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Taking the Field: It's time to get to work 

by League Executive Director Paul Meyer

During the most recent municipal elections, voters in five separate municipalities approved bond issues that will lead to investments in utility infrastructure, transportation and parks. The votes weren’t close. At least 70 percent of voters backed each of these ballot measures, showing that municipal taxpayers are willing to invest in their cities or towns when they see palpable returns either now or in the future. These votes also demonstrated voter confidence in their city and town governments.

A year ago, Hickory voters also approved two bond proposals. Since that time, the city has been generating plenty of buzz about its plans to invest $40 million toward a project whose intent is to attract young professionals, the businesses where they want to work, and the associated restaurants and retailers that come hand-in-hand with thriving downtowns. The money will go toward a river walk along the banks of the Catawba River, street and walkway upgrades, and a business park. When the project is completed, the downtown area will be connected in a continuous, park-like manner to Lenoir-Rhyne University in a way that will encourage foot traffic and business development.

Hickory’s project, because it specifically focused on attracting millennials, generated some attention, but plenty of other efforts by other towns and cities to create jobs and improve the quality of life of residents are taking place every day. It’s happening in Wilson, with its Nash Street Lofts project. It’s happening in West Jefferson, with its Streetscape project to make its downtown more pedestrian friendly. In so many cases, these projects involve partnerships with private-sector businesses and state agencies like the Department of Transportation.

These are real-world examples that demonstrate what North Carolina cities and towns want for their futures and how they are trying to make their individual visions become a reality. That vision for the future is what the League’s Strategic Visioning process was about, and out of that process came six guiding principles that will help move cities and this organization forward for the next 15 years (see “With a Vision Established, The Effort to Accomplish It Begins,” here). It’s not a coincidence that two of the six guiding principles that municipalities set for themselves to reach by 2030 are already embodied by what’s occurring in these individual municipal investment projects. One of those principles is that municipalities demonstrate the value they add to the community’s quality of life; the other that comes to mind here is that municipalities widely practice productive partnerships with counties, other governments and the private sector.

But as I discussed at CityVision 2015, our annual conference held in Winston-Salem, League staff has to take concrete, strategic steps that will help cities and towns fully realize the vision. We have to empower municipalities to tell their success stories so that residents make the connections between their local tax dollar investments and an improving business landscape. We have to continue taking steps to improve the organization’s political positioning so that municipalities can exercise the control that their elected officials and residents require to pursue their own unique visions for their communities.

None of this will be easy. It will require this organization to develop and operate a state of the art communications machine. It will mean the development of a more robust, well-organized political network that will include not just municipal officials, but residents and strategic private-sector allies.

Out of our Strategic Visioning process, we have a renewed sense of purpose. Now it’s time to get to work.