This past November I had the privilege of traveling to San Antonio, Texas to join over 4,000 other local officials, partners and municipal staff from all 50 states for this year's NLC City Summit. Along with the general sessions, there were workshops, mobile workshops, solution sessions, meetings, and networking events (to name a few) that quickly filled up each day. I mainly attended solutions sessions and workshops. The solution sessions were run by industry experts with strategies and best practices proven to have moved the needle, giving us an opportunity to view some of the same issues through the lens of the private sector. These sessions were only offered on Thursday so I tried to go to as many as I could the first morning I was there.
Highlights from Thursday, November 21st:
I started my day with a session on How to Gather the Opinions of Hard to Reach Residents. This one intrigued me, after all, engagement is part of our strategic plan. We can always do better on getting information to residents and hearing back from them on key issues. Good civic engagement is about nourishing a healthy relationship between residents and their local government. This is why we want to reach and engage everyone we can. So who are the "hard to reach" residents? This was the question asked of us in attendance at the start of the session. In short, the answer is (nearly) everyone. Data presented at the session showed that over that past 25 years, fewer than 20% of residents EVER attended a council meeting. When the burden to participate is high, we tend to hear most often from those with extreme views on either side of an issue. Lowering the barrier for engagement is the key to re-introducing voices that we don't typically hear from but really need to. Then making sure that we demonstrate benefit to those that take the time to participate. This session panelists gave us some new ideas and suggestions to implement. Some we already do, some we are currently working on/improving upon, and some we need to do more of or considering starting. I marked "demonstrating benefit" as a big one for us to work on. Making sure we give residents feedback when we use their opinion to make changes based on their participation. Although I know the City already does this, it's an area we could certainly improve upon as well. An example of this would be the way the City accepted feedback from the community when seeking local artists for the water tower mural. Using that feedback, and changing the entire application process greatly improved the respondent rate, therefor the Arts and Humanities Commission, and ultimately the Council had an impressive list of concepts to choose from. When discussing the idea of better demonstrating the benefit of involvement with Councilmember Calhoun, one idea she suggested was having a luncheon for our commissioners as a way of saying thank you, and for us (Council and City staff) to have an opportunity to briefly go over what we've accomplished with their help over the past year, in addition to the certificate currently awarded by the Mayor at the end of their term. I really like that idea and I think it's one example of how we can build on and foster continued engagement in our community and show our appreciation for their time.
A big one that was talked about was meeting people where they are, whether it's in person or online. Coincidently, I remember saying something similar in my interview with the Herald/Review a year ago when I was first elected and as I said, is now part of our strategic plan.
It's understandable that not everyone can attend council meetings, or find the time to watch every meeting and read every newsletter. Which is why meeting residents where they are is vital. I'm proud to say that since taking my seat on council, City staff has been working hard to keep meetings and links to agendas on Facebook, as well as researching better online engagement tools for us to use in the near future (something other than surveys), and developing an informational podcast. All of this is in addition to the City's website, weekly e-newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and the Vistas that are mailed out quarterly. Offline there are informal and formal events throughout the community, commissions, boards, citizen academies, etc... After comparing our engagement plan to the suggestions given to us at the session, I feel an area we may be lacking in our engagement plan is how we are accessing our results. We (council and staff) did come up with one metric (positive mentions) but when we go back and evaluate our activities and actions, are we compiling the indicators we need to tell us if we achieved all we set out to do? I remember even at the time of putting this plan together we struggled with setting ways to measure our engagement goals. The panelist at the session suggested using key performance indicators such as fidelity measures (did we do what we intended) and outcome measures (the impact of our engagement). This second indicator is much harder to measure. I think we have a good idea with the tracking of positive mentions online, and we could certainly gather some of this data with surveys, but what more could we do to collect this information and give us a more comprehensive picture? It could be that the new online engagement tool staff is currently looking in to will help with this issue. Either way, that's something I will research more and talk to City staff about in the near future.
The second solution session was called Smart Design Creates Safer Cities. The panel for this session included a designer, architects and the Vice President of Rochester, New York City Council. Safety and security are always a top priority for civic leaders. With the next Fry Forward public meetings coming up in a month or so, and the design concepts coming to council not long after that, I was interested in what this panel had to share. I think the main topic they discussed that applied to us right now with the downtown redevelopment underway, was talking about creating safer public spaces with better design. How environmental design can promote community and individual well being. The idea is to support crime prevention through environmental design. And in order to create a safer city, we have to think holistically about our community. In discussing this approach one of the speakers mentioned the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) Association, which focuses on the idea that manipulating the built environment can discourage/prevent crime while still providing a nourishing and inviting space for the community. Examples of this include the use of lighting, and the encouragement of pedestrian and bicycle traffic, the placement of shrubs and trees, open and welcoming spaces, etc… all great information to have when we start looking at the design concepts and making sure that we are taking these principles into consideration and implementing them where we can. There was also a strong emphasis placed on community inclusion from the beginning. Which left me to ask myself, following a successful turnout from the past Open House, what can we do to encourage even more participation in our next open house/public forum? Changes in the time/place? Like maybe setting up a booth at the next farmer’s market (or similar event) to get people where they are already gathering. It worked well for our Council Meet & Greet event.
