There must be a better way to bring neighbors and businesses together. And, I went tonight to see if I could find someone to lead the way and what an adequate government could do.
I was invited by Bijoy Goswami of Bootstrap Austin to attend an event sponsored by the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) in Austin that was billed as an “Intimate Conversation with Bill White”. Bill White, former mayor of Houston, is running against Rick Perry for Texas Governor this fall. It turns out that White is an honorary EO member.
It was intimate as promised. I was about two feet away from the man who started by saying that he was pleased to be here for this “job interview” which brought some chuckles. In his prepared remarks, he said if he were “hired”, he would run the state like a customer-centered business. He would focus on what people want, not what the state wanted to “sell”. Sounds pretty good.
When Q&A time came, I asked Mayor White a question about how he viewed the state’s role in something that is near and dear to my heart: the role of government especially in hard economic times when there are tough decisions to be made.
I referred to what the state should do when you have warring factions and differing interests when it comes to economic development and property rights. I should know. I have spent three years of my life focusing with a great group of people, my neighbors and fellow business owners from Responsible Growth for Northcross, an organization that was formed to try to keep our neighborhoods livable and our independent businesses sustainable against WalMart, the biggest corporate giant since the Roman empire.
In addition, during that fight I found my own city government allied against us instead of being neutral or acting as a facilitator. I also saw them take a more appropriate role over a similar redevelopment issue with a neighborhood in the university area that did not have Allandale Neighborhood Association’s reputation of fighting changes that it felt would destroy the quality of life and the safety and well being of those who live there. The outcome of this fight was viewed by all as a precedent for the future of other neighborhoods in other parts of Austin and in other cities that faced this dilemma of redevelopment vs. retention.
White’s response to my question about economic development controversies
Perhaps Mayor White misunderstood my question about the state’s role in this aspect of economic development. First he asked me if I wanted the truth. I said “yes”. Then, he said that he did not think that the state should take sides but should let this be decided locally. I appreciate his honesty because I do believe he really does feel that way.
I agree that the state should not take sides in this kind of issue although in Texas, Austinites frequently feel like the District of Columbia, that there is a lot of “Austin-bashing” when it comes to legislation that only applies to us.
But, I disagree on the “no role” to play. What I hoped he would say is that he thought, like a well managed business, that the state should take the higher road and seek ways for the parties to get to know each other and arrive at some mutually agreed upon points so they can reduce the mistrust and anger and get something done.
White says he is a doer. I thought he would want to do something. Guess I was wrong. Texas has an $18 million shortfall. To get through this, we all need to cooperate and find a way that neighbors and businesses large and small, local and recruited can be heard and have a mediator, even an ombudsman to discuss things safely.
For a few years, Texas did have a small business ombudsman under the Department of Economic Development. Not that this lone person got involved in these kinds of issues, but maybe they should have. Of course, with just one person to cover the whole state, that was probably not reasonable. But, maybe as White touted when talking about his accomplishments in Houston, one person could focus on finding others to help out and together they could get things done.
What I think the government’s role should be in economic development controversies
How do I view government’s role? What is my expectation? It is one based on my experiences. I worked for the state before starting a business. I have worked on political campaigns. I have helped with voter registration and for years kept these forms available and visible for anyone who came to our offices. I have walked door to door. I have been a delegate to local, state and national summits. I have been and am a small business activist.
I don’t believe in big government. I don’t believe in small government either. I do believe in adequate government, enough to do the job and that there are some issues that require a 40,000 foot view just as it takes a 40,000 foot view to run a successful business.
In regard to the issue of economic development, I believe we need to attract business. We also need to retain, sustain and grow our local businesses while protecting the integrity and safety of neighborhoods. We have limited resources and we will be borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Maybe though, Peter and Paul could agree to share and play nice if there were someone setting the rules and guiding the process. Someone who had that vision. I am not sure White is any different than any of the other politicians current and past.
I do have one hopeful memory to draw on. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law twenty years ago this week, there were a lot of mad and confused people. Some thought it was the end of business as we knew it, businesses would go bankrupt trying to comply, and that the goals were unattainable and unreal. The Governor’s Office on People with Disabilities with support of Governors Ann Richards (D) and later George W. Bush (R) and under Virginia Roberts, its wonderful executive director, brought together a charter group of businesses to create the Governor’s Business Leaders Network. My company was part of that charter group. We were all volunteers. Together, we came up with ideas that we could disseminate to our peers and make this transition easier and better for all. I am proud of what we did. I think this is a good pattern to follow.
Call me Goldilocks if you like but fairy tales have lessons to learn in them. And, if you remember, Goldilocks did find things that were just right because she kept looking. (Yes, there was some damage along the way.) Well, nothing is perfect.
What is your opinion?
How do you think we could build a better Texas for us all; something neighbors and businesses could live with and coexist? Maybe we can give whoever becomes governor some better ideas. I’m game are you? It might even help out other parts of the country or the world.
I want to thank Mr. Goswami for the invitation. I learned a lot and was inspired to raise some issues that I think need to be considered before we vote in November.