’ve been a parasite on both ends. You’ve happily used the buildings your grandfather or great-grandmother paid for, but you’re not willing to build one that will last long enough for your children to use. The ultimate in selfishness.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the political environment in a Southern, Army town would be on the conservative side. But the elected officials in Liberty County, in Hinesville, and on the local school board understand what REAL conservatism is — constructing buildings that last, that can be used by generations of taxpayers, that won’t have to be replaced by their kids.
In downtown Hinesville the city, the county and the school district have all recently not only built in the core, but built quality buildings there. In doing so, they haven’t wasted the taxpayers’ dollars, they have frugally spent those dollars for the long term benefit of the citizens. And guess what….when you build buildings that last, buildings of quality, you really are building the first landmarks of the 21st century.
4. Strategic Property Acquisitions. Cities will change. Even if there’s no population growth, they will change. So the question is not “How to we keep everything just like it is?” but rather “How to we influence what, how, when, and where that change takes place to have the most positive influence on the city’s future?” There are lots of tools to do that, of course, but a very effective one is the strategic acquisition of properties by a local government or its quasi-public entities. Hinesville has done that. The acquisition of properties as a result of highway realignment will create a great site large enough to accomodate a park, some recreational areas, perhaps new public facilities, and/or another mix of uses. Acquisition of residential land for redevelopment as housing for police, fire fighters, teachers, and the military AND for new housing for existing neighborhood residents is already demonstrating success. Acquisition of unused and underused commercial property and packaged redevelopment as mixed use and residential can begin to reconcentrate commercial activity where it can be mutually supportive.All of the above are being supported by an excellent, multi-year public improvements program including street improvements, landscaping, way-finding systems, sidewalks, bike and walking trails and others.
Look, I was only in Hinesville for 36 hours. I’m sure there are things they are doing wrong.
But those of you who have it in your head, “There’s nothing we can learn from some small town in Georgia” you’re wrong. At least 90% of you don’t have this level of inter-governmental cooperation, many don’t have the commitment to the core, aren’t seeing quality public buildings being built, and haven’t imaginatively used a property acquisition program.
You’ve got a lot to learn from Hinesville. At least I did.