The final solution session I attended was on Housing Affordability Best Practices. This was the most well-attended session I had seen that day. A clear sign that this is a huge issue across the country. The room was like a metaphor for our affordable housing situation. We all wanted to be there, there just weren’t enough seats for everyone. One big take away I felt was worth sharing was the task force and policy plan adopted by the San Antonio City Council in 2018. Granted, San Antonio is a much larger city. But I could see us using some of the ideas they have put together to address housing in their city. For example, the Mayor’s Task Force in San Antonio determined that a strategy for them would be to exempt affordable housing units from SAWS impact fees. Removing barriers that discourage the development of more affordable housing is something we could consider as well. We recently did this when we voted to ease the permitting process for the development of accessory dwelling units. Continuing to look through the existing code and see what else should be simplified could be a possible next step.
In addition to all that, I found out about a grant opportunity launching next month that offers 2 million dollar grants for projects addressing housing affordability. I’ve forwarded the application information to Mayor Pro Tem Gray, City Council Liaison to the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) as they already oversee affordable housing here in town. I also shared it with the Cochise College Governing Board for their consideration. After attending the Dec. 10th meeting and hearing that they have lost students due to a lack of affordable housing in the area and were now going to explore establishing student housing (like they offer in Douglas.)
After the Opening General Session, I attended a session on Opportunities for Cities to Support Mental Health for All. This panel shared with us city-level approaches to emergency response and crisis stabilization. The Mayor of Rapid City, South Dakota shared what they have done. The Rapid City Police Department (RCPD) is home to about 74,000 people. 90% of the 300 or so individuals that would regularly interact with the RCPD were struggling with homelessness and/or substance use. To help provide sustainable solutions for the city and to appropriately respond to high-need individuals, the RCPD invested in a special unit to connect these individuals with a number of helpful resources and supports, remove barriers to care and services, and reduce police calls and related costs. A key take away I took from this session was the fact that of all the programs and partnerships that were started to help address mental health in these cities, like Rapid City, took a collaborative effort from multiple agencies, non-profits, and others with the city leading the charge. City and program leaders stressed that consistent, open communication, coordination of diverse stakeholders, resources from the federal, state, and county governments, development of data-driven solutions and a willingness to accept some risk were essential factors in overcoming this major issue.
Highlights from Friday, November 22nd:
After the morning General Session, I made sure to attend the Military Communities Council Meeting, since the one I went to in March during the NLC Congressional Conference was so informative.
Major General (retired) Juan Ayala, told us about the Texas Mayors of Military Communities (TMMC) in which he is a part of. TMMC is made up of 16 Mayors representing 16 cities in the state that are home to military installations. This 501c(4) was formed in 2014 to educate the Texas Legislature and public about the needs and benefits of the communities that host military installations. The military installations cannot advocate for themselves which is why groups like this are so important. MG Ayala quoted the Governor of Guam, stating that “No military community ever loses its military installation. And those that do, didn’t have the political will to keep them.” Even if no formal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) is authorized, because of force reductions, the potential impact of sequestration and service reorganization, installations are in danger of losing missions, service contracts, and jobs. Which we are well aware of after this past year when efforts were made to take all the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) from Fort Huachuca. The TMMC united in an effort to convince the 84th Texas State Legislature it is necessary and essential for the State of Texas to invest in initiatives to protect, preserve, and enhance the military value of Texas installations and the jobs that are vital to those communities. The defense industry in Texas is the second-largest economic sector in the state. Similarly to us here in Sierra Vista, Fort Huachuca is responsible for much of our economic success and is the region's largest employer. When I returned home I asked Mayor Mueller if we had anything comparable to TMMC here in Arizona. He told me about the State Military Affairs Commission, in which he is the only sitting member that’s also a Mayor, and that they haven’t convened in over 2 years. In a meeting with State House Representatives Becky Nutt and Gail Griffin last week, Mayor Mueller made sure to point out the importance of the State’s Military Affairs Commission and funding of the Military Installation Fund. Hopefully, we will be seeing this commission active again in the near future.
The final session I attended on Friday was on Downtown Development. On the panel was the Mayor of Gladstone, Missouri, Carol Suter, who started off the discussion by sharing her experience with the redevelopment of their downtown and what a tremendous impact it’s made in their small community. Gladstone is home to less than 30,000 residents. In the beginning, the city-funded all the public art, but as the success of the downtown grew, the city was able to ask that the private developers fund public art with their projects. She mentioned creative collaborations, like the one with the local school district in building a community center that served the needs of the school and the residents. She emphasized, “smart risk-taking.” They made an investment of 1 million dollars at the start and within 3 years they saw over 100 million dollars of investment made by the private sector. Mayor Suter and all the speakers on the panel made it clear that the most successful communities are the ones that utilize a variety of private-sector and market incentives to influence new development, instead of relying solely on government regulations. Matt Wagner of Main Street America explained that redeveloping and reinvesting in a city’s downtown is an economic development program with a proven track record of success. “For about every dollar of public sector funding that goes into a main street program, there’s about $40 dollars in private reinvested that takes place within those communities.” He then talked about a trend they were studying that had to do with the value of place. A trend that correlates with the increase of remote workers and is mattering more and more in terms of business location decisions. “You need to lead with place-based economic development or lose.” Businesses used to base location decisions on things like utility rates, land costs, labor costs, etc, and now recently if you ask CEOs about location decisions, it’s more based on where talent wants to live. He specifically mentioned rural communities that already have that quality of life side to offer (like Sierra Vista), and how we now have an opportunity to attract this talent.
There was lots of great information shared in this session, and I think a major take away from this session is that things not only have a cost, but they also have a value. And that oftentimes, that value goes beyond the financial.
My Friday evening ended with attending the League of Arizona Cities and Towns Reception and caught up with fellow council members from around Arizona. We laughed that we hadn’t crossed paths until that evening because the conference was so large.
Highlights from Saturday, November 23rd:
I started my final day attending a session called Big Ideas for Small Cities. This was easily one of my favorite sessions because it was like sitting in on a series of Ted Talks. Speakers included Mayor Rosenthal of Indianola, MS, Mayor Johnson of Ocoee, FL, Mayor Shelton of Tupelo, MS, and Mayor Suter of Gladstone, MO (who also spoke on the downtown development panel). All of them took risks and unique approaches to bring new programs and infrastructure to their communities. Mayor Rosenthal talked about a successful program their city started with a federal grant that would help children be kindergarten-ready. Followed by Mayor Johnson who’s city decided to partner with a neighboring city and open Health Clinic for City employees in an effort to provide better coverage to employees while also saving money on insurance and workman's compensation. Employees have saved over 2 million dollars in out of pocket costs over the past 9 years. Mayor Shelton spoke on community partnerships to get a public transit system established in his city 2 years ago. He talked about how getting his fellow councilmembers to support the start of a public transportation system was no easy feat. Showing that there was a basic need for people in the community was unfortunately not enough. So he took a different approach and instead was able to provide data figures on what the potential economic impact would be for such a system. A detailed data-driven argument that included specifics like dollars lost by the doctors and clinics when a patient is a no show. With that information, the council at the time voted 4-3 to approve the new program. Now with updated data showing the economic impact being 4 million dollars, the program was unanimously approved for renewal. Lastly, Mayor Suter spoke about the challenges of establishing Gladstone’s downtown over the past 12 years. She says while economic strategy played a role, the real key is civic leadership. She says their civic leadership style in Gladstone is all about trust. “Generating, and maintaining trust and enhancing trust. Trust is a lot like respect. It is most often received after it’s been given.” And I couldn’t agree more. It’s one of the reasons I continue to publish and share these travel reports publically.
The last session I attended at the conference (other than the closing General Session) was called Thriving People: The Key to Economically Viable Cities. The speakers were from Texas and North Carolina and all helped introduce programs that would assist children and families in their communities. The speakers talked about the importance of supporting the youngest of our population. One said “Investing in our communities, is investing in our people.” Mentioning partnering with the school districts. And looking at the leadership in those districts as partners in economic development, which I thought was a so true. Because after all, education is an economic development tool.
If you made it to the end, take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back, it was a long one! This conference was jam packed with a lot of great information that I’ll be referencing and using as we push on into the future. 2019 was a great year, and I appreciate all of your support. I wish you all a safe and prosperous new year, and I look forward to working for you, and with you, in 2020!
As always please contact me at Carolyn.Umphrey@SierraVistaAZ.gov with any comments or questions. I love hearing from you!
Your council member